It’s been a while since we checked in with a solid dad lecture about how to improve your musicianship. This week’s subject is one most metal musicians would probably want to ignore, and that is practicing. Not band practice, mind you – the practicing that you [should be doing] on your own, to get better as a player.
Let’s dive in. These points are all pretty general, but that’s why they are so important to underscore. Particularly because I see so few young musicians in the metal and hardcore worlds who really work hard on them.
1) Use a Metronome, and Use it Well
I want to get the obvious out of the way fast. For some reason, most instrumentalists (besides drummers) look down on metronomes. I think people can tend to associate the metronome with the click track, or with general robotic playing, and that is a mistake.
Although practicing with a metronome is definitely crucial for drummers, it’s also an important practice for guitarists, bassists, pianists, and any other instrument you might choose to play in a rock/metal band. Metronomes don’t just help you learn to keep time – they are also a tool that will help you hone your chops. Playing along to music that you like is great, and definitely an important part of getting your chops up to snuff, but you need to do it in tandem with working out riffs, rudiments, scales, arpeggios, and riffs with a metronome.
Guys with otherwordly chops – your Tosin Abasi, Chris Adler, Brann Dailor, and Nick Yacyshyn level players – got to those places by going through every rudiment piece by piece with a metronome, starting slow and working their way up.
That’s another key note, so I’ll put in bold. Start slow. Start slow, and don’t think in terms of eventually “being fast.” Playing along to a metronome and keeping your chops up is a lifelong pursuit – it’s not like one day you’re finally there. Don’t be discouraged if it’s taking a long time to learn something at tempo. These things take time!
There’s a wealth of literature and YouTube videos for every instrument about smart ways to use a metronome. I was watching a Billy Rymer (Dillinger Escape Plan) lesson recently, in which he talked a bit about how he works on his chops, and it’s great, so I’ll leave you with it:
2. Work on Something New, Every Day
I know that many people have a tendency when they sit down to jam, where they play something that they’ve got nailed down. It’s fun, it’s fulfilling, and it’s obviously great to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
But it is a mistake to “practice” a piece of material you already know. In most cases. I’m not counting improvisation over a set of changes, or working on something slowly over time (like rudiments, aimed at increasing your chops – see 1.). I’m talking specifically about practicing such that you’re going through the motions. If you play for three hours, but you’re only playing “Master of Puppets,” you’re not going to make too much progress.
I’m not saying you need to consistently introduce complicated new material every single time you sit down to play (see 5. for more on that), but it is important that you keep yourself stimulated, and it’s important that when you practice, you don’t sound great. The point of practicing isn’t to sound great while you’re doing it – it’s to sound great when you get on stage!
So focus on things you aren’t good at – actually, the more that you resist working on something, that’s probably exactly what you need to work on – and move on once you are finding yourself comfortable with your regimen.
3. Manage Your Time Wisely
I actually want to split this into two subheadings.
1. Practice When You Are Focused and at Peak Attentive Hours
There are all sorts of studies that preach that there are “good” and “bad” times during the day to practice. While I tend to have a bit of a skeptical eye towards this sort of science, I actually think the point of these studies is more important than the technicalities. I read an article a few years ago on The Bulletproof Musician that discussed the brain (and body’s) two time slots of attentiveness, which basically happen in the morning and late afternoon (depending on what you eat, how much you sleep, and how you take care of yourself in general, but that’s a subject for another column). Check out a simple chart from that article that demonstrates this:
The short answer is that your body does have peak moments during the day when you will be at your most productive – the challenge is to capture and work on your music during those times. These moments are different for everyone, and you just need to find what works for your life, your body, and your drive to play! Which leads into my second subheading.
2. If You’re Not Feeling It, Stop
You can’t force practice. You can “fake it” for a little while, but the diminishing returns you get from playing when you don’t really want to or feel like it, far outweigh the benefits you get from playing through that fatigue. Take a break. Go for a walk in the park. Take a nap.
Serious musicians won’t give you “cred” for “practicing 10 hours a day bro” in the same way that real body builders won’t respect you for just going to the gym and aimelessly pumping iron while jocking the new Oceano album. Practice smart. If you’re frustrated, take a breather and come back to it later.
I don’t want to preach any right or wrong way to go about managing your time, but I can tell you that hands down using the Pomodoro Technique has completely changed my practice regimen for the better, and I have been improving at a significantly higher rate since adopting it three years ago. The technique (which has more insane “levels” than what I use) goes as such: you do a strictly-regulated 25 minutes of focused, undistracted work, with five minute breaks in between. You can lengthen the breaks after you’ve done four or so pomodoros. I tend to aim to do at least 8 each day (on a workday – on a weekend, it’s more like 12-16 or more – in fact, I wrote this article over the course of 3 pomodoros!).
Try the pomodoro technique, or figure out your own balance! But take away this general message: time is a finite asset, but it’s also the one that we all have to work around.
4. Play Every Day (Except Sunday*)
With the exceptions outlined above, you need to play music every single day. It’s not like other artforms, where you can dip in and out of when you do it. Music is a language, and you don’t learn to speak a language by not speaking it. You need to play enough such that it’s in your blood (and if it is in your blood, then you will find that you are playing enough). I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a day off and not worry about your playing – some people suggest taking one day off each week in which you don’t pick up your instrument – but being a musician is all-in.
This has nothing to do with “being good” or “being a real musician.” It has to do with the frameworks that your brain uses to understand the world. The goal that every great musician I’ve ever met who I’ve posed this question to, is to become comfortable. The kind of comfort that comes with reading this sentence. The kind of comfort that you don’t feel – you just have it.
No matter what your skill or innate talent level, you can achieve this “thinking” in music by doing it on a daily basis. Plenty of great musicians were born talented, and then practiced their way to mastery, and just as many (more, actually) were born shitty, and worked at it until it became a part of them.
I know this seems obvious, but it’s worth articulating. You do need to feel it in you (if you don’t, music isn’t for you), but you also need to work at and think in it enough so that when you step out into the world and experience life, you can come back to your instrument and talk about your experiences through music.
5. Practice the Fundamentals Like You Brush Your Teeth
Here’s a story for you about my own musical journey.
I had a humbling moment when I went to my first lesson with a great jazz composer/bandleader. I sat down in his practice room, without a guitar, and began to go over some basics with him. He asked me how my interval recognition was. Cocky motherfucking punk that I was (I had been practicing going through scales in intervals fucking hard for two years leading up to this moment), I told him I had em down pat. Throw what you got at me, big boy.
So he had me turn around and face the wall while, one by one, he played through the twelve intervals, asking me to identify