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Developing a Practice Routine

“Doing is the essential of learning. The doer is the learner.” -Ray Josephs

It can be difficult in this busy world to find the time to practice your instrument. But, the fact of the matter is, practicing regularly is what develops your ability to express yourself easily on your instrument. There are 3 main questions to address surrounding practice routines:

  1. What should I practice?
  2. How often should I practice?
  3. What is the difference between “practicing” and just playing whatever I like for 90 minutes a day?

1. What to practice

Curiosity, Not Cramming
Students should practice areas of playing that need improvement as well as unexplored ideas. They should be strengthening skills and learning new ones. Try new ideas that are just out of reach, yet avoid practicing ideas that are too difficult (or the result may be disappointing). Your teacher can help you determine difficulty level if you aren’t sure.

Practice should be engaging and fun. It should not feel like a chore or a cram session for a final exam. After you and your teacher discuss goals, your teacher can prescribe appropriate exercises. Once you reach a certain level of comfort playing these exercises, your curiosity may kick in. You may wonder what other possibilities exist – Now is the time to feed that curiosity with some fun challenges. A curious mind is an open mind, and an open mind is always learning.

Theme and Variation
An exciting way to get more mileage from an exercise is through “theme and variation”. Theme and variation works by disguising a main idea in new and clever ways. For example, say the theme is C harmonic Minor. Students can try changing the way they practice this scale by varying the rhythm. Play the scale as 8th notes, triplets, 16th notes, 32nd notes, etc. Try shuffling or swinging the rhythm for a different feel. Try changing the time signature or adding interesting rests or moments of silence. Perhaps instead of playing the scale in a step-wise motion, vary the pattern of intervals in 3rds, 4ths etc. Let’s say you are learning a 6 stroke roll on drums – write the idea out in a dozen variations. This way, you can achieve the fundamental goal of repetition while exploring how each example has a unique sound and feel. Theme and variation is exciting and can make practicing something students look forward to. It is a great way to ensure natural progress, since variation is still related to a single theme or idea. Be sure to ask your teacher about incorporating “theme and variation” at your next lesson.

2. How often should I practice?

Students (adults and teens) should reserve at least an hour each day for music (5-15 minutes for very young kids)This is the minimum if you would like to see noticeable improvement. If you don’t have that time, a little bit every day is still better than one or two big chunks once or twice a week. If you’re dedicated, and have 2-4 hours, even better!

3. How to Practice and Progress: Play, Focus, & Self Discovery

To begin practicing, students should start by playing freely – but don’t get carried away! I recommend playing freely for the first 5-10 minutes. Try to manage your allotted time by dividing your practice routine into different segments or areas of study. For example:

  1. Free Play
  2. Technique
  3. Scales
  4. A New Song
  5. Etc.

The Value of Self-Teaching Through Free Play
I have studied  music from grade school through college, but also consider myself to be self taught in many ways. I recall playing freely when I was younger and noticing an interesting rhythm. No one had taught this rhythm to me – I had stumbled upon it. I knew immediately that I liked how it sounded, yet I also knew there was room for improvement. As there was still a disconnect between what I imagined in my mind head and what I heard from my drums, I played it over and over again. I played it slow to make sure my muscle memory was learning the correct motions. I played it fast to make sure I had control of speed and direction. Practicing an idea found through one’s own explorations, and then improving upon it through repetition, is another useful practice technique.

Another way to play/practice with self-guidance is to listen to your favorite songs. Try to figure out your part. This is a great way to develop your ear and also the layout of your instrument. Be sure to share with your teacher what you have figured out. Perhaps you missed a couple notes or the chord voicing was wrong. They will be glad to help you.

Finding a Balance Between Fun and Progress During Practice
Students need influence and guidance from others, but also need to develop their own truths, opinions, and curiosities about music. The key difference between playing whatever you want for 90 minutes and playing during a practice session is the focus on progress. Practice requires you to be aware of your shortcomings and to take a moment to figure out solutions. These moments can be discussed with your teacher. They want to know what you’ve been working on. Explain to them what you’ve been doing on your instrument – whether it’s an assignment or your own pursuit, your teacher wants to help you improve your skills.

Music is scientific in many ways, but it is still an art. No matter what it is you are trying to convey, it is all made possible when you are comfortable on your instrument.  There are two solid paths to developing an understanding of your instrument (I find that it is a healthy balance of these two paths that will help you become well rounded). Remember to practice exercises assigned by your teacher on a regular basis (focused progress), and also save time to just play, experiment and enjoy yourself (curiosity and exploration).

Technique Can Free You To Be Creative

Technique is a topic that comes up a lot in lessons, and rightfully so. Having proper technique will allow you to move around your instrument with ease. But most importantly, technique is the bridge that connects your ideas to reality. Bad technique will slow, or block the flow of ideas, whereas good technique will let them flow freely.

Yet with all of the known benefits of proper technique out there, I still find that a great deal of musicians overlook technique, or even worse, completely disregard it. Either they see it as unnecessary, an old manipulation device for creative control, or just too difficult to master. None of these are true. In fact proper technique can be quite easy to incorporate with patience and dedicated, routine practice. 

