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How To Make Your Practicing More Musical



Guitarist Greg Chako explains how subtle shifts in your practice routine can make your playing more musical.

…Or The Shed & The Toolbox

If you want to build your own shed, you’ll probably need some tools. If you don’t have any tools, or if you don’t have enough tools or the right tools, you’ll need to get some new ones. In other words, you’ll need to build your toolbox. But even if you have the best tools available, there’s no guarantee that that, in and of itself, will ensure you finish the building project with a great shed. And sometimes, it’s not a question of how good your tools are, but rather, how well you use the tools that you already have! For the sake of our purposes, the toolbox represents musical scales, arpeggios, patterns, and exercises that we practice. The shed represents our playing, i.e. the actual finished musical product.

In our tireless efforts to gain technique and master our instruments, we can actually lose sight of the ultimate goal of building a great shed, which is, of course, our actual playing of music. For instance, I know students who possess a large box of musical tools (like scales), yet struggle to make simple melodic statements during their improvisations. They can play a scale well, but cannot necessarily play a good, engaging melodic solo. Using our shed analogy, it’s like you have or are collecting a premier tool collection, but some guy down the street already finished a great, sturdy shed with just a hammer, saw and drill.

You Are What You Eat – You Play What You Practice

We’ve probably all heard that saying, “You are what you eat,” but how about this one: “You play what you practice?” To some extent, they’re both true, so it begs the question: “What are you practicing?” We become proficient at what we do the most. If we practice mostly running scales, that will come through in our playing. If we practice mostly transcribing, our ears will develop quickly, but our own style might take a longer time to come. If you’re playing 10 gigs a week in front of a live audience for years like I did, your playing will advance very quickly!

Practice Playing, Don’t Practice Practicing!

There was a time in my life when I practiced 8 hours a day every day. This is not uncommon for serious musicians, and we know that the best ones, like Charlie Parker, had their axe in their hands almost constantly. Most of us don’t have that much time to practice, and as we age, start a family, get a full-time job, have children, etc., our practice time lessens considerably. We want to practice smarter and not harder. I encourage my students to practice playing as opposed to practice practicing! 

To practice practicing means to spend the bulk of your time with your instrument on technical exercises as opposed to musical ones; for instance, to practice running scales as opposed to learning melodies. Practice practicing is what you do when you’re focusing more on the building of your toolbox and less on the building of the shed itself.

Scales Are Tools, Melodies Are Music.

To practice playing means to focus more on the shed and less on the toolbox. The best way to do that is to play songs and melodies as much as possible, and ideally with other people. If you don’t have people to play with, then there are many “Play-Along” products such as Jamey Aebersold. I used those products myself when I didn’t have anyone to play with in person (almost all the songs appearing on my very first CD, Everything I Love, were practiced with Jamey’s play-a-longs). I can attest that it’s more fun to jam along with either a live or recorded rhythm section than to practice solely technique! The quality of your playing depends a lot on how you react in the moment to the other people you’re playing with, and that’s something you can’t really practice well by yourself.

Gigging, playing with others, and using play-alongs are all ideal ways to practice playing. But we can also make slight adjustments to our practice of all the “tools” we need. Though everyone needs to know how to play basic scales and arpeggios, there are a variety of ways to practice them that can make for a more musical context and be more easily applied to actual playing situations.

Example #1 – Rather than practice one individual chord arpeggio, or a series of them running up the Diatonic major scale (Cmaj7, D-7, E-7, Fmaj7, G7, A-7, etc.), put together three at once over a ii-V-I progression. This way of practicing arpeggios better mimics a playing context. For best results, play each example in 3 positions, starting on the 5th string, the 4th string, and the 3rd string; then take them through the Cycle of 5ths (play in all keys); and sing them while you play them. Singing what you play helps to facilitate mind-muscle-hand coordination and much quicker memorization.

In the following example, I have written out two examples of 3 arpeggios (A-7, D7, & Gmaj7), a ii-V-I progression in the key of G. In this case, I have used the 4-note diminished arpeggio for the Dominant chord, which spells out a D7b9 with the notes F# (the 3rd), A (the 5th), C (the flatted 7th) and Eb (the flatted 9th). 

