The following is what it is.
Some years ago, a few college students were given the chance to go backstage and introduce themselves to Andres Segovia following a recital he’d given. The maestro looked intently at the boys. “Are you boys musicians?” he inquired of them.
“Yes we are, maestro,” they answered.
“PRACTICE!” he responded sharply to the first student. He turned his gaze to the second student, “PRACTICE!” he again commanded. Looking at the third, he repeated, “PRACTICE!” Then he became docile and sighed, “That is enough for now, let an old man rest.”
The preceeding story is the long and the short of it, but for some reason, people are left still wanting more. The meaning of the term ‘more’ has time and again proven itself elusive. Many of us become confused as to what this ‘more’ consists of. The greatest impediment on the path to discovering ‘more’ lies in our inability to find it on our own. Sometimes we may even be lucky enough to find it, but lost in our imaginations and preconceived notions, we walk right past the thing which we are after, assuming it is something besides that which we are seeking. In our search, the assistance of a teacher may become invaluable. Recognising a teacher may prove to be a difficult task within itself.
Dr. Michio Kaku, when occasioned to discuss String Field Theory, once stated that if science ever ‘found God’, it may find that God resembles music. This resonated with me on many levels.
In music, we are presented with two possible paths. Sometimes an individual may desire to ‘play music’ in a subjective sense. Although it is true that many people in this world who ‘play music’ survive, if not proliferate, utilising little or no Practice, there are others who would benefit greatly in more ways than I am capable of elucidating.
Some individuals may eventually formulate an Intense Desire, or Centre of Gravity, within themselves, and therefore consciously decide to immerse themselves in Music. Once immersed, it becomes immediately apparent that the Music was already there, and the Musician, in the objective sense, merely makes himself a fitting conduit through which Music may then flow. Only the individual can decide which one of these types of people he or she happens to be, or desires to become. I would like to expound upon the second path for those who recognise something in themselves resembling it.
Of supreme importance on this path is the act of Practice.
If one choses to Practice, it will be an act requiring special commitment which should be carried out with the whole of one’s being. This will not be the same sort of obligation that one takes on one day, only to discard the next. If one is not prepared to make big sacrifices in order to achieve results, Practice is not for them. Practice will not lend itself to aiding one to become more like one’s contemporary idol. It will, on the other hand, assist at the realisation of one’s Self. Practice will not guarantee money, women, or success. These things do not require Practice. Music requires that the ‘musician-to-be’ become a Practitioner first. Then, if one practices sufficiently, and if one makes oneself available, Music will pay a visit, and for a time, one may become a Real Musician. One can only become a Real Musician while one is immersed in Music. The rest of the time we are only under apprenticeship, willing Practitioners awaiting the next visit.
So, how does one Practice?
First, I’d like to point out that these ideas are not mine, otherwise they would be totally worthless.
Sometime after one begins to exercise Practice, it will become apparent to the Practioner that some things are because they cannot be otherwise, and that these things conform to a higher order, or law, which all other things must operate within. Some laws are capable of being broken, and some are not. These laws may be recognised as Absolute Truths.
By its very nature, Practice requires a certain amount of sacrifice and willful suffering. There are several good analogies that can be used to discribe this. A good comparison would be to that of a butler whose job is to keep the home in order, awaiting the master’s arrival. The butler can never be certain when the master will return, so the house must be kept ready to welcome him at any moment. In this example, the Practice is the butler, the Music is the master, and the Practitioner represents the orderly house. Practice maintains a particular level of order over chaos within the Practitioner. So if the objective is Music, one must first organise. This may be accomplished in 1) an objective sense by appointing a space and time specifically for Practice, and 2) a subjective sense by performing specific exercises during this time which force us to acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our abilities, and our limitations. This is achieved two ways through special exercises requiring us 1) to observe ourselves during Practice, and 2) to train the fingers to do as they are instructed. This is the goal when one begins to Practice.
Therefore, the question is not how does one Practice, but is one capable of Practice?
One has to constantly be on guard against lying to oneself. If an individual convinces himself that he is already in possession a particular ability, he will never attempt to truly acquire it. One must be sincere when asking themselves if they are willing enough to suffer Practice.
