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Practicing On Purpose

We seem to set out with the best of intentions. We try and practice everyday. We make sure we're covering the basics. We're trying to improve. Like we've talked about here before, it's important that you set apart some time to try and assess what your goals are. You try to figure out what you want to accomplish on your instrument and what you want to accomplish with music overall. But there's so much to learn. So much to practice. Every new skill seems to take forever to master. How do you know what you're supposed to practice and what not to? Of course having a great teacher is invaluable for this because that should be a prime consideration of theirs every time they see you. But how to do you figure this out on your own? How do you practice with purpose?



Narrowing It Down

When I teach, the first thing I ask is what kind of music the student listens to. I ask this before I even ask any of their goals because their answer to this question lets me know what direction to take in their lessons. If they say they love metal, I will take a different approach as opposed to if they say they love jazz. I then ask them what they want to accomplish with music. Usually it's mostly just about getting better and learning to play songs. But there's more to it than that. I ask them if they play in a band, if they ever perform live or if they ever do any recording or writing. The reason for this is because doing one of these type of activities will have an effect on what their course of action will be. If a student wants to learn metal and is in a band, part of their practice should be directed as what's happening with the band. If they ever book a show, or start doing some recording, this should have a direct effect on what they're practicing.

Why Bother?

You might be thinking 'why bother'. Why not just try and practice really hard each day and go through your regular regimented program? There's two reasons for this. First and foremost, music is an incredibly vast subject. There are simply too many avenues for any person to tackle all at once. Most artists and musicians (even veterans) will usually choose one particular avenue to explore at any one time. Just look at some releases of great artists. They will usually release an album exploring a certain style or sound. Check out the albums of some of the great jazz artists and you'll notice that they go through certain periods where they'll focus on one area. It may not always work out but I find it's the mark of a great artist who always strives to reach further with their art. Secondly, choosing a particular path makes it easier to improve in your development since your not scattered trying to learn too many things at once. It keeps you motivated since you can see your progress and it's not too overwhelming. For example, if you're in a metal band and recording a new CD, learning to write 4 part harmony shouldn't be your prime focus. Not at this time, maybe later.

Pinpoint Focus

If you want to keep your practice sessions interesting, it's good to have some variety, but don't lose track of the primary reason you're there. Make sure that when you sit down to practice you're clear about what you want to do. It's all too easy to pick up your instrument and 'just start jamming'. This is fine once it a while, these sessions can produce some interesting results. But, don't forget about the reason you're there. If you started something yesterday, review it, go back and make sure that it's ingrained in your playing. At the same time, if you have more than one project going, you're going to have to set priorities and keep them. If the projects or your interests collide, you're going to have to stick with one...for the time being at least. For example you're in a band and you're gigging regularly, but you also want to become a film composer. Both are quite time consuming so somewhere along the line, you might have to make a decision to go one way or the other. At the very least, there are going to be times and situations where you're going to have to focus on one more than the other. Essentially, once you decide on a course of action, some things are going to be mandatory to focus on, and others will be extras that you could try to fit in when possible.

The Projects Scenario

Really busy musicians usually have one or more (usually quite a few) projects going at the same time. How do you manage this? How do you fit it all in? It's all about organization. You'll find that accomplished musicians are not just really hard working but organized. Organization and management aren't things that are usually discussed in music class. The more projects you have going, the more things you want to accomplish, the more organized you're going to have to be. There is no other way. If you aren't organized, the projects will suffer...sometimes all at once. Either you keep your projects to a minimum, or get organized.

Getting Organized

What does this mean? It means planning, deadlines, taking notes, making decisions, finances, and time management. All of those boring things that seem to get in the way. In fact it's the opposite. The more organized you are, the easier it is to be creative. When you know exactly what you want to do at any given time, it makes it easier to get it done. Instead of wasting the time away not knowing what to do, or what you did yesterday, you can get right to work. We've talked a lot about this in here before but here's a summary.

Plan. This always goes first. The further along you are in the project, the more detailed your to-do list should be.Always be planning. There are the initial steps of development, but planning should be done consistently since things change often.

