I know some musicians who were so naturally gifted at their instrument that they reached a high level of skill without ever needing to practice very much, and of course there are the child prodigies who may have barely lived 10,000 hours before making their big splash, but that’s not my story. Someone asked me once, “Why would you ever write music that’s hard to play?” The answer, of course, is that composition is its own entity that follows not the rules of weak flesh. Sometimes the player has to take some time to catch up to its whims, and that’s the way it is. There’s a tune on my new CD that I wrote over two years ago, and it’s still a bit of a beast to play smoothly. But it’s hardly the fault of the song.
For most of my musical life I’ve been known as the guy with funny chord shapes and no technique. When I arrived at Berklee (I spent a year there studying jazz composition), I could barely play my way through a major scale. It soon became apparent that I needed to spend some really concentrated time on my instrument. And though the normally-nice-as-pie Nels Cline laughed with derision when I once told him I learned to practice at music school (he was polite enough to sit down with me during a set break before his big Wilco breakthrough and subsequent rock-star status, but had a very dismissive attitude towards Berklee and GIT and its ilk), it was very true in my case. Sitting down with a metronome and working really hard to improve physical skills was something I’d never done, and I learned on my first day that I needed to do it just so I could get through my class material. And though I soon saw results which, in that magic way, rewarded me with confidence and excitement in the new skills to keep on going, improving my abilities has never gotten easier. It’s still a matter of working and working for a long time with a heap of patience (especially for anyone else within earshot).
(Andres Segovia’s main guitar for the last half of his life, courtesy the Met’s instrument collection, which is UNMISSABLE).
Since I have a CD release party this weekend, immediately followed by ten dates on the road, I’ve got no shortage of music that I need to practice. I have a pretty big catalog of original guitar tunes at this point, probably 60 or 70 instrumentals plus about 30 vocal tunes, and a few dozen cover tunes besides, so the first thing I need to do is to pick a bunch that I’m going to have ready for action. I’ve been moving away from the long evening-length gigs I used to do frequently, the classic restaurant situation where one needs to provide background noise for three-plus hours, so I don’t need to have quite as many on hand. But it’s still good to have 20 or 30 in good order so I can pad time if the second band doesn’t show up, or if the mic breaks and I need to fill in with instrumentals…these things happen on the road.
Once I’ve picked my pile of tunes to focus on, I seek out any trouble spots and try to address those first. I’ve found that simple mindless repetition doesn’t do me that much good, as much as I’ve heard those stories where Eddie Van Halen would watch TV, drink beer and just whizz away until those wheedly-wheedly riffs became easy. What I’ve found over the years is that if something’s genuinely difficult for me to play, simply repeating the exercise doesn’t help, even if I do it for hours (which I’ve certainly tried). I need to break it down slowly and find little ways to make it easier, tiny toeholds if you will. It can be as obvious as changing the fingers I’m using on a particular string, or as subtle as mentally prioritizing some part of the chord: aim to land the ring finger first. There’s always something I can find to make it work better. And once I find that little advantage, I’ll practice it with extreme mindfulness, at a slow tempo. Then slowly, I’ll work it up to speed, then work it into the whole rest of the tune.
At this point, I’ve worked out the weak areas in this season’s passel of tunes, and should be in good shape by Sunday and beyond. But I always wish I had a bit more time, a few more days with the metronome before playing in public. It’s a good thing I enjoy it.