Posts Tagged ‘music theory’

Practicing Without Your Guitar – Part II: Visualizing

Posted by Brian on 29th May 2012 in General Music, How to:..., Musicianship, Performing, Practice

Earlier this month, I led a workshop on “Practicing Without Your Guitar” at the York Region Fingerstyle Guitar Association’s monthly Open Mic. I am now working on getting some of the insights from that workshop written down and posted. Two weeks ago, I talked about why we might want to practice without our guitar. This week I am going to talk about visualization techniques.

We often hear athletes talk about using visualizing techniques to help them on their road to success. One thing that came up during the workshop was the legendary story of the golfer who kept himself sane as  a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam by imagining playing a round of golf at his home course each day. When he finally did get home, the story goes, he had only lost a couple of strokes off his game. While the veracity of this story may be in doubt, the benefits of visualization techniques are not.

One way that we can use visualization is to play “air guitar”. We can imagine playing new chord shapes or playing a familiar chord progression – maybe playing that chord progression on another part of the neck. We can imagine playing scales – working through the major, and various minor and modal scales, hearing them in our mind as we “play” them.

We can also pick up some sheet music (standard notation or tablature) and visualize playing it. If you are using standard notation, figure out the best place to play each note, and, where applicable, figure out which chord voicings will work most effectively.

Another way we can use visualization techniques is to use our computer or mobile devices. There are websites and “apps” that help you to learn your fretboard. Here is one from MusicTheory.net: http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/fretboard/yy998y

A final area where we can use visualization is in performance. Years ago I heard Olympic Gold Medalist, Mark Tewksbury tell a story about sneaking into the, then unfinished, pool in Barcelona and imagining the crowds and walking across the deck to the starting blocks and hearing the starters pistol and how it helped him to perform on the actual day of competition. As musicians, we can do the same by imagining an audience, imagining taking our place on the stage and nailing those first few notes. We can also use this type of visualization with our instrument in hand too – when we are working on performance pieces, we should be imagining our audience and even practicing our verbal bits between songs.

Stay tuned for Part III: Rhythm and Tempo

 

 

Quote, Unquote.

Posted by Brian on 25th January 2012 in Composing/Songwriting, Guitar, Music Theory, Musicianship, Technique

While thumbing through the January 2012 edition of Acoustic Guitar magazine I came across two quotes on the importance of learning theory and technique and one on the importance of NOT learning theory and technique – interestingly from someone who has an excellent grasp of musical theory, but has chosen not to apply it to his guitar playing:

“There may be a time when you want to express something that’s more complex, and it would be nice to have that available to you if that were the case. And there are times when just the simplest of chords is going to be the most satisfying, and you would want to know that that moment had arrived. I think the more technique you have, the more choices you have.”

–Paul Simon

“There are so many musicians that come up, so many girls with great voices and great lyrics, and they play their instruments and they haven’t learned them enough. All they can do is work with four or five chords. That’s why I am really lucky and eternally grateful that the order of events happened in the way they did: I learned the neck up and down, and then when it came time to sing over stuff, I had a world of stuff I could throw at my voice to sing over”

– John Mayer

“If somebody walked up to me and pointed to a note on the guitar fretboard and asked me what it was, I wouldn’t have the first idea. I’ve deliberately left certain things vague about the guitar, because I like the primitive aspect of the way I play and think about the guitar. I never think about what key I’m in. I just start to play and hope for the best.”

– Elvis Costello

Down To The Bass-ics

Posted by Brian on 11th October 2011 in Ear Training, Music Theory, Musicianship, Relatives of the Guitar

A while ago I was asked if I would be willing to play bass guitar in an upcoming musical at my kids’ school. At the time I didn’t own a bass, but said that if they could find me a bass to play, that I would be willing to give it a try.

As luck would have it, not long after that, I found a bass that was being sold on consignment at my favourite music shop. It was affordable and playable, so after getting clearance from everyone who might have concerns about such a purchase, I took the plunge.

Playing in the musical was a ton of fun and the kids did a great job. And since then, I’ve been playing bass regularly in the “jam band” that I meet with from time to time. That’s been a lot of fun too.

And while I am a firm believer that dabbling in other instruments will never make you a better guitarist, I am now persuaded that playing other instruments can make you a better musician.

In this case, it has helped my ear greatly, which has always been one of my weaknesses. I have a much better sense of the important intervals (major  third, minor third, fifth, and dominant seventh) because playing bass is mostly about playing arpeggios (chords played one note at a time), and these are the intervals that form those arpeggios. It has also forced me to get to know my fretboard a little better, especially on the D and G strings where I have always had a tendency to just “fake it”.

I’ve also discovered that kids think that bass is way cooler than guitar.

Cool!

Finally!

