strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

Filtering by Tag: Music Practice

Accepted

I got an acceptance email from Berklee the week before last, and the official letter yesterday. I start in January 2015. This is great news, and I anticipate this will be one of my most significant milestones not just in music, but in life itself. Music is one of the great joys of my life, so the opportunity to learn and grow as a musician and producer is a dream fulfilled. Now back to our regularly scheduled gear & sundry related ramblings.

I was going to buy the academic version of Pro Tools, but have decided to go with the full version since the academic is generally not upgradeable. After the most recent round of gear purchases, I will wait until late October early Novemberish before upgrading. My learning and practice plan has remained essentially unchanged. The greatest challenge is effective time management.  With trying to regularly practice 5 separate disciplines (voice, drums, keyboards, bass, guitar), a good day of practice generally runs at a minimum of 3 hours, and a really good day may run 5+hours. I have days where I only practice for 1-2 hours and feel like I'm slacking. My available time for practice will most likely be cut short once I start school since I assume most of my assignments won't be specifically tied to a certain instrument. I'll probably have to adapt to striving for 30 minutes 5 times a week on each instrument. 

I may plateau a bit for the four years of school, but I anticipate I'll grow so much as a musician and producer in general that it will have a lasting positive impact on all of my instruments. 

Drumming Goals

Jared Falk of Drumeo.com fame had a video about effective practice. One of the key elements was creating a list of 5 medium range (1 week to 3 months) goals for our drumming and then commit to it by announcing it on social media. Since this is technically social media, I'm committing to it here. No one in the world at large besides Aeyong and my dogs knows I'm a "drummer" now, and I'm not quite ready to announce that yet. My preference to announce that is after I'm able to record a video of me playing a complete song of at least intermediate difficulty. My medium range goals for the next 3 months would be

1. Get my 32nd note playing up to 80 BPM (I'm struggling at 60, so this is a fairly lofty goal).

2. Get my 16th note triplets up to 80 bpm (if I can do the 32nd note, I should be able to do this as well, I'm currently at 70-75 right now).

3. Finish learning "When the Levee Breaks" - I'm pretty close to locking down the basic beat, but I will have to work hard on the fills, especially the fast ones near the end, this may be too lofty. It will probably take years before anyone thinks I'm starting to sound like Bonham (not that anyone truly can sound like him). 

4. Learn Smells Like Teen Spirit (not necessarily at full speed, but who knows? I haven't really started learning it yet, only the triplet opening so far).

5. Make progress on some Neil Peart part, preferably YYZ or Xanadu. I haven't really started on anything by him yet, but one of my "milestone" goals as a musician is to be able to perform all 3 parts from a Rush song like YYZ and record a video of me doing it. In a way this is just a means of measuring progress for my goals, but it will also hopefully provide a good example of my level of proficiency when trying out for bands or at least demonstrating to potential recording clients that I am competent musically. 

NOTE: He wants them ranked in order of difficulty - 1 is probably the most difficult since it's very specific, 3. is also specific and most likely fairly difficult, 2, 4&5 would be more difficult if I had a specific benchmark with either one, but I just want to work on these (as long range playing goals) and I don't have a real specific goal yet since I have to actually start working on them. I may post a specific BMP or % of full speed goal for 3 months after I've practice them enough to know where I stand. 

Cards & letters...

from people I don't even know. You know the words. Not literally per se, but I've gotten several offers on bandmix to join various bands, usually of the cover variety. Looking at the details of these offers has made me realize a few things. First, I needed to emphasize that I'm a guitar player with minimal keyboard and bass skills. It shouldn't surprise me, but stating you can play keys and bass in your profile means you'll get a lot more offers for those roles than guitar. Guitar players grown on trees, apparently. The other realization is that I still haven't worked at learning a set of cover tunes likely to be in any cover bands set list. I get involved in trying to learn songs by guitarists I like (Eric J, Tommy E, etc.) which are not normally on the cover band set list. I think I would enjoy a stint in a cover band, if only to play with other musicians and in front of people, if only for a brief period of time. But until I have a fairly robust personal song list, I don't feel ready to accept an offer since I don't know how many songs and in what time period I might have to learn them to get ready for a band gig. So I'm going to shift my practicing around a bit and work on a few of the typically most requested tunes. I'll probably start with "Don't Stop Believin", "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Sweet Child o' Mine".  I already know parts of those tunes, but I've never committed to learning the whole thing. Once I have them under my fingers, I'll make a vid for youtube & bandmix to post. I still want to have about 10-15 songs on my youtube channel to show the variety of things I can play as well as covering a variety of styles. Those three should be a good start. 

2012

Before welcoming in the new year (albeit 2 days late), I wanted to give a nod to 2011. 2011 was a good year. Not necessarily a GREAT year, but essentially good on most days, which earns an overall good rating.