Deadline. There needs to be sort of time-line. This isn't cut and dried...especially with music; but you need to put some sort of time-line together with a deadline. Try and stick to this. Projects get done more often when there's some cut off and urgency to them. The last 10 yards are often the hardest.

Notes. While this may not be intuitive, it's really important that you take notes. The better you are at this, the easier it will be to stay on top of things. Always make notes as you go along. Ideas and problems always pop up.Make notes on what you've done, what you want to do, any problems, and how you did certain things. If you've gone through a certain process once, writing it down will make it easier to remember for the next time.

Decision Making. This in a category of it's own because there will come a time to make some decisions. Set this time apart and look at the overall picture. Let the ideas stew for a while. Put all of the ideas together and make some decisions. If it's a tough call, sleep on it. You'll find you get the best ideas at the weirdest time. If not sure, just set a course for action and see what happens. You'll make mistakes along the way, learn as you go. Don't stop or hesitate for too long. A little step in the wrong direction is better than none at all.

Finances. This is another one that needs its own category. This needs to be a separate planning session. It's not easy to put this together but the more upfront you are about how much it's all going to cost, the easier it is to make crucial decisions. Money is a crucial decision.Not thinking about it or not dealing with it won't make it go away. Planning in this area helps eliminate those nasty surprises that come out of nowhere and you aren't prepared to deal with.

Time management. Of course this is the one that everybody thinks of when talking about organization. As you can see though, if you've taken care of the other areas, time management becomes a little easier. If you know what you have to do, and how much time you have to do it, it's easier to make it part of your schedule. This also includes taking things off your list and delegating if at all possible.Time management at this point is really making sure something gets done everyday and that you stick to the items on your lists. Of course you also must be diligent about not wasting time on anything that doesn't fit into your plans. All of the things on your list are time consuming, so you have to be diligent about your time.

The Details

So once you've decided what your goal is, what should you practice? Let's look at the metal band scenario. Unlike the film composer who will be working on their composing, music theory and learning different styles of music, you're going to be focusing on just the one. Secondly, whereas the jazz musician may start out learning a dozen variations on the blues, you'll be focusing on your scales, arpeggios, chord progressions, alternate tunings and learning your tunes (cold). In short, you are now practicing on purpose. You're practicing with a specific purpose with a specific set of goals, with a specific set of exercises. Another caveat, even if you know what you want to accomplish, don't try to learn everything about your style of music all at once. There are some lesson books that go into 8 and 12 hour guitar practice sessions but this isn't practical most of the time. You should still be focusing on the things specific to your goals.

For Example...

For example, in the metal band example, you'll want to spend a portion of your practice working on arpeggios (using alternating picking and sweep picking). Unfortunately there are a million different arpeggios with a million different fingerings. You should focus on the ones that are used the most and grow from there. That way you'll have the 'basics' down before getting into anything to esoteric. You know you'll be using and applying these almost immediately; when they come up in songs, you'll be prepared. How do you figure out which are the ones to learn first? Two ways: first is by learning songs in your genre. There are chord progressions, scales and/or idioms specific to your style. Once you've learned a dozen or so songs, you'll start to notice some similarities. You'll notice the same scales, chords and arpeggios popping up again and again. It's what makes the style of music sound like it does. You may have to spend some time looking for and analyzing these things, but they're always there. Look for books, videos and other learning materials on your style, in the (specific) subject you're interested in. It doesn't matter what you're trying to learn, the info is out there! In the metal example from above, even though there are a ton of arpeggios and fingering available on the guitar, there are a couple that metal guitarists love to use over and over; mostly because they sound great. Learn and memorize these ones first. Then when you have time, go into things that aren't usually used in your style and try to apply that. It may set you apart from all the other bands in your genre.

Going With It

Whatever you decide on what it is you want to do, your course of action will be slightly different than everybody else's. Even two people in the same band may have a different set of goals. It's all very personal when it comes to artists managing their careers. The more organized you are, the more you plan and make notes, the easier it will be to get things done. The easier it will be to track your success and see where you are heading. The easier it will be to achieve what you want to achieve. Above all, the more rewarding it will be when you look back and see how it's all coming together, and how it's all going exactly the way you want it to go.