Posted by: laurie689 | June 17, 2015

We Can’t Hear What’s in Your Head

Your audience can’t hear what’s in your head. They can only hear what you actually play, and that could be a good thing, or it could be not so good.

What is in your head as you play a piece of music? Is it the “soundtrack” of the first time you heard the piece played on a recording or in a session or concert? Is it your version of how the piece or song should sound? Is it your own memory of how you’ve played it in the past?

Performers need to make conscious decisions about what to hear in our heads, because it affects what comes out our fingers! But at the same time, we have to remember that no one else knows what’s running through our brains.

What’s good about that fact is that when you play notes or chords you didn’t intend to play, or even get lost in a whole alternative melody or arrangement, how would we know you didn’t intend that? You might be convinced that we all know what you know and are therefore appalled at how wrongly you played something, but really, we don’t.

We don’t unless you give it away with your body language, facial expressions and comments. If when you err, you visibly or audibly react, you’re telling us all about something we probably hadn’t noticed. If you hesitate or go back and correct those unplanned or skipped notes, you’re subjecting us to unnecessary discontinuity. If you apologize, you’re embarrassing yourself and therefore us as well.

The appearance that many professionals give of playing perfectly is only that: appearance. Often what they are doing is using unplanned notes as inspirations to create variations and improvisations. The ability to do so is a result of the confidence borne of adequate practice and of knowledge beyond just how to play the right notes. Music is so much more than the right notes.

I know many people who, when they play something unexpected or miss a note, think they have failed. They have put themselves in a prison of their own making. What a shame. Music can’t be perfect, but it ought to be gratifying to play (otherwise, why play it?). We can allow ourselves that joy in playing by giving ourselves permission to play with more freedom. Despite our best efforts we all make mistakes, but if we treat errors as opportunities for variation and improv, we experience less stress and more gratification.

If you make some errors, who cares? You are the one who gives the clues about how important it is. If you’re ashamed of errors, the audience will be embarrassed for you. But if you ignore errors, they will also ignore them (unless there is an occasional jerk who thinks it’s his duty to point it out to you later. In that case, consider the source and don’t take it personally). And if you good-naturedly laugh off the errors that stand out like the feathers on a cat’s chin, the audience will laugh as well.

So… what’s the flip side of this? The negative aspect of the fact that an audience can’t hear what’s in your head is that many musicians never stop running in their head the first arrangement or recording they heard of the piece, or are “hearing” an idealized version of the piece, and don’t realize it isn’t how they themselves sound. All the audience gets is what they actually hear.

One of the most common examples I can think of is someone who learns a tune/piece they’ve heard someone else do well, and assumes that their being able to play the notes means it sounds just like what they originally heard. It doesn’t. It can’t. Every musician is an individual and you will, no matter what, sound like yourself. We must hear our own music. We must assess what we actually sound like.

When you play something, be sure you’re creating a piece that has structure, context and content, even if it’s as simple as a single-line melody. It doesn’t have to be complex. But you do well to hear it with the audience’s ears. They can’t fill in the chords or choose between several random notes to figure out which were the right ones. If you don’t use those random notes (mistakes) creatively to make some kind of structure, the audience can’t discern any structure, and structure is the key to understanding and integrating a piece of music. Pretend you meant it, use it well, and move on. Like the famous cat Haiku:

Grace personified

Leaps into the window pane

I meant to do that.

To reiterate: how do you reconcile between the first idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s good) and the second idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s not good)? Practice, practice, practice… and learn to play with the freedom of someone who knows their music structures well, so you can improvise around errors, yet play well enough to make a piece sound like a cohesive entity. It’s not difficult; even beginners can do this.

We can’t hear what’s in your head. Use that fact to your advantage! You’ll be a happier musician.

Posted by: laurie689 | April 30, 2015

Music Changes the Brain

In the last twenty years or so it has come to our attention that there is researched proof that music positively affects how our neurology develops. Humans are musical beings and have always used music for entertainment, ritual, and mood enhancement. Now science is beginning to be able to tell us why it is so important to our well-being and our brain health.