“Are you good with a click track?” I once asked friend who had come to the studio to record. He assured me that he was up to the task. When it came time to record, his perceived ability was tested. He proved incapable, however, insisting instead that the click track (which had been laid down electronically) was slowing down and then speeding up. His perception of real time had been distorted via his subjective reasoning, and was now causing him to suffer unnecessarily. Had he willingly imposed ‘internal suffering’ on himself through Practice, he’d not have had to experience this ‘external suffering’ at a later date.
Discipline may only be achieved through Practice. Thus, it will become necessary for the student to approach Practice much as a Holy Man approaches his religion, and I mean this in the strictest sense of the word. The attitude must be one of that approaching faith. One must will oneself over, ‘whole hog’ to the act of Practice. It goes without saying that if ‘other very important stuff’ takes priority over Practice, one will not be capable of making a true commitment to Music. Insincerity is of no good use in any religion. If one forsakes their religion, they will go to Hell. To paraphrase, Practice Saves, but if an individual half-heartedly commits to Practice only to later fall short of their commitment, they have, in effect, sinned against themselves; taking the name of Music in vain. In Music, there is only one all-inclusive Sin, but it is a very big one. The insincere disciple betrays Practice, and eventually commits musical suicide. ‘Believing’ that one is a ‘musician’ is hope against hope. If one can only ‘do’, one need not believe, yet perhaps ultimately Become.
Allow me to explain.
I once spent a great deal of time in translation of the New Testament from Ancient Greek. I discovered to my chagrin (and enlightenment) that some things were not as I’d been informed via good ol’ King James. I discovered that ‘taking the name of God in vain’ meant to ‘misrepresent oneself outwardly as a adherent’, while inwardly remaining the unchanged. It did not mean to utter some silly remark. I found, in particular, a specific meaning in the word ‘sin’, and that in Greek, ‘sin’ (σιν) meant ‘to miss the mark’. Well how many times had I done that? When one is plagued with obsessive compulsive disorder, it always seems that one is ‘missing the mark’. I finally overcame the most distressing manifestations of my affliction, but it survives in other ways. Luckily, my OCD thrives within the realm of Practice.
When one intends to Practice, the necessities are few, but essential. As I outlined in the last article, a Metronome, an instrument, and the Willing Participant make up the short list of requirements.
Insofar as the Metronome is concerned, the Practitioner must become subservient to it, perhaps for an hour or longer at times. Pinging electronic ‘metronomes’ can drive one to the fringe of lunacy within an hour. The organic ‘cluck’ of a wooden Metronome is much more tolerable. During the time that the Metronome continues to run, we must Practice in no other speeds other than those in which it permits. Whole notes will be the primary concern, but as things progress, half, third, quarter, and even fifth note exercises will be prescribed. Bearing this in mind, one must not be enticed to set the Tempo too fast. Since it is much more difficult to Practice slowly, and since slow Practice cultivates Attention, we should begin with our Metronome set at or near 60 beats per minute. What one will be attempting to do is to divide one’s Attention, primarily between the Metronome, the act of plucking, the act of fretting, and the quality of the note being sounded, however, all minutia during the exercise must be scrutinised.
If a guitar is being used for the exercise, the proper choice would be an acoustic guitar. Acoustic instruments (and Metronomes) are always preferable. Neither extremely cheap, nor exorbitantly expensive guitars, are of any advantage. Whereas cheap instruments are difficult to play; an old salesman once told me that expensive guitars were manufactured for two types of buyers: 1) the mediocre, and 2) the egotistical. My sales experience proved this to be solid psychology. In any case, a decent instrument will serve adequately. If electric instruments must be utilised, there should be no effects of any sort in the signal chain, and the guitar should be plugged directly into the amplifier. The volume needn’t be set to ‘eleven’. The goal is to Practice, not to ‘play’. The guitar should be properly tuned in standard tuning. In tuning the guitar, we are, in effect, tuning ourselves. If we tune our instrument in the fashionably trendy ‘Drop Dead’ tuning, we ‘detune’ ourselves.