Technique is learned in an almost mechanical way, based on muscle memory. If an individual has been playing for a long time with bad technique, it can be annoying to break bad habits. Although it can be frustrating, you’ll be happy with the changes you’ve made.

It’ll take a small amount of focus. Practicing proper technique only needs to be done for 15-30 mins a day on a regular basis – All you need to do is put in the time each day and move on. Don’t worry about incorporating the new technique into band practice or performances just yet. Let the technique work for itself rather than forcing the use of technique. Within a few months time, you will see radical improvement, and if you allow your practice to take effect over time, the metamorphosis will happen naturally.

Good technique will do a number of things to improve your playing and songwriting. It’s going to improve the richness of your sound by allowing you to play the instrument the way it was designed to be played. For example, claves are a percussion instrument. There are two wooden cylinders about an 1″ in circumference and 6″ in length. They are played by palming one clave and striking it with the other clave. If either of the claves are held too tight or struck with too much force (or not enough force), the true sound of the instrument will not be obtained. You will lose out on the intended tone and sustain of the instrument. Improper technique of a clave would result in the same sound and feel of banging a wooden table with a bat. But, if that is your desired sound and feel, by all means, go ahead and hit record!

Technique can improve your songwriting by allowing you to play intervals, chords or rhythms that were previously impossible to play. Proper technique will also eliminate the possibility of injuries sustained from playing an instrument incorrectly. Other benefits include strengthening your ability to perform under pressure.

Having good technique requires you to be relaxed and at ease. When you step on stage you will be comfortable and confident so that you can do your best. You will also have a greater stage presence. The audience sees everything and they are very tuned into your body language. You don’t want to appear stressed, but comfortable and in control of the situation.

Music is a craft, an art, and also a science. Hundreds of years of documented research has gone into the field of technique for musical instruments. When craftsmen design and build instruments, they use a specific framework of scientific calculations. On the other side of the blueprint, there are specific instructions for how to use the instrument to obtain its desired effect.

Again if you want to play the piano with your feet, don’t let anyone kill your dreams – be an innovator. But don’t ask your teacher why you can’t play harmonic minor scales at 100 bpm or play first inversion major 7th chords. You don’t want to play guitar, and after several years say, “Hey, I’m really thrilled about how much worse my playing and songwriting has gotten over time!” No. We all want to get better at the things we do. The same way a runner wants to go farther and longer, even if it is to break his/her own record.

So make sure to speak with your teacher about learning proper technique. Listen and trust his/her wisdom and experience. You’ll be glad you did.

What To Expect – Drum Lessons

“What To Expect – The First 6 Months of Drum Lessons”

By Tom Cullen

Drum Lessons in Philly for Beginners

Drum Lessons for Beginners

So you’ve decided to take some drum lessons. You’re probably wondering what to expect – How often will I have to practice? How long until I begin to see results? The answer to those questions is, well . . . another question. What are your musical goals? All goals are met by a series of smaller goals, and you will have to decide how important progress is to you. Drums can be one of the most difficult instruments to master, but they can also be very easy and fun to play. Most drumming in the music we hear is comprised of just a few, very basic ideas. These basics can be learned within a 6 month period.

The First 6 months of Drum Lessons

The first thing you’ll learn is how to play rhythms between the right and left hand clearly. In order to do that, you will learn how to properly hold the drumsticks. How the drumsticks are held will effect a range of things from, speed, sound, comfort and even avoiding minor injuries (that’s right, you can hurt yourself!). To get a good feel for handling the sticks, you will need a consistent practice of 15-120 mins a day. Working on control of the sticks will also give you an introduction to reading music. Learning to read will begin to feed your imagination with a vocabulary of rhythms and stimulate creative ideas. Learning the language of rhythm helps us to understand and decipher the music we enjoy listening to.

After about 6 weeks, you will begin coordinating your feet with your hands. This is usually done by adding the bass drum, which is played by your foot using a pedal device. You’ll be doing 3 things at once. At this point you will also be learning the basic concepts of drumming, common in most of the music we hear.

The first concept is unison. Unison is when two parts of the drumset are played together at the same time. The next idea is “2 over 1”when one drum plays two notes and the other drum plays one. The final concept is the single stroke. The most common use of the single stroke is during a drum fill, but single strokes happen more often than we notice. They usually occur between a cymbal and snare drum or a cymbal and bass drum during the song’s “groove”.

Most drumming you hear is that simple! The trouble for most students is accepting that learning an instrument is a process (remember, all goals are met by a series of smaller goals?). If you make practice a part of your weekly routine, progress will be natural and easy to see and hear. If you follow your path consistently, and with the help from the right teacher, the first 6 months of drum lessons will allow you to play most of your favorite music.

Of course, after that, there is still much to learn. For example, though basketball is a simple sport consisting of 3 things (dribbling, passing and shooting), the best basketball players have perfected these techniques with strength, style and finesse. Perfection is a process, full of trial and error. Playing drums is a craft. Over time you will “sculpt” your own style and sound to where it becomes a direct extension of your musical ideas. Possessing the basic building blocks of drumming will allow you to pursue your own, original take on the instrument. Don’t forget – you get in what you put in.

“I would like students to understand that the learning process takes time. Practice as slowly as possible, because the slower you practice, the faster you learn.

-Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (The Guinness Book of World Records Most Recorded Drummer of All Time)