It’s a shame that music has largely been removed from our public schools because it is deemed unnecessary. Current science, however, says otherwise. Researcher and neuropsychologist Ani Patel, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and author of Music, Language, and the Brain, says “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities,” including speech, understanding emotions in vocal inflection, and even multi-tasking. “This could have a real impact on the value we put on it as an activity in the schools, not to mention all the impact it has on emotional development, emotional maturity, social skills, stick-to-itiveness, things we typically don’t measure in school but which are hugely important in a child’s ultimate success.”

At Boston Children’s Hospital, research is being done on how music-learning affects language development. PET scans show that musically trained children and professional adult musicians have “…more activation in prefrontal areas of the brain compared to their peers”.

There are several different neurosystems involved in learning and playing even a simple musical piece: the auditory system, motor system, executive function system (decision-making), and so on. Patel states, “There’s overlap between the networks that process music and the networks that are involved in other day-to-day cognitive functions such as language, memory, attention and so forth… music sometimes places higher demands on the brain, on some of the same shared networks that we use for other abilities.” Music learning and playing enhance those networks.

Yunxin Wang, a researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University, examined the brains of 48 youths between 19 to 21 years of age who had studied music at least one year between the ages of 3 and 15. After controlling for gender and the amount of time they had been learning/playing music, she found that those who had been playing since before age 7 had significantly better developed language and executive functions.

It has also been found by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden that after a stroke or other negative neurologic impact, beginning music-learning enhances one’s ability to recover lost functions.

Musical study also affects how our personalities develop. Through cooperative music study such as school orchestras, students learn to work well with others. Through inevitable failures, students learn how to achieve a goal through persistence. Through experiencing such successes, they gain self-esteem. They learn to interpret and express ideas in new ways. They learn that hard work and dedication are more productive than raw innate ability.

What a shame that music has largely been cut from public education. How many young people will grow up with less cognitive and functional ability because they were not given the opportunity to learn to play music? We have no way to measure what the difference could have been for any given individual.

But we can still learn music-playing as adults, and those who do can vouch for its beneficial effects. Fingers stay more limber, the brain more “plastic” (able to learn on a broad scale); we retain memory better, we track conversations better, and of course we derive a lot of enjoyment from our increasing ability to make beautiful music if we stick with it. Not to mention the wonderful camaraderie of playing music with friends.

Music, by the way, is a language. It is learned and processed in the same way as the spoken word, because it contains the same elements: tone and pitch, manipulation of a specific body part or parts to make the necessary sounds, vocabulary, memory, intention, and communication. What we communicate in music tells a story or elicits an emotion, just as any language does. With this in mind, I’ll cite a study done years ago that is commonly referred to as The Nun Study:

The study was published by the journal Neurology and suggested that people with sophisticated linguistic skills can avoid developing dementia in old age, even if their brains show the physical signs of memory disorder such as Alzheimer’s. This long-term study 600 nuns in Minnesota, done by Dr. David Snowdon, uncovered a correlation between the nuns’ language skills and the likelihood that they would develop Alzheimer’s later in life. The young nuns who had sophisticated language skill, defined as the density of ideas per every 10 written words, turned out over time to be significantly less likely to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia fifty or more years later.

I believe there was an added component: not only the language skills they started with, but the fact that they were teachers who constantly used those skills through teaching far into old age, keeping those neurons firing. I tend to think that this constant usage was the more likely factor in retained brain plasticity. Like practicing a musical instrument every day.

What’s the upshot of all of this? Don’t let your music slide. Keep playing. Don’t just play what you already know all the time. Keep learning. Keep challenging yourself. Your brain will be happier for it.


-for more info on this and related subjects, see my book Body Mind and Music, available on the books page of this site.

Posted by: laurie689 | March 28, 2015

Are You Teaching Your Students How to Learn?

In a typical music lesson scenario, a student arrives, tunes his or her instrument, sits down, opens a book, plays the material assigned from the last lesson; the teacher critiques, offers pointers on technique (or not), and makes the next assignment. There may be instruction in music reading relevant to the material they are working on. Teaching methods are aimed toward meeting certain goals and standards. The vast majority of lessons are all about learning repertoire and how to play it to the teacher’s satisfaction. Of course, repertoire at increasing levels of challenge teaches skill.

Music teachers may be academy-trained or may be professional performers (in any genre) who also teach, and in either case some are good teachers, some are terrible, and some are in between, no matter how well trained they are. Some are quite flexible and creative, but many more are formulaic. Students can have rather unpleasant experiences. Often, the more painful the teacher’s own learning experience was, the more inflexible they are. They have a huge investment in that method being correct; after all, all that pain had to be for something, right?