The participant must be prepared to sit in order to Practice. A great deal of Attention will be needed to participate in the exercises, and one will not be able to maintain the required Attention in a standing position. If one was to apply the proper Attention that is demanded for Practice while standing, one should immediately fall on one’s face. Besides, the proper position for the guitar will be automatically acquired in the sitting position. (If, in an earlier ‘playing’ mode, one has acquired the habit of wearing the instrument below the belt in ‘guitar slinger’ fashion, this nonsense must cease. Practice does not concern itself with appearances.) Great care must be given to avoid unnecessary tension in any other part of the body, from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. Feet should remain flat on the floor.
A plectrum will also be required for the exercises, and one should purchase the stiffest plectrum available. If, over time, one has gravitated towards the use of a plectrum which more closely resembles a butterfly’s wing in thickness, it will be necessary to readapt. Picking action, or ‘english’, must be developed in the hand and wrist, thereby gradually allowing one to increase picking speed, and the ability to persue this goal is severely limited by employing a floppy plectrum. The plectrum will become the extension of the musical soul, and in true Practice, one does not desire a ‘rubber soul’. The picking hand should fall naturally across the guitar body and float above the strings. No portion of the hand should ever touch the top of the guitar. (The habit of ‘anchoring’ the hand on the guitar as reference hampers the ability to increase ones picking speed.) The plucking exercise utilised is that of a down/up motion, with a string being sounded once with each motion.
Remember that the goal is to destroy all bad habits in relation to the guitar. If one has ‘played’ their instrument for many years before beginning Practice in earnest, it will become necessary to forget everything that one already knows. Years of ‘playing’ will have succeeded in building a number of useless habits in our bodily machine which must be ‘erased’. The more willing the participant is to dispose of ignorantly acquired worthless habits, the more he or she will suffer during readaptation, but there awaits great reward for great suffering. Throughout Practice however, the student must have no expectations, only commitment.
As Mr. Fripp once stated, “Assume the virtue”. In Practice, everything is done for a reason. There is no ‘half-assed’ Practice. Either it is, or it isn’t.
So that ‘household order’ may be maintained, a set list of exercises must be prescribed. This list will gradually evolve, depending on the skill level of the Practitioner, but the only place to begin is at the beginning. Thus, it will be sufficient and necessary to begin at the seventh fret. If one is holding their instrument in the proper fashion, and the fretting hand is raised in a natural motion, it should come to rest near the seventh fret, so, (especially with comfort in mind for the beginning student) the seventh fret is a logical place to start, and then move outwardly from in both directions. All four fingers of the fretting hand will be used in the exercises. Each finger is assigned its own fret in each movement, and this finger will repeatedly be used for this position only. For the time, slides, slurs, and bends will be unnecessary. These devices fall into the realm of Feel (in the musical sense), and for these exercises, Feel will not be required. With the fretting hand, the Practitioner may ascend notes in one of two ways, either 1) by the finger or 2) by the string. One may also descend using either method. A combination of both movements will ultimately be required. In The Beginning, one will not need to concern oneself with melody nor harmony, only controlled movements while performing the exercise. The purpose of the exercises is to begin at the possible and to progressively move toward the impossible.
The fretting exercises must be executed in the order and manner prescribed, and should be thoroughly assimilated by the brain as well as the hands before moving on to the next exercise. This requires that the Practitioner perform each step patiently and steadily, and not to attempt to ‘rush’ in order to move on to the next step, nor assume that one ‘needn’t both’ with a particular step, for this does nothing to help accomplish the goal. In this respect, the beginning student has an advantage, as they have not spent fruitless hours instilling worthless ‘playing’ habits in themselves. For the recovering ‘player’, reprogramming takes more time.
The exercises are simple to describe:
1) Beginning with the index (p) finger positioned at the seventh fret on the low E (or sixth string), one begins the ascending exercise as the middle (i) finger then naturally falls on the eighth fret, the ring (m) finger the ninth fret, and the pinkie (a) on the tenth fret. Progressing to the A string, then the D, the G, the B, and the high E, the same order is observed. The reverse order is observed in the descending exercise. This exercise is carried out, sounding whole notes (one note per beat) for the duration of the alotted time. This exercise is performed daily until the Practitioner performs the movements perfectly and smoothly. The Practioner must strive to be present with each note.
