Practice Tips: Pushing past your physical limits
by Warren Sirota
Suppose you have a melodic phrase (or any other
kind of passage) that youre trying to learn that is giving you
trouble. Ive encountered plenty of these transcribing Django Reinhardt guitar parts
with SlowGold. Figuring out what notes hes playing is only half the battle
for me the man just plays so darn fast. So its a lot of work to
actually get those phrases under my less-than-light-speed fingers. But Im trying,
and gradually succeeding. I feel the effort is worthwhile. Not only is my dexterity
improving, but Im getting a whole bunch of new shapes and habits into the
"muscle memory" (more about this later) of my hands, which is where they have to
be in order to be useful when I play on the gig or with other people.
Start Slow, Be Patient With Yourself, and Trust
You probably already know that the first step in learning a new
passage is to play it along with a metronome set to a really slow speed (well, sometimes
you have to stumble through the passage a few times before you can even do that if
even playing the passage at a really slow metronome setting is too difficult, see the
section on Isolation below). You should hunt for the highest metronome setting at
which you can play the passage comfortably, with good tone, and without errors several
times in a row. Once youve found that setting, increase it a notch or two, until you
have a setting which is just on the edge of your ability. You should be able to play the
passage if you really concentrate and try.
Play the passage over and over again at this "edge of your ability" speed
for 5 to 15 minutes is what I usually do. If its physically painful in any
way, stop immediately and pick it up again in a few hours or the next day. What usually
happens for me is the opposite, however; the "edge speed" becomes comfortable
fairly quickly, and I notch up the metronome further.
One note about metronome "notches" if youre playing a passage
with one note per metronome beat, you may have to go several settings higher on the device
before you notice much of a difference. On the other hand, if youre playing 16th
notes (4 per click), then a single metronome notch up might make a significant difference
Youll probably notice that the very first time you try to play a passage with the
metronome you may have to play it very slowly; yet, after the passage gets
"into your hands" youll be able to make a big jump in speed. This
phenomenon is known in some circles as muscle memory, and is indicative that your
nerve pathways have actually been reprogrammed by your repetitive activity to take over
some of the control from your conscious mental process. This is a good thing. A large part
of the point of practice is, in my opinion, to reprogram the neural pathways.
This phenomenon will undoubtedly be evident the day after your first session with a new
riff. Youll set the metronome at a comfortable setting, and it will be significantly
higher than the initial setting. You will be much more comfortable with the passage, to a
degree that may surprise you.
Increasing your physical dexterity simply requires patience and repetition. You
cant force your pathways to learn any faster than they want to. Others may learn
faster than you, but its not your fault, as long as you put in the time. Your body
is your body, not their body, and theres nothing you can do about that. Dont
try to play a passage much faster than your abilities dictate in an attempt to break over
a hurdle its just not gonna happen, and youll be wasting your time and
increasing your frustration. And take breaks 15 minutes is a really long
time to work on a single passage and should be the absolute upper limit. Several short
sessions each day are probably superior to one long one.
Above all, have faith. Follow this program and improvement is inevitable.
not be at the pace you desire, but it will occur. Just keep at it.
Keep A Practice Log
I like to make note of the metronome settings and the date next to each
passage Im working on. This helps me track my progress. Click
here to receive a free practice log template that you can print out and use.
Put Variety Into Your Practice Sessions
Dont just practice one riff. Its boring. Music is supposed to be
fun, remember? In fact, dont just practice riffs. Depending on the time you have
available, try to increase your musical abilities in many areas. Set aside some time each
day or week to write or create something. Learn new tunes. Study music theory and ear
training books. Learn new riffs from records (using SlowGold, of course). Create
new riffs based on ones you know. Everything you do to increase your physical
mental skills is valuable.
Dont Be Afraid Of Backtracking
Some day you will notice that, although youve gradually goosed up the
metronome to a pretty nice clip, what youre playing is sounding sloppy or inadequate
in some way. So bring the metronome back down and start re-practicing the passage with the
higher standards that youve subconsciously developed in mind. Its a good
thing. Dont try to rush your development. After all, when do you have to have this
process done by? Never! (at least in most cases). Its a Zen thing.
Listen carefully to what youre playing. Is your tone good throughout?
Where are the awkward points (this will bring us to Isolation, below)? Could you be
fingering the passage in a more efficient manner? Are you sitting with proper posture? Are
you holding tension that doesnt need to be there in your hand? In your jaw? Any such
tension detracts from your performance by sending bodily energy into unproductive and
I have found that, with guitar parts, where I put my attention can make a huge
difference and in surprising ways. Some passages that I thought were tricky because
of my right hand ended up being easier to play when I focussed on my left
hand during practice, and vice versa! I still dont understand it, except as an
indication that sometimes my own beliefs as to what are the stumbling blocks may not be
Play With Your Eyes Closed
You may have to slow down the metronome considerably to do this, but it really is
liberating not to have to look at your hands while you're playing.
In this troubled and fragmented world, youd think that the last thing
youd want more of is isolation. But, in fact, isolation is a tremendously valuable
tool for musicians trying to increase their physical skills.
Ill be discussing two forms of isolation the isolation and smoothing of
trouble spots in difficult phrases (for all musicians) and left/right hand isolation for
If youre having difficulty with a phrase, try and identify the trouble spots. If
theyre not obvious, just break the phrase in half and see which half is harder to
play than the other. Keep breaking it up into smaller fragments and practicing them
Once youve mastered a fragment of the phrase, the next step is to master the
approach and exit from the fragment. Add a couple of notes before the fragment. Does it
get harder? If so, practice the new, enlarged fragment for a while before adding more
notes. You may have to slow down in order to incorporate the new part. Then add notes at
the end. Continue this process until youve mastered the phrase.
Guitarists, and possibly other musicians, should also experiment with left/right hand
isolation. My Django studies have forced me to develop a form of picking known as
"sweep picking" in the right hand, in both ascending and descending patterns
(left-handed guitarists: reverse everything I say in the next couple of paragraphs).
Im quite used to and facile with "alternating picking", which is where the
pick goes down for one note and up for the next. In contrast, in sweep picking, notes on
adjacent strings are played with the same direction of pick motion.
This is a major shift for me. Normally, Im fairly unconscious about my right
hand, focussing attention instead on the left. But recently, Ive found it very
helpful to practice the right hand parts of the run only. I pick as though Im
playing the phrase, but I simply hold my left hand over the strings, damping them, instead
of actually fretting the notes. After a few run-throughs in this manner, I usually have a
much better handle on the piece.
You do not have to be at your instrument in order to practice! Whenever you're bored
(but not while you're driving a vehicle or operating heavy machinery - this is an intense
exercise), visualize your fingers (and/or hands and feet) doing exactly what they would be
doing if you were at your instrument. Start slowly and precisely, and then ramp up the
speed - but never lose the precision of your vision! You'll be amazed at how much
of your physical difficulty may stem from an inadequate mental concept of the passage, and
how much difference it can make in your playing.
It's a Zen Thing
Don't always be pushing the speed. In fact, it's a good idea to settle in at a tempo
just under your peak speed and play the passage over and over, concentrating on reaching a
state of focused relaxation while the tone gets cleaner and cleaner. Do it for five
minutes and let the tension seep out of your muscles.
So, those are my practice tips for this issue of Woodsheddin. If you have
more of your own, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org
and Ill include them in a future issue, credited to you. Thanks for reading and