In the teach-learn relationship there tends to be too much focus on the teaching end rather than the learning end. If the pupil can meet the teacher’s expectations, all is good. If the pupil cannot, the pupil is considered to be at fault and must face the drudgery of being forced to adhere to the method or is rejected as “not suitable.”  We fault the pupil, not the teacher.  Even when the learner is making an effort, we still assume that every student must adapt to the way the information is presented or be left behind.  Where is the sense of that?  Ignoring the learning part of the teach-learn dynamic, by ignoring the real goal  –  which is finding a way for the student learn what they hope to learn  –  is leaving a lot of potential talent untapped.  The key is that each person learns a different way, and there is no wrong way.

What every new musician wants to know is how to learn. Not just this tune and that tune and this technique. But any tune and many techniques. Of course we have to teach responsible skills, and of course students want repertoire. But we can offer so much more. A truly great teacher can offer instruction that gives a student wings to fly on their own.

First, helping a student feel successful and building up self-esteem is perhaps the most important thing we can do. And we can show them how to observe, to focus, to practice effectively, to access information, to experiment, to be creative, to improvise, compose, play with other musicians, perform well, and even how to surpass the teacher’s skills if possible. We can give them a foundation for the confidence and ability to be turned loose in the world of music and discover what makes a true musician. Every bird raises its chicks to leave the nest one day.

We can teach to a student’s strengths. Observe what their best method of learning is rather than teaching only from our method: you may be a tactile learner but the student may be a visual learner; you may be an aural learner but your student may be a spatial one. As teachers it’s our responsibility to know and use all the ways of learning.

Here are just a few horizon-expanding things we can consider offering our students:

  • Teach basic music theory. Not the kind that’s done on a blackboard, but the kind that relates directly to their instrument and their music. Teach it without paper first! Music theory isn’t about how to read music; music-reading is just an outgrowth of theory. Theory is about how music is structured: relationships between notes (frequencies) and how they interact with each other and with beat and rhythm and tempo and how to use those essential structures to create music or to understand how others create it.
  • Teach more than one technique/method. There’s always more than one equally right way. Focus on whichever one is best suited to the individual.
  • Encourage the student to listen to others’ interpretations of each piece they learn. This will show them that interpretive freedom is up to the player.
  • Encourage them to know each tune’s history, and its lyrics if it is a song. The proliferation of online information makes this easy. It gives a perspective on how the tune can be interpreted and the meaning of its title (which is not always what it appears to be).
  • Encourage the student to learn the deep cultural aspects, uses and nuances of the genre they are learning. Music cannot be understood when it is devoid of its cultural “clothing”.
  • Encourage students to create their own arrangements. Teach them basic theory so they can!
  • Show them how to create musically emotive statements, as opposed to just the dots and bars on the page, so they can play expressively.
  • Encourage the student to learn to sing or hum the melody before learning to play it. This greatly enhances retention of the music.
  • Encourage memorization. This enhances expressive possibility.
  • Teach them how to practice effectively.
  • Teach them to understand rhythm and to develop a physical sense of it in several esperiential ways: movement, counting, vocalizing, etc.
  • Teach the importance of breathing!
  • Encourage experimentation, improvisation and creativity.
  • Teach them how to compose their own music.
  • Provide opportunities for every student to play with other musicians.
  • Provide performance opportunities and teach stage skills.
  • Encourage every student to seek out more than one teacher and to absorb what they can successfully use from each.

No one knows everything, so no teacher can offer everything. But you can offer the tools that will open the door to your students to the potential of unlimited learning.


Posted by: laurie689 | February 10, 2015

Are You Sacrificing the Musicianship for the Music?

According to a dictionary definition, musicianship is “knowledge, skill and artistic sensitivity in performing music”. These three factors are inseparable, and each builds successively upon one before, so we can’t ignore any of them if we want to be true musicians.

Knowledge alone does not suffice, since playing music also requires practiced movement to develop skill; skill does not suffice, since artistic sensitivity is essential for music to sound musical; and artistic sensitivity cannot be expressed without skill.  But when all these factors are in place, we have good tone, smoothness, reasonable accuracy, confident playing, expression, dynamics, and the ability to learn well from whatever source is appropriate for the style of music we play (notation, tablature, by ear, etc.).