Example #2 – A slight modification and advancement of the exercise above is to turn it into a melodic line utilizing arpeggios, but using them in the context of a ii-V-I riff, an actual line that you can play (transpose) over any ii-V-I, a bebop building block for your solo. It’s important to sing these, play them in at least 3 positions as instructed above, and play them in all 12 keys. As you internalize a series of lines like this by singing and playing them in all keys, you are building your ‘vocabulary’ of melodies that can easily be transferred to any real song-playing session. Start with short 2-bar lines like this, then gradually lengthen them (for instance, to 4 bars: 1 bar of A-7, one bar of D7, and 2 bars of Gmaj7). You may borrow riffs from players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, or Wes Montgomery, but ultimately, you will want to write your own lines, over different chord progressions that are not only ii-V-I.

Example #3 – The following technique I suggest as a way to practice Major and Minor triad arpeggios. The ‘twist’ is that instead of playing a G B & D for major or a G Bb D for minor, I use what I call ‘approach notes’ for each note of the triad. Some people call this ‘enveloping’. Each of the 3 chord tones are preceded by two other notes, one a 1/2 step below and the other a whole step above. Those two notes approach or envelope the ‘target’ chord tone (the 3rd note of each triplet in the example). Targeting or approaching chord tones with what can be non-diatonic notes is an essential aspect of (especially) bebop playing. Example #3 below is just for the G major triad; for the minor triad simply flat the third scale degree and follow the formula of approaching it from 1/2 step below and a whole step from above: 

Example #4 – I do not place an overly strong emphasis on practicing Diatonic major scales by intermediate or advanced students. But after you have learned to play basic major scale patterns in the usual step-wise motion, both horizontally across the guitar neck and vertically up and down the neck, I have a suggestion to challenge yourself and vary your scale practice routine. Try playing them intervallically in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths. Jim Hall uses intervallic leaps in his solos to great effect. Playing your scales in 5ths or 6ths forces you to vary your hand position – they’re tricky to finger efficiently! As always, singing them will help a lot. Here’s an example of a G-scale played in 7ths with downward motion:

Example #5 – Last but surely not least, try soloing through your favorite standard using only a motif made up of a few notes, and/or use sequencing to transpose that melodic motif through all the chord changes of the song, slightly altering or embellishing them when necessary or desired. By sequencing I mean, do what the composer does in the first few bars of Just Friends

Notice above how the melody of the first 4 bars is repeated exactly in the 2nd 4 bars, just in a different key (down a whole step to be precise). This is an old, tried and true compositional technique for melodic development and it is utilized in the melodies of many popular songs. It is something that you can practice for your solos by learning how to play just a few notes at a time (a melodic motif) without running any scales or arpeggios at all. 

Below is example #5 showing what I’m talking about. The melody of Just Friends inspired the motif that I made up on the spot. Jim Hall once said (I paraphrase): 

Everything I need to know about the song I can get from the melody.” 

That’s a powerful statement from a great soloist, and I agree with his sentiment.

The first 4 note phrase below is repeated 4 times over the entire 8 bars below, with very slight embellishments. This is how one might begin a solo, and it’s a melodic, more musical way to practice getting through the changes. Starting simply with a melodic motif sets your solo with the right basis. Singable melodies with good phrasing can get and maintain listener attention more than fast, non-stop flurries of scalar playing. Starting your solo this way can serve as a springboard to more complex ideas while providing the logical ‘shape’ that good, compositionally-oriented solos require. 

The purpose of this article is to highlight the difference between building a great toolbox and a great shed; between ‘practicing practice’ and ‘practicing playing’; between dry, technical exercises and slightly more musical ones; and to give you a few specific ideas that might be helpful in making your practice more musical. I believe that the more of a musical context we can insert into our practice routine, the more fun we’ll have, and the quicker it should be to transform our practice into enjoyable playing experiences for us and our listeners too.  

Greg Chako’s Yokohama Live! was recorded for a live TV show called Yokohama Sounds, from Bar Bar Bar in Kannai, Yokohama. Gene Jackson-drums, Hiroshi Tanaka-piano, Brent Nussey-bass for all tracks except on track 6, the tour-de-force Everybody’s Got a Name in which Taro Koyama played drums and Yasuhiro Hasegawa played bass. This is the sequel to Tokyo Live! released a couple of months ago with the same personnel.

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