The year started with us in Killeen and no immediate or even medium term plans to move or change anything that substantial in our lives. I had just started working for MEB at Ft Hood and by the end of January I knew I couldn't last long term in that position. The highlights of the year were my subsequent decision to seek new employment, and I began looking primarily in the D/FW area with the intent to relocate. Ultimately this culminated in my finding, applying, and getting hired for a Comp & Pen position with the VA at their new FW outpatient clinic.

We put our house on the market and Aeyoung was very fortuitous in finding a home to rent that was not only convenient to work, but very suitable from a layout standpoint and pet friendly. Besides the upheaval of the move and a couple of months of not collecting a regular paycheck in the summer (and the resulting red on the bank ledger), the year otherwise proceeded as normal.

On the family front, Aeyoung and I celebrated our 21st anniversary in April and just continued to happily share each other's lives with our 3 furry children. Our most recent addition continues to attempt to exert her dominance as the favorite. It's funny how smaller dogs seem to have Napoleon complexes.  I incrementally improved at playing guitar and keyboards, continued to run, and near the end of the year I began studying Korean again, although a little more in earnest this time. Hey, better late than never, you know the old saying. 

Onward to 2012. Aeyoung asked me the other day what my new year's resolutions were going to be. I usually have a significant reassessing of my physical fitness at this time of year, so she's used to me swearing off alcohol and fast food and committing myself to exercise. The good news is that I have been a consistent runner for the past two years and this really hasn't changed. The only ironic event is that I did a number on my right calf in mid december when I was out for one of my pre-marathon long runs. This resulted in my not being able to run for the last two weeks of the year, and now I almost feel as if I am starting a new year's resolution by returning to running. I managed to run 1195 miles last year which is okay.

I had 3 significant down periods due to illness and injury, but this last one has been the longest. I'm hoping I can get my weekly average up to a consistent 30 miles or so, although this means I'll have to run 15 miles on the weekend unless I add an extra weekday. My long term goal is still to run a marathon, but this is the second train up in which I've suffered a significant injury setback that essentially has derailed my plan near the end. I think I will need to reassess my general approach to running/fitness and include some muscular strength and flexibility traning to supplement my running/cardio. I also think about 10-20% weight loss may do alot to minimize the injuries. 

Along those lines I'm going to have to commit to less junk food and alcohol (this is really only a weekend phenomena), and start to really manage how I fuel my body for general health and for running. I think my plan for now will be only social drinking (in our case that means concerts), and limit the junk food to only one or two meals a week. Aeyoung will cook this kind of food more often just from a convenience standpoint, so that means I will probably have to step in a help with some of the food preparation. 

Our financial goals for 2012 are fairly simple. Keep doing what we're doing, but do it better. Get the red off the ledger book that was necessitated by the relocation (and is harder to overcome currently because we're paying rent and a mortgage at the same time). The most important objective for the year would be to sell our house in Killeen, although it's hard to gauge how reasonable a goal that is. We will pay a tax penalty of 8K if we sell before August, so right now we're not being aggressive in our pricing.

That will most likely change if we haven't sold by then. Once we can sell that house, our financial goals will be centered on our eventual home purchase in the D/FW area. That's a 2013 and beyond goal. The eventual home purchase will hopefully be our last. We're hoping to get at least a one acre homesite in a planned development that will protect us from urban sprawl in the long term and allow us to stay in that one home indefinitely. We're looking to settle in the Mansfield/Arlington/Grand Prairie area. This will get us a little closer to the middle of D/FW while keeping my work commute to a manageable timeframe. 

My other 2012 goals center on continued learning and development. I want to continue studying Korean, at least every weekday like I have been striving to do. I'll probably start trying to either read some comic books or watch the occasional television program with Aeyoung. I haven't developed my comprehension and vocabulary enough yet for those to be possible. 

In music, I'm going to commit to two initial goals. Learn at least one complete song by ear per month, and compose at least one complete song per month. To learn a complete song by ear, I'm going to start with something a little more simple and approachable like Led Zeppelin or equivalent. I know bits and pieces of many tunes, but I've been dependent on tablature for the bulk of all songs I've ever learned. I've figured out countless riffs and chunks of tunes, but I haven't forced myself to sit down and learn a complete song from start to finish. It's definitely an easier task now than it was when I first learned guitar. The software tools available make it about as easy as possible. I just need to do the work. I'll build up to harder material once I have several complete songs under my belt. 

On the compositional front, my goal is to have a completed song with all instruments, arrangement, orchestration, production, etc. completed every month. I haven't decided yet if I'll make completely new songs from scratch, although that is the way I'm leaning. I have ordered a small two octave keyboard controller to keep at my main desk to help with the songwriting. As a guitarist I find it easy enough to write riffs while I'm playing my guitar, but I think the keyboard will handle the bulk of the overall compositional duties since I can not only write/play melody and chords, but it's also my only interface for drums, bass and synths. 