Many musicians believe that good musicianship primarily means being able to play a new piece of music at tempo and all the way through. There are certain situations in which one must play well at first sight-reading, but this skill is attained only after one has a good foundation in the other necessary skills. If the foundation is not there, its lack will be evident no matter how well you sight read or how quickly you think you’ve learned the piece. Learning a piece is so much more than just being able to play the notes at tempo. If you are striving foremost to get through a new piece so it sounds like you’re “playing music”, you’re barking up the wrong tree, because it always means sacrificing something such as fingering, technique, muscle memory, tone, and/or smoothness, but most importantly it often means sacrificing expression.

Expression comes after gaining a full understanding and experience of the music being played. Learning slowly, with focus, and with attention to detail and nuance, gives the player the ability to integrate a piece of music fully enough to then play it expressively. If you love music, why would you want to learn it any way other than completely?

Many musicians try to tackle pieces they aren’t ready for, perhaps because the pieces are beyond one’s current skill level, or because they assume some prior experience on another instrument will automatically translate to a new instrument. Intellectual understanding of how an instrument works and how the music is read does not translate to integrated skill!

In any case, not giving yourself enough time, with every new piece at any level, or as an actual beginner on a new instrument, rarely works well. Trying to “make it music” as quickly as possible sabotages the process of actual learning. The only way to achieve full musicianship is to be methodical and slow and purposeful and focused in practice until you know the piece inside and out. Then you will have both music and musicianship, rather than sacrificing the musicianship just to play the music.

Posted by: laurie689 | January 6, 2015

Studies on Practice: Truth or Fiction?

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. Two that I found interesting were the one about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

One cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it amuses me that these studies were done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills.

The “study” debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day.  As a professional musician, I can definitively say that no matter how much talent you possess, if you don’t practice extensively you can’t play well. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with less talent who work harder.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, remarking about talent and practice, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, sure. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

The other study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice.

Many of us tend to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be. Good practice includes consistent self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses. Practicing isn’t simply playing what’s fun and easy. Playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not the same as striving to reach a new level. Simply playing what you play best, or just goofing around on the instrument, is fun and necessary but it’s not all there is. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.

Doing what you already do pretty well can include, by the way, just reading through tunes on a page. That doesn’t do much for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

So, what are some good practice habits? See my previous blogs, and also consider:

There are two necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. They are very different.

  1. When learning a piece:
  • Learn by playing every tune
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is actually practicing the error! Figure out why you made it. Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address all errors by making the awkwardly executed phrase into an exercise and repeating it slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right. Then you can play the phrase in context.
  • Always breathe while playing the hard parts.
  • Play with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this! These steps are absolutely necessary. Yes, even the metronome.

  1. When practicing for a performance, you will already have done the above quite a lot for every piece you plan to perform. You’ve already done what you can to correct errors. Since some errors will occur anyway, now it’s time to:
  • Learn to play through your mistakes and to disguise or ignore them.
  • Imagine being in the performance situation as you practice. Imagine the stage lights, the audience, the sound system, or whatever the situation will probably be.

Pushing ourselves to excellence through actual work, and never letting ourselves say, “That’s good enough,” produces real results.

Posted by: laurie689 | November 26, 2014

Effortless Musicianship?

Have you wondered how professional musicians can play intricate passages and really fast music in a way that looks effortless and sounds smooth? How do they get their fingers to know where to go faster than they can consciously think? Or even to play slower pieces confidently?

Think “learned movement that becomes habitual”. With consistent and focused practice, the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that you’re playing on “autopilot”  –  that’s the goal. And it’s usually attainable for those who are willing to work for it.

In all fairness, there are those who for one reason or another cannot develop habits of movement and must therefore learn other ways to play, and for whom it may never feel easy. I applaud the effort and the willpower shown by those who are willing to play even though faced with this challenge. I don’t think it’s impossible or wrong to play an instrument by intense concentration of every movement. No one should think they cannot play just because something that works for most doesn’t work for them. So don’t let anyone stop you.

