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By Chris Maric
Everyone has heard the cliché ‘practice makes perfect.’ Although discussing that statement could warrant an article unto itself, common knowledge tells us that practice is a vital part of developing artistry.
Rather than focusing on specific techniques of any style of music, this article speaks to a more general sense of how you should practice, and how your practice can be applied to virtually any style of music.
I recommend to my students that they split their practice schedule into three separate areas or phases. This is not to say that all three phases need to happen on the same day, or need to be divided equally. Those decisions are up to you, and/or your mentor or teacher.
The three separate areas (or phases) of practice in your schedule should include:
Incorporating all three of these phases into your practice routine will help to balance you as a musician and writer. I personally find this general mixture helps to create my most inspired work.
Exercise: Improving Strength, Dexterity and Endurance
I will use an analogy of an athlete performing basic exercises that are beneficial to any specific sport or discipline. These would be exercises such as running laps, doing push-ups, sit-ups, and other core training exercises. From a musical perspective, the equivalent would be practicing scales, chords, arpeggios, trembalos (lol), etc... This type of training undoubtedly helps you to perform at a higher level, regardless of your discipline.
With that said, it is also important to perform discipline-specific exercises. Just as a hockey player will specifically train differently than a football player, each style and genre of music will challenge you to acquire different techniques.
I strongly recommend to my students to create their own studies – short, focused musical exercises that are derived from specific sections of music that you have trouble performing. Find a song that you would like to learn, and every time you come to a part that is difficult to play, practice a small loop of that section slowly and methodically until you increase your skill and confidence. As a bonus, I find there is often an opportunity to begin writing new material inspired from that section, similar to how a DJ/Producer would cut and use a sample.
The main goal of this type of practicing is to improve your physical ability, mental concentration, and muscle memory.
Inspiration: Exploring the Music You Love, and Haven't Yet Discovered
I love learning other people's music. Almost every time I do, I have a small eureka moment where I learn and digest a new technique or concept, regardless how small. It’s the accumulation of a variety of these small concepts that help to develop your own personal style.
Learning from others provides inspiration and unlocks some of those enigmatic concepts that you may always struggle to figure out by yourself. Again, the concept of creating small studies will help you lock down these concepts and perhaps even help to inspire new music. This I feel is the root of the 'great artists steal' cliché. Of course you should strive to be inspired by others’ work, rather than rely on blatant mimicry.
Studying music from various artists and genres will also help round out your own personal style. Study your favourite music, but always try to branch out and discover new music as well – especially from other eras and genres. A well-rounded palette of influences will help to differentiate you from other artists and help to create truly new music.
Decompress: Jam and Let It Out
The last style of practicing I recommend is to just relax, play and create. After studying techniques and concepts from other sources, it can leave you feeling stressed and unsure of the purpose behind these exercises. You know you are technically getting better, but how does it help you to create? This is where you need to spend time on developing your own style.
During this phase of practice, let all the concepts you learned flow naturally and just play and write music. If you feel your concepts are stagnant, try creating variations of whatever you are stuck on. If you still feel uninspired, think of more music you love and would like to study to build your creative repertoire.
One of the most important things, in my opinion, is having a way to record your concepts/sketches. With the ubiquity of mobile phones and recording devices, there is practically no excuse. If you know how to write music, even if it's in your own unique way, that can also help you to solidify your writing abilities further.
When you listen back to your recordings, even after weeks or years, you will often find little gems that are worth developing. I find that I can often combine two or three disparate concepts from different jam sessions into the basis of a full song. Then it’s just a matter of fleshing out the details to connect these ideas.
These are not tips of specifically what to practice, but rather three general areas where you should devote your practice time. Another way to look at it is, these are three styles of practicing that you should not neglect as an artist.
When it comes to practicing specific exercises, be mindful of the style(s) of music you are working towards. There is not one general technique that all artists use to create music. As a matter of fact, different techniques can help inspire and create different styles of music. Try to study and analyze the techniques of your favourite artists. Finding a suitable teacher or mentor to help guide you through this process is usually a great investment.
Just remember to take time to enjoy creating music. It’s easy to get caught up and frustrated in constantly trying to improve. But I find that usually my most inspired work comes from after I invest my time in practicing technique, studying the works of others, and finally just allowing myself time to relax my mind and just play.