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Beyond the Frets

Beyond the Frets: Looking Past Your Instrument



One of the most crucial things I’ve learned in the past few years is that positive musical development relies heavily on how you spend time AWAY from your instrument.

I could tell you all the things I think are important in a practice regiment/finding jobs, but you would find 100 other articles telling you the same material in one way or another. In no way am I dismissing the absolute necessity of shedding, but, equally paramount is the understanding of how our daily lives, behavior, hobbies, and relationships can affect the way we approach music.

Let’s start off with three basics that most people probably have been told to do at some point in their lives.

#1 – Practice your instrument without playing your instrument.

How do we accomplish something that’s seemingly so antithetical? Well it’s not as hard as you may think.

Start off simply…think of your basic chord shapes, then imagine playing various chord progressions with those shapes. For most long-time players that’ll be easy, so how about visualizing every possible place the note “Bb” is? Now harmonize your major scales with triads, 7thchords and beyond, with various inversions and combinations of drop/spread voicings…all in your head. How about voice-leading through a couple standards?

You can take any concept you’re working on and “shed” it internally. This will prove to be a useful way to spend down-time when you don’t have an ax handy, and really hammer down your fretboard knowledge and application of these skills.

#2 – Use your voice

One obvious utilization of our own musical mind is to simply use your voice more. Before you scoff and tell me you’re a terrible singer, or perhaps “tone-deaf”, don’t worry…I’m not asking you to sing in front of anyone other than yourself.

One of the best ways to learn melodic material is to hum along to your favorite recordings. I challenge you to sing any solo from Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station”, or simply match the exact phrasing of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, or Rosemary Clooney on a given tune (insert any classic American Songbook singer).

Going further, try singing a phrase and then immediately play it back to yourself on guitar. You’ll probably find that the material you sing may not be playable on the first try, which means your ear for language and phrasing is stronger than you realize.

Once you catch up with your instrument, through fretboard knowledge, recognizing intervals, or perhaps some technique issues, then you’ll be able to play anything you hear (or sing) as opposed to always resorting to mechanical actions or muscle memory licks/riffs.

You should also sing the melody to a tune while you comp for yourself, and vice versa play the melody on your instrument while singing the chord root notes(this is tricky!!). Go ahead and find your own creative uses for that beautiful voice of yours!

#3 – Write down your progress and goals

I’ll leave this one as a healthy reminder to physically place your progress and goals on something that you can refer back to. This could be with pen/paper, a computer document, a voice memo…anything!

It’s all too familiar to find yourself at a “plateau”, where NOTHING seems to be working or making its way into your playing the way you want. Taking a step back and examining your achievements can sometimes prove to be enlightening, thus exposing the plateau as merely a much-needed resting point as you climb the infinite mountain that is life and music.

Alright, so those were 3 ways to improve your chops with some explicit musical mindfulness, but how can other activities and behaviors affect our playing through more indirect ways?

Here are a few suggestions, as of course, everyone responds differently to certain approaches and stimuli.

Listen to your body

If you feel tired, then maybe you ARE actually tired. I know most of us have about a trillion things to juggle, but your capacity for achieving and accomplishing tasks at a high level is greatly diminished if you’re fatigued. Take naps or find a night in the week where you can afford to actually get 6-8 hours of sleep…everyone could use this.

If you feel tension, then something is up. If you’re playing and you notice any straining, do your absolute best to release it. This could mean simply repositioning or stopping altogether if possible. Remember that tension can start in places you wouldn’t expect; your shoulders, legs, back, and face. Anywhere that constricts can ultimately challenge your hands and fingers while playing.

If you feel emotional, then playyour emotions to the best of your ability. I’ve felt pretty much every emotion imaginable while holding a guitar in my hands and yeah, it’s pretty damn hard to control strong feelings if it happens to be something on the negative side but look into exploring them musically. What kind of sounds can you get when you’re Happy? Sad? Jealous? Contemplative? Humorous? You may surprise yourself.

Get a hobby

The vast majority of people that play instruments do it as their hobby, so why shouldn’t a professional musician have their own hobby or three?

There is clear and concrete proof that the most intelligent and successful people of the world all indulge in particular hobbies as wide-ranging as sports, coin collecting, knitting, fishing, volunteering, art, dancing, writing, reading, cooking…any number of these can prove to be an asset in not only expanding your mind but also influencing your musicality.

A hobby by definition is “a regular activity that is done for enjoyment, typically during one’s leisure time”, and although you may LOVE guitar and music…sometimes simply the element of having it as your profession can stifle the creative juices in yer noggin. I personally believe as long as you engage in mindful, thought-provoking activities, it will help further your growth both in music and beyond.

Take a break!

Similar to finding a hobby, sometimes you just need to chillll maaaaan. Go watch some TV, play video games, get a drink with friends or mess with your pets. The applications of the harmonic major scale aren’t going to disappear if you enjoy a REFRESHING ICE COLD Bud Light Platinum™ (relax, they didn’t pay to me say that…or did they? It’s January in Ohio and there’s no gigs…don’t judge me).

Lastly and perhaps most simply, everyone is different.

There’s no optimal, or minimum/maximum practicing amount that will always work. We all have ups and downs, and our ability to focus and shed with clear intention and motivation is affected by the irregularities of life.

Every day is different, and while keeping a rigid schedule for yourself can has its benefits for some, it may not be as effective for others. It’s easy to think that the only surefire path to growth and mastery in music (or any discipline) is to practice it 8 hours a day, but if we neglect the other elements and avenues for positive growth and stimulation in life then we may never achieve our fullest potential.

I encourage you to seek out your own “balance” …try different combinations of activities and regiments, write down your progress and findings then evaluate after a certain amount of time. I’d love to hear your thoughts and outcomes because I think everyone would truly benefit from at least one of the above ideas and exercises. That’s all I have for now, so remember, sometimes the best path for growth is not always the most obvious.

Recommended references:

Twelve Observations About the Guitar (Julian Lage)

The Advancing Guitarist (Mick Goodrick)

 Zen Guitar (Philip Toshio Sudo)

 10% Happier (Dan Harris)

Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance (Aaron Willamon)

Photo credits (Zakk Jones) – Kris Misevski

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