 

Thanks, Yngwie.

Leave it to Yngwie to say one thing in an interview that actually solves a problem I've been struggling with for a long time. There was a question about speed (with Yngwie of all people) and he said "If you don't have your left and right hands synchronized, you'll never play fast."  Now, this seems like common sense, but it's one of those fundamentals that seems so simple you don't think about it. The most effective way to synchronize your left and right hands is to play with a metronome (or equivalent) only at a speed that you can play the material perfectly. I've heard this over and over, but sadly I had gotten away from metronome playing for a long time. Since I started incorporating 5 minutes of steady metronome scale playing a few weeks ago I've already started to notice improvement in my fast scale playing. Yeah, I'm kind of a genius. Or an Idiot Savant with heavy emphasis on the former.

Tropes...

I'm not talking about the overused TV themes kind of tropes. No, this is merely a salutation using my best commanding officer pronunciation of "Troops".  I think they send field grade officers to a special class on how to speak majestically when addressing your Tropes. Words like Godspeed and Fourscore are also highly encouraged.

Anywho,  it's been awhile.  Life has been tumultous, but overall predictable since last I posted. Back in August I was preparing for retirement and was going to start working as a contractor at a Ft Hood clinic. Since that time I declined that job and ended up taking a federal job for a new off post clinic that the Army was building in Killeen.  Now it's going on mid-November and things are probably going to come full circle. I'm currently in the process of taking a different contracting job on Ft Hood, maily because it's about a 35% pay hike. Without going into detail, I'm thinking about going back to school in a few years and short term earning potential is paramount since I won't be able to work much after starting school.

On the fitness front I have been training to run the Austin 2011 Marathon next February.  This will be my first marathon so I started training several months in advance. I just completed a half marathon last weekend, which was actually a few weeks ahead of my training schedule but it was a memorial run for the November 5th shooting victims and it seemed like a good coincidence and a worthy reason to run.  I ran in 1:44 which I was pretty happy with since my marathon goal is to break 4 hours. I had a short term goal of running 100 miles in 30 days (at the insistence of the Nike+app, actually) and I need to run 8.5 miles today to meet that goal. I have been keeping a pretty steady running schedule, but the occasional Saturday over-indulgence in sudsy beverages has caused me to skip an occasional long run which is usually scheduled for Sunday.

On the musical front not much is different. I had been in an acoustic phase for the last several months but began playing electric a few weeks back.  I'm getting gradually closer to "Endless Road" which has lived up to its name.  I started playing electric again out of natural jonesin and also looking forward to getting my Suhr Modern a la Frankenstrat here in the near future.  On the piano front, I had actually signed up for piano lessons at a little studio here in Harker Heights and took four lessons over the course of a month. The teacher was nice enough but it was very regimented and strictly by this beginner's lesson book.  It would have been good for me to learn sight reading, but I'm more interested in learning songs and don't really see that it's worth the effort to get fast at sight reading.  So, I quit taking lessons and I'm back to just playing my selection of songs. I've added "Linus & Lucy" which is challenging but alot of fun.

A bit past four months…

I'm a little late to the four month mark party, but feel compelled to mark these countdown milestones.  The last month has seen a few good developments, not the least of which is a fairly significant downturn in enemy activity in the last few days. It's been colder here for a few days and that may be the main reason. Since the last countdown milestone they have fixed the dryers in the laundry which has somewhat improved our laundry turn around time (there's no fix for the ambivalent workers employed there); and most significantly they repaired two of the treadmill belts so now I can run again.

I was a bit overly optimistic the first day and ran 5 miles in my rekindled trotting exuberance.  I paid the price of pain for several days afterwards. Luckily, my legs have been convinced that it's in everyone's best interest if they don't sit the rest of the season out and I was able to run 3 miles on Friday and feel like doing 3 or 4 today.

Another significant improvement was the arrival of my PS3 (thanks to my better half) and a modest home theater speaker system I had ordered online. We now have a high def, surround sound capable theater and video game room in the aid station. I'll upload pictures of movie night in action here in the future. We christened the new setup with the Blu Ray version of the most recent Incredible Hulk movie with Edward Norton. Watching a high def movie on a 70 inch screen with surround sound is quite sublime considering.

On the same mail truck I also received a nice desk chair for my room that has made the extended keyboard/guitar practice sessions much more forgiving to my sitting points of contact (use your imagination). With the gradual improvements it has become almost livable here. Knowing the Army, it's way past time to bring the suck to our happy home here if at all possible.  Until then, I'm going to enjoy our new standard of living.