But if you can do certain things kinesthetically such as tie your shoes, write longhand, and other such habitual-movement activities, then it’s likely you can learn to play music kinesthetically as well.  If you’ve never developed a kinesthetic (habitual movement) sense for music-playing, perhaps you’ve never been taught how! (And it’s not just a matter of how long you practice. If you already practice for reasonable lengths of time, you may not need to practice more, just differently.)

I was recently gratified to read in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book What the Dog Saw* a lengthy and detailed treatise on the subject of learned movement and the difference between what he calls explicit learning and implicit learning. Explicit learning is when you are beginning to practice a new physical skill, and it still feels a bit stiff and contrived due to its unfamiliarity. But as time and practice go on, it becomes more automatic and more fluid, even intuitive; it becomes implicit. One can then rely on the proper motions to happen masterfully without having to concentrate so hard on them, which frees up the mind to focus on other important aspects of the activity. Gladwell states that implicit physical learning happens in many kinds of physical activities (I would venture to say most).

Gladwell also cites what happens, using actual occurrences, when someone who has developed implicit knowledge (habitual, kinesthetic, intuitive movement) stops trusting it and reverts back to explicit knowledge. That usually happens under pressure. In sports, it’s disastrous. In my personal experience, in music it is equally so.  Therefore when I practice for a gig I always purposely practice explicitly and implicitly (with attention to details of movement and patterns, and also on “autopilot”). I never know until I’m on stage which state of mind I will be in; if I’m nervous it’s always the explicit one, which is far more difficult. Better to practice for that state of mind than to assume I will always be in implicit mode just because I so easily achieve that at home!  (That’s the same situation as when a student comes to a lesson and says “I played it better at home”. I’ve never known a student who didn’t experience that.)

As I said in a previous post, while you’re learning new music or skills, the neurologic system continually “files” the information in your subconscious, which allows later accessing of those skills or movements merely by “hearing” the music in your head. If you’ve practiced the piece well, the fingers can just play what you “hear” without your consciously telling them where to go. Your hands will know what to do because a direct connection develops between the muscles and the subsconscious mind, bypassing the conscious mind. At this point, thinking too much about the logistics of playing it (“Now I put this finger here…” or “next is a G note”) can actually sabotage the process. I’ll compare this again to tying your shoes: when you were a little kid you had to concentrate really hard on learning that skill, but soon you could do it on autopilot. Now if you tried to think about how you tie your shoes (“This end goes over that end and through this loop…”) you can’t do it as quickly as you can when you just turn your fingers loose to do it. Relying on muscle (implicit) memory is far more efficient than trying to think it through when you already know it.

For musicians who read music well, there is an implicit habit that develops in response to reading each specific note or group of notes: upon seeing them the brain tells the fingers where to go. You don’t have to think, “That’s a G note and therefore I have to put my third finger here.” Needless to say, this ability comes with a lot of practice!

Likewise, those who memorize or play by ear can have the ability to “hear” the note or phrase in your head and the fingers will automatically play it.

We’ve all heard that one must play a piece or passage or exercise every day for twenty-one days to set it in memory. I would say also to set it implicitly. That number probably came from someone’s research, and from experience I believe it’s true for most. Some with a great deal of experience get it much more quickly, but most mortals have to work at it.

Playing music is never effortless in the beginning. But it can get to feel that way (at least physically) when your skills are in place and you have practiced sufficiently. I see many people not trusting their hands even after they have developed a reliable kinesthetic sense, especially in regard to technique. If your technique is good, you don’t have to think about it except to fix the occasional straying away that can occur.  As one teacher used to say, “Once you’ve got the information, hang up the phone.” Trust your brain and your fingers. They are there to serve you.

*Gladwell’s book covers many subjects; the section I’ve referenced is only a small part it’s about how what we assume or what we consider common sense or common knowledge isn’t always accurate, and how we can benefit from looking at things from other and sometimes opposite viewpoints. His writing is always well researched and responsible, which is why he’s a respected best-selling author. I highly recommend the book.

Posted by: laurie689 | October 29, 2014

Building Repertoire vs. Building Skill

Let’s begin this subject with some definitions and concepts:

Your repertoire is your collection of pieces that you know well enough to play in performance, or at least well enough to enjoy playing for yourself.  It’s not necessarily what you carry around in your music bag, unless you know all the music in it really well. My repertoire, for instance, consists of pieces I’ve played over the years well enough to play in public, and though many of them need a little refreshment practice before they are formally performable, I can play them with confidence.

