You’re playing etudes and exercises, but you feel these are not improving your playing.
Find ways to understand your woodshed workout in a musical context.
MAKE RHYTHM TRACKS
One of the most important rules of doing any exercise is to fully grasp its usefulness and/or its place in music. Start by using what you’re already working on by applying some of those same techniques in a musical context. For instance, say you’re woodshedding on a C major scale (C D E F G A B). You could try recording a rhythm track (see my Basics lessons in AG’s August 2017 issue) of a C major chord to play against your C major scale. This may be a basic example, but if you’re a beginning or even intermediate player, you might find preparing a track like Example 1 very helpful.
If you’re more advanced, you might make a rhythm track of something like a ii–V–I, that ubiquitous jazz progression, shown in the key of C major in Example 2. Or try a pop chord progression like I–IV–V–I (Example 3) or I–vi–ii–V (Example 4).
EMBRACE THE DIFFICULT
Another way to come at this is to create your own exercises using passages from tunes that you’re currently struggling with. Classical players actually work from something called “orchestral excerpts,” which are published collections of difficult passages and are literally the hardest-of-the-hard sections of major classical works. You can—and should—collect your own excerpts from tunes that have meaning for you. Working on them daily and diligently will yield great results when you plug the excerpt back into the original piece from which it was taken.
In case you’ve never considered this: You don’t need to practice the entire song you’re working on if there are only a few measures that are giving you difficulty. Just put your music under a microscope and zero in on those measures, or even just on a few notes in those measures. This way you can enlarge those bumpy spots so that you can work on smoothing everything out. And do it slowly and precisely.
Here’s another thing you may never have considered: An ascending musical phrase naturally gets louder, because high notes are generally louder than low notes. Likewise, if you descend, the line will go from loud to soft. This loud-soft dynamic is a principle that you can use to make your playing more musical.
Try using dynamics like this in your studies: While playing a scale, emphasize the natural crescendo by exaggerating it. In Example 5a, play a C major scale, starting off pianississimo (ppp, meaning very, very soft), and gradually building up to fortississimo (fff; very, very loud).
Now do the opposite—play Ex. 5 starting out loud and getting softer as the scale rises—this fights the natural principle of music (almost like defying gravity!) and will add an emotional impact to your playing if you can harness it. Plus, it’s just more fun to play scales with dynamics. Advanced players might try using varying degrees of loud-to-soft and/or soft-to-loud in their scales regardless of the rise or fall, as in Example 5b.
PRACTICE WITH INTENTION
Another useful way to play with more musical intention is to think of your practice as a song. Take, for instance, the great instrumental “Dueling Banjos,” which, with its broken thirds recalls some of Rodolphe Kreutzer’s studies for violin (Example 6). Rather than mindlessly playing sequences like these, focus intently on the music within them.
Finding ways to hear yourself actually making music rather than merely doing rote exercises is one of the easiest ways to improve your musicianship, so why not give it a try?
Nicknamed “the Godfather of gypsy jazz in the US” by PBS, Paul “Pazzo” Mehling is the guitarist, composer, and bandleader of the Hot Club of San Francisco and a faculty member at the California Jazz Conservatory. hotclubsf.com
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