Mantra of the Woodshedder…

I saw this quote on a forum and it's worth repeating:

 

"Amateurs practice until they can play something right… 

Professionals practice until they can't play it wrong"

 

That very succinctly describes the difference between learning something to where you can play it okay on a good day compared to imprinting it into your brain so fully that you can play it well on a bad day. I have too many songs that fit into the first category and  not enough in the second. Better practice some more…

 

Musician - Muscle Memory

This is a concept that has application in every aspect of our lives, from tying shoes to writing your name to even more specialized activities like playing an instrument or flying a plane.  Perhaps more appropriately called "Motor Memory" this process is what happens when you repeatedly engage in some movement or activity to the point where you can do it without thinking any more. It starts the day you're born where you gradually learn to form words and speech based on hearing others talk. Later you use it to learn how to walk, throw a football, drive a car or type on a computer. We can all remember when we first learned how to type by hunt and peck until we hopefully learned the standard typing position to the point that we can type without looking at our hands.

It's been discussed and studied a great deal but it is still not fully understood. One theory contends that motor meory actually involves several different processes involving the brain, motor neurons, skeletal muscle, neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and serotonin, and other undiscovered processes.  One study found that brain trauma patients suffering from a degree of amnesia could be taught a new procedure they would retain while they forgot the process of learning it. For example, they could be taught to shuffle a deck of cards, but they wouldn't remember learning how. This lends credence to the idea that multiple systems are responsible for motor memory and not purely the brain. 

My specific interest in the topic is how it applies to learning and improving on the guitar. I find that learning new techniques or songs on the guitar is not only dependent on the amount of practice but also on the total duration in weeks, months, and years that I am regularly pursuing this new technique.  I think most experienced players and teachers agree that 30 minutes of daily practice will do more to reinforce new concepts than 3 hours once a week.  However the process works, it takes the body time to react to the mental and physical changes that are occurring to facilitate the new movement. Although there is a great deal of commonality in guitar techniques compared to the difference between playing guitar and needlepoint, there is still usually some degree of new learning involved in any new song. It's especially obvious when learning a completely new technique like an Eddie Van Halen or Tommy Emmanuel song when all you've been playing before are Bob Dylan tunes. 

Usually learning new things on the guitar is very gradual and it's often hard to tell that you're making progress even if you are.  One of the great joys is when you seem to make a sudden jump in capability overnight. Whether or not this phenomenon is more a subjective interpretation of the player, it does still seem to occur occasionally.  I liken it to the process of wiring a house during the construction process. The payoff is obviously instantaneous between the days or weeks of work and the first time that you switch on the lights after the wiring has been completed. The interesting thing is that it seems that the motor memory process continues to work after you stop practicing a technique. I feel this must be true because I have had some unavoidable gaps in practicing due to travel and temporary duties but I have often found that I am able to make a jump in my progress once I return to practicing again. 

The other great thing about motor memory is that it seems analagous to paving roads in your nervous system.  I played guitar (albeit poorly) for a few years as a teenager, but essentially didn't play at all for over fifteen years. When I decided to start playing again, I found that I was still able to form chords and play certain songs that I had learned all those years ago and although it took me a little while to get calluses on my fingers, the process of "re-learning" chords was nowhere near as difficult or time consuming as the first time. It seemed like I still had those neurological pathways in my body, but that they just needed to have some weeds and debris cleared off before they were as good as new.  Within a month of dedicated practice I think I was back to my original level of competence (not saying much, but even so) from when I quit playing all those years before.

Practice makes permanent

 

The best advice I have ever gotten about practicing is that you should take a song you're learning, and only play the song at the speed which you can execute it flawlessly. Think about that for a minute.  When you practice a song you will eventually get to a part of the song which is difficult for you. Instead of trying to play the song at full speed and fumbling over the difficult passage each time you go through it, you need to slow down. 

A good phrase to describe this is "isolate the difficulty".  You should choose a difficult section and focus on playing only that section at a much slower speed over and over until you can play it perfectly with the correct rhythm even if you still can't play it a full speed. You will be amazed how quickly your fingers can learn to go from half speed to full speed once you learn the part well at half speed. It's certainly much faster than trying to learn something at full speed and fumbling over it every time.  Steve Morse wisely expresses the idea as "To play fast, first you must play slow". 

My two favorite tools for "isolating the difficulty" are an audio player program called the Amazing Slow Downer and a tab program called Guitar Pro.  The ASD allows you change the tempo without affecting the pitch, although you can change the pitch if needed to match your tuning. It also  allows you to isolate any section of the song you want to practice repeatedly.  I'll save those sections so they are always easily brought up for practice, e.g. the solo section of "Back in Black".  Guitar Pro is primarily a tab based tool for learning songs, but it is also has the capability to import midi, powertab, tabledit, and ascii files. It also features a sample engine called the RSE or realistic sound engine which results in more realistic guitar and bass sounds.