Skill is how well you play in general. It has nothing to do with the size of your repertoire.

Many people are more focused on building a bigger repertoire than they are on building skill. It seems that everyone wants to go home from a workshop or a lesson with a new tune or two. Of course, playing music should be entertaining for all of us, so new tunes can be exciting and fun. Building repertoire is important. But at the same time, building skill is essential. Otherwise you can end up with a huge repertoire of pieces all at the same skill level instead of advancing to higher levels of proficiency.

For those who are paper trained, there seems to be a focus on collecting music on paper. It’s as though “she who collects the most music books wins,” even if you never learn most of the pieces in the books. As an author of music books, I won’t be saying don’t buy them, but as a teacher I have to ask, what will you do with them? Having lots of music on paper is not the same as having lots of music in your repertoire.

On the other hand, how much music do you need in your repertoire? If you play in a restaurant or a club, you do need a large repertoire, and if you can sight-read, all those music books will serve you well. But if you are a solo or small-ensemble player doing concerts or shorter gigs, you don’t need a huge repertoire; it’s far more important to keep building skill, and just learning more tunes won’t help with that unless each new tune is at a higher skill level than the previous ones.

Those who play in sessions or circles tend to focus on building repertoire. After all, in sessions they play a lot of tunes! And in circles you want to present a new tune each time the circle meets. This is good. But don’t let it prevent you from also taking the time to build skill.


Building Skill

It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill, some in another, and some are adept at more than one.

In any genre there are subsets of skills, such as improvisation, sight-reading, ear-playing, memorizing, etc. I’ve written about those in past articles, so I’ll focus here just session skills and performance skills.


Session/jamming skills:

Sessions are also called jams, depending on the genre. (There is a slight difference in the two terms, however, because jamming often implies some degree of improvisation, while in a session it’s OK to just play the tune straight.) For both jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, and whether you play the tunes well is of less importance than being able to keep up with the other musicians.

Playing on the beat, and being able to play either the chords or the melody (or both) to a recognizable degree and at tempo, are what one must focus on for sessions and jams. Usually no one really knows how accurately you’re playing because there are many instruments playing at the same time, and imperfections are therefore fairly well hidden, as long as you’re not the loudest instrument in the group. (That doesn’t mean you should play too softly  –  if you can’t be heard well enough to blend in, what’s the point? The purpose of a jam is to create a group sound.)

Session playing is good practice for ensemble playing, and can also increase your performance skills, since you’re forced to play at the accepted tempo for each piece, to keep it consistent, and to keep playing when you make a mistake, without pausing or repeating. It can also be excellent experience for alleviating stage fright issues.


Performing skills:

A performer, on the other hand, needs to play concert repertoire in a clean, accurate and polished way. Some professional performers don’t do jam sessions because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire instead, which often does not contain many of the commonly heard session pieces. (But of course they can usually chord along with just about any tune.) On the other side of the coin, some jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible without having to pay attention to how well they actually play it (generally speaking)  –  but some are very good at both. Aiming to be that kind of musician is a great goal.

Concerts of folk or traditional music usually only require about 90 minutes of material  – maybe 15 pieces, or fewer if some are very long.  But the focus and the time it takes to keep those few pieces concert-ready is significant. For each touring season, a professional folk or traditional musician may work up one concert-worth of material and use it all season.

If you’re uncertain how to develop concert level skills, please see my previous articles on practice.

Whatever your focus, choose with awareness of whether it’s the right focus for your intended purpose, and enjoy what you play!

Posted by: laurie689 | October 1, 2014

Playing Right vs. Playing Well

There comes a point in learning any tune when we need to begin practicing it two different ways. Up to a point the learning process has to be about getting all the notes, timing and tempo precise (and the lyrics if it’s a song). After the point when you’re consistently playing it right, it’s time to add the second practice format: playing it well.

