Part work, Part play
When students ask about establishing a practice regime, my rule is always “spend about half your time working, and about half your time playing”. The “work” part actually can be divided into two categories: “head work” and “hand work”. This concept is stolen from the teachings of the late Howard Roberts, a great jazz player and educator. He said that head work will fry your brain and can only be productive for a short time; maybe 15 minutes or so. It can include composing a lick or line, studying a/or transcribing someone else’s solo, arranging a tune, working on a specific fingering for a scale or arpeggio…
Hand work, on the other hand, can be done for long periods, and mostly includes careful repetition to get the results of your head work embedded in your muscle memory. This can be mindful and meditative, or it can be something you do while watching TV, just so long as you remember: “Perfect practice makes perfect”. So that covers the “part-work” segment.
Then there’s the “part play” segment. This may be important for a couple reasons. First, remind yourself why you started playing music in the first place. Wasn’t at least part of it simply about enjoying the experience of playing, whether it was singing and accompanying yourself on a simple folk or pop song, or playing a complicated fingerstyle piece or chord melody arrangement? So, go back there, to that simple fun part, and make sure music doesn’t become just another chore, because you will lose interest. Second, you need to allow yourself to operate from the more intuitive right side of the brain sometimes. Just play stuff you love, or doodle around on a tune you already know, letting yourself be creative without worrying about that internal editor saying, “no, that’s too simple,” or “Stop! That was a bad note!!” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still be striving to be musical. In fact, when you’re playing familiar material, you’ll be able to devote more attention to the “feel” of the music, which is of huge importance. Just have fun, free associate, doodle. Remember, the average listener will appreciate simple notes played with great feel much more than complex notes played with lousy feel.
One part of the “part play” segment can be practicing improvisation over rhythm tracks or favorite CDs. When I think about improvisation, I always think of the analogy between music and martial arts.
- Practicing your scales and arpeggios is like practicing punches, kicks, etc.
- Learning a piece of music is like learning a kata or form.
- Practicing improv with rhythm tracks is like shadow boxing, or training with a bag.
- Improvising in a jam or a band is like sparring with a classmate or friend.
Steps 1 and 2 may be part of the “part work” regime, and are about perfecting the physical mechanics of what you do. Step 3 is part of the “part play” regime, and is about learning to be fluid and changeable while using good physical mechanics. All three of these steps come under the heading of “homework”.
Step 4 is the goal. Whether musically or martially, the quality of your interaction with others will depend upon whether you’ve done your homework.
And, of course, step 4 is also part of the homework, because it’s where you learn to let all of the other work/play occur while you’re “busy” paying attention to the moment, and “listening” to what’s going on around you.
And if you’re a solo player, and aren’t interested in improvising? Well, then, performing becomes “step 4”, and your goal is to be able to perform the things that developed from your homework while you are inevitably thinking about what the audience is thinking, what you’re thinking about what they’re thinking, etc. etc.
Whatever your goals, this idea of “Part work, Part play” is valuable. And one more thought; one of the great things about guitar is that you don’t need a long warm-up to be productive. Six 10 minute sessions (or even 10 six minute sessions) will produce as much improvement as one hour-long session, so keep your guitar handy. I usually leave mine on the bed during the day (it keeps Django the dog from planting his butt on my pillow) in the hardshell case (properly humidifed if necessary), but with just one shut clasp. That way, I’m just a flick away from making music.