Advice from David Ross MacDonald

Posted by Brian on 13th September 2011 in General Music, Guitar, Performing, Practice

In my last post I talked about attending a guitar workshop with David Ross MacDonald and shared his thoughts on making mistakes when we are performing. This time I’m going to share some of his thoughts on practicing.

Use Your Feet

One of the things that he talked about was practicing without the guitar. He suggested that to build our internal sense of rhythm, we should use our feet. Apparently, David spends a lot of time doing a sort of two-step which I’ve tried to illustrate on the left.

As he “two-steps”, he counts out various rhythms in time with his feet. For example:

Eighths: ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and…

or

Triplets: ONE-an-a-TWO-an-a-THREE-an-a-FOUR-an-a…

or

16ths: ONE-e-an-a-TWO-e-an-a-THREE-e-an-a-FOUR-e-an-a…

Clear as mud??? Hopefully you get what I’m trying to explain here.

You could also clap out these rhythms while two-stepping to help embed them in your brain.

Now play your guitar while doing this two-step. The idea is that as you practice you will “trust your feet” to keep the rhythm of the tune intact, making us more aware of our hesitations and those times when we speed up through difficult passages.

Egg timer

Another suggestion he had was to find a 3-minute egg timer – one of the old-school hourglass-type ones with the sand that flows through it. (Good luck with this – if you know where to get one, let me know!) Using the timer when working on scales, exercises, etc keeps us from spending too little time on the difficult things and too much time on the easy ones. It also gives us a demonstration of the relative nature of time – passing quickly on the easy bits and creeping along on the hard ones!

Perform!

As part of his discussion of performance mistakes that I covered in my last post, he also talked about the learning opportunity that those mistakes give us. Making mistakes in public performance is different from making them privately. Apparently, when we make a mistake while performing, our brain triggers a shot of adrenaline which helps us to remember to not make that mistake in the future. This is certainly consistent with my experience – the tunes that I have performed most often are the ones that I play best, even though they are not necessarily the ones that I have practiced most.

He also talked of other things – knowing the fundamentals of music theory, singing intervals, and that sort of thing – all good advice, but these were three practical suggestions that I hadn’t heard before. What things have you added to your practice routines that have made a big difference?

 

David Ross MacDonald’s website: www.DavidRossMacDonald.com

Video of the Month:

Posted by Brian on 15th June 2011 in Making a Living, Music Theory, Performing, Practice, Video of the Month

Yes, I know. This is the second video-of-the-month this month. It seems that I’ve got a bit of a backlog of great guitar-related videos to share, so for the next couple of months, I’m going to do two videos each month. This will also help to fill in the void of “real” posts that I assume will form with the onset of summer weather.

This video is a very entertaining look at Steve Vai’s audition to play in Frank Zappa’s band, “The Mother’s of Invention”. But it also drives home the fact that the more you know about music theory and musical styles, the more options you have if you want to make music for a living. Or, as a former employer used to say, “Learn more, earn more.”


And, for the record, I see no shame in being Linda Ronstadt’s guitarist…

This is Cool: Rhythm and the Brain

Posted by Brian on 8th June 2011 in Book Review, General Music, Music Theory

As the result of a recommendation from an internet acquaintance, I’ve been reading and enjoying “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy – How Music Captures Our Imaginations” by Robert Jourdain. It has been a wonderful read so far. (It’s out of print, but I was able to get it through AbeBooks.com)

I’ve just finished reading the chapter on rhythm and it discusses how our sense of rhythm is predominantly seated in the left half of our brains and provides a neat experiment that you can try: With your left hand, tap out a continuous 1-2-3-4 beat. Now with your right hand tap out a more complex beat. It doesn’t have to be wildly more complex, a relatively simple 1-2&3-4 will do just fine. Most people can do this with very little difficulty. Now, switch hands. Tap out the steady beat with the right hand and the complex rhythm with the left. Much harder, isn’t it? Now, I knew from experience that this would be the case, but I had always assumed that this was because I am right-handed (i.e. left-brain dominant), but apparently, this is the case whether your are left- or right-handed. (Assuming that you have typical brain lateralization – left-brain dominance resulting in right-handedness and vice-versa – which, apparently, not everyone does.) This would explain why so many left-handed people play guitar right handed, the right hand (picking hand) being naturally better at producing complex rhythms.

Try it out and let me know the results – especially you southpaws out there! (And if you’re a left-handed guitarist, let me know if you play right- or left-handed, too!)

Video of the Month: Bobby McFerrin

Posted by Brian on 1st April 2011 in General Music, Music Theory, Video of the Month

Okay, this isn’t my typical video of the month, but it is very cool, nevertheless. In this video Bobby McFerrin (of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fame) demonstrates to an audience (without speaking a word) how the pentatonic scale is universal and highly intuitive, if not instinctive.

Edit: For those of you who may not know, the pentatonic scale is a five note scale which corresponds to the intervals between the black keys on a piano. It is usually the first (and sometimes only) scale that we guitarists learn.