What’s the difference? Playing a piece well means making it musical, expressive, flowing, and enjoyable for a listener; no longer concentrating on formulaic and robotic aspects, and just sinking in to the music; letting it become more than just a succession of accurate notes. Assuming your technique is in place, let’s look at how you might approach expression. For example, here’s what I do:

First I assume that the name of the piece is a clue to its intended mood. However, that can sometimes be misleading, as I’ve mentioned in the past. Learning also about the origin of the piece is a good idea.  (i.e. “The Wild Geese” is not about pretty flying geese, but about a sad historical event). Not only will research help you play the piece in an appropriate way, but it will provide interesting verbal introductions.

Next, I choose a tempo. Sometimes tempo is indicated on an arrangement, but when it’s not, it’s up to you to discern. (Remember the time signature has nothing to do with tempo!)These days we have You Tube for reference. I find it helpful if I listen to enough different versions and artists to get a good average. You’ll probably notice that some versions leave you cold and others are quite inspiring. It’s not so much a specific piece of music, but how it’s played that touches a listener. (For instance, I used to hate certain songs until I heard Willy Nelson sing them!)

I find it almost useless to try to learn a piece I have not heard. The page does not speak to me. If I hear it played expressively, I can feel if I want to express it similarly or not. Just copying someone’s playing doesn’t give it any individuality, so I won’t do that. However, copying expression is a good exercise if you’re uncertain of how to create it for yourself. I remember seeing footage of Segovia teaching a student on classical guitar and requiring that the student play the piece exactly as he played it. He’d play a phrase and have the student repeat it back to him, and if it didn’t sound like a recording of himself he would scold. The point was, I’m sure, that the student would in the future develop his own style, but like an art student copying masters’ paintings, copying a master’s musical expression can be an aid in learning.

Expressive playing is not a recitation but a conversation. It has to be animated if you want anyone to listen. Expression involves dynamics, a mood quality (flowing, dancing, strident… depending on the mood of the piece), a feeling of confidence; it means living the music. I put myself in the mood I want to portray, sort of like method acting. But it doesn’t feel like acting; it feels like real life. Music is the purposeful re-living of some feeling or event. I don’t have to force the feeling out of a piece; I just feel it and it flows out.

You may find at first when you begin to add expression, accuracy flies out the window. At first, don’t let that worry you. It’s not an either/or thing forever. It just takes practice. But at first if you try to play accurately while you’re trying to play expressively, expression won’t develop. Just let the goofs slide by and keep going. This might be challenging since the habit trying to play accurately causes the brain to continue to engage with technique rather than make the switch to feeling. Developing a new skill means re-training the brain to function in a new way. Keep trying until you can ignore the mistakes.

After successfully learning to play a piece with feeling, then add the element of accuracy back in. Musicians have to “split the brain” into several different processes at once, and these can be compatibly done.

Some people put the cart before the horse, playing with great expression before there is any development of skill. It’s good if you can develop both at the same time, but expression is not a substitute for skill (or vice versa). Don’t skimp on technical practice.

Once I’m able to play a piece with both accuracy and expression, it’s ready for performance. But keeping it in practice means that sometimes one has to practice for accuracy and at other times for expression, and then for both. If I don’t take the two elements apart occasionally, I am in danger of losing one of them. I choose one day to play for one element and another day for the other.

Happy expressive playing!

Posted by: laurie689 | August 8, 2014

Online Store has been Updated

Several days ago I noticed that all the photos of the products in my online store (see link above) had disappeared. I don’t know how long it had been that way. For those of you who visited  that page and/or wanted to order a book, DVD, or CD, it may have been a bit confusing. In the past week as Iworked on the site there may have been down times as well. I’m happy to report it is fixed, and working better than ever! Please re-visit that page now.

Posted by: laurie689 | August 8, 2014

Secrets of the Professionals

When you hear a performance by a professional whom you admire, it’s likely that part of their allure can’t be described; something about their skills and/or in their demeanor on stage sets them apart from the average musician. Whatever that quality is, it’s not something we can learn as a technical skill, and it’s different for each such performer. (It could be called “charisma”, but there‘s more to it than that.)

Being musically knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make one a good musician. In fact, it avails us little unless we use our knowledge in ways that transcend dry technical skills and data; these must be balanced with the ability to make the music speak. Music that is nothing but one note following another is OK for muzak*, but not for performance.