2) At which time the student progresses to sounding half notes, (one note on the downbeat and one note on the unheard backbeat) with each beat counted as one-two, one-two cadance during each daily exercise in the same fashion until the Practitioner achieves the aforementioned perfect and smooth execution.
3) At which time the student progresses to sounding third notes, (Three measured notes within one beat of the Metronome) with each beat beginning with a one-two-three cadance during each daily exercise as directed above. The student at this time is required to count aloud the beats as he or she progresses through both ascent and descent. This step will require more time of the student, as well as an additional measure of Attention. This exercise is performed daily until the Practitioner performs the movements smoothly and sounding each note perfectly, without slurs.
1) At which time the student reverts to sounding whole notes as in step A1, however this time the fingers will alternate between ascending and descending patterns when proceeding to every other string in both the ascending and descending mode.
2) At which time the student begins to sound half notes in the same fashion as in step B1.
3) At which time the student begins to sound third notes in the same fashion as in B2, except that the student is required to count aloud each beat during both ascent and descent.
1) At which time the student begins with the (p) finger positioned at the seventh fret on the low E (or sixth string), and begins the ascending exercise (in whole notes) as the (i) finger then naturally falls on the eighth fret, the (m) finger the ninth fret, and the (a) on the tenth fret. However, in this exercise, when progressing to the A string, the index finger descends to the sixth fret, the middle on the seventh fret, and so on as before. With each string in note ascension, the (p) finger continues to descend one fret per string until arriving at the B string. Fret descent is suspended here, and this string is fretted precisely as the D string was fretted. Then, at high E, the fret descent is resumed at the third fret with the (a) finger coming to rest at the sixth fret. This pattern is referred to as a Chromatic Scale. Upon arriving at this point, the note is once again sounded with a downward plucking motion, and the descending scale is sounded in the opposite manner that it was ascended.
2) As C1, but in half notes.
3) As C1, but in third notes. (yes, counted aloud.)
1) At which time the student reverts to sounding whole notes as in step C1, however this time the fingers will once again alternate between ascending and descending patterns when proceeding to every other string. This, again, is to be carried out in both ascent and descent modes.
2) As D1, but in half notes.
3) As D1, but in third notes, counted vocally.
1) At which time the student reverts to the Exercise A mode, addressing all three Tempos, however, this time the order of the notes sounded will be (p, m, i, a) during ascent and descent, until all three Tempos are mastered.
2) At which time the student, continuing in the Exercise A mode, addresses all three Tempos with the note order being that of (a, i, m, p) during ascent and descent, until all three Tempos are mastered.
3) At which time the student, continuing in the same mode, addresses all three Tempos with the note order being that of (p, m, i, a) on ascent and (a, i, m, p) on descent, until all three Tempos are mastered.
1) At which time the student reverts to Exercise C mode, mastering all three Tempos in the order as specified in Exercise E1.
2) At which time the student, continuing in Exercise C mode, mastering all three Tempos in the order as specified in Exercise E2.
3) At which time the student, continuing in Exercise C mode, mastering all three Tempos in the order as specified in Exercise E3.
1) At which time the student reverts to the Exercise A mode and order, sounding quarter notes.
2) At which time the student reverts to the Exercise C mode and order, sounding quarter notes.
3) At which time the student reverts to the Exercise E 1, 2, and 3 order, sounding quarter notes.
At which time the student reverts to Exercise F modes and orders, sounding fifth notes while counting aloud.
1) At which time the Practitioner increases Metronome speed by five bpm and begins anew all exercises as prescribed, using all Major mode scales, one at a time, to execute all eight exercises in each variation thereof.
2) At which time the Practitioner begins anew all exercises prescribed, applying all natural minor mode scales, one at a time, to execute all eight exercises in each variation thereof.
3) At which time the Practitioner begins anew all exercises prescribed, applying all melodic minor mode scales, one at a time, to execute all eight exercises in each variation thereof.