Although it may not be possible to define exactly what makes certain performers charismatic, there are some definable skills and traits. These have to be in place for both technical skill and undefinable qualities to really shine:

  1. They have total passion and drive. (It’s not very common to find a professional musician who never worked very hard at it and had more important things, like doing the laundry, taking precedence in their life.) Having the passion means being driven to learn and practice music as the primary focus of one’s life; they can’t not do it.
  1. They never let themselves say, “That’s good enough.” They are always improving their skills, always stretching what’s possible, even when they are already at the top of their field.
  1. They strive for a balance between sounding perfect and sounding real.

What does this mean? Notice I said “sounding perfect”, not “playing perfectly”.  Sounding perfect, or close to it, isn’t a matter of actually playing perfectly, though on very rare occasions some musicians do. But no one can play perfectly 100% of the time, and the rest of the time, little imperfections are skillfully hidden. This isn’t cheating  –  it’s necessary.

Among other skills, how we handle  –  even use  –  imperfection determines our ability to perform well. Learning happens as a result of imperfection; imperfections are touchstones to correct our path. It’s like autopilot on an aircraft  –  a function that continually corrects the path of the plane to keep it going in the right direction.

Striving to always play perfectly is a good policy, as long as you’re realistic and accept that it’s an imaginary goal. If we aim for something bigger than life, we are more likely to attain more in reality than we would if we aim for a lower goal. But that means we have to keep our heads on straight and not get discouraged that reality is always what we get. I’m not saying don’t aim for the best possible goal; I’m saying aim beyond that, and you will achieve real skill.

As for the other part of the equation  –  sounding real  –  what does that mean? IMHO, sounding real is being genuine, both in stage demeanor and in musical expression.  Being genuine in musical expression means letting the music sing its own song without forcing anything into it. Being genuine in stage demeanor means not acting differently on stage than you would off stage (unless of course you have a tendency to say or do socially unacceptable things off stage, or your conversational grammar is less than stellar). Talking to an audience can be done with a feeling of intimacy if you simply speak as you would to friends, no matter how large your audience is. Being an announcer or a declarer isn’t necessary.

  1. They are usually not condescending in their personal interactions. I’ve known a few who were, but invariably these were not the folks at the top. They were on their way up, and those who kept that attitude never got all the way to where they wanted to be. There is probably a correlation there.
  1. They are good business people. I know many excellent musicians who’ve never had much success because they hate doing the necessary business work that backs up a career. Being exclusively right-brained does you no favors. Your art alone will not carry you. Even though a good musician may deserve to succeed on their musical merits alone, anyone who has lived long enough knows that life doesn’t usually just hand you what you deserve. You have to work for it in all the ways that our society requires, and for musicians, half of the work is taking care of business.

What does that mean? It means developing a website, having an online presence in social media, recording your music and making it available to the public and to promoters, locating performance venues, sending promo packets, making phone calls, applying to music convention showcases, showing up on time for every gig and every rehearsal, being 100% reliable, and so on. At the very least, for a local part-time career, it means business cards, demo CDs, and brochures distributed where people come in contact with them.

There are a very few good musicians who are in demand even though they have done little or none of the above; these are usually back-up musicians who enhance the performances of front-people. They become well known among their peers by being present at as many jams and sessions as they can, and developing a reputation for being really, really good. It takes exceptional skill to be someone who makes it on informal personal contact alone.

  1. They let the music say what cannot be said in spoken word.
  1. They have multi-faceted musical presentations encompassing many moods, rhythms, and tempos.
  1. They’re willing to do the hard work of focused, honest practice.

9.  They share (“Music is wonderful”) rather than show off (“I am wonderful”)

None of this means that if you don’t choose to make music the prime focus of your life and develop these skills, that there’s anything wrong with doing music the way you choose.  Music is your birthright, and you can do it any way that feels good to you. But if you decide to take it as far as you can, hopefully this information will be helpful in that quest.

*(Muzak was a company name that became a generic term for “elevator music”. Essentially what the company did was compress, to an extreme, the dynamic/frequency range of instrumental recordings of popular tunes, rendering them annoyingly inexpressive, and market them to be played over public address systems in stores, restaurants, and yes, elevators. This music was assumed by most people to be provided as a courtesy for the purpose of pleasant ambience, but in fact it was  –  and still is  –  used where loitering is discouraged; it works on a subliminal level in such places as restaurants where faster patron turnover increases profits, and in parking lots where store owners don’t want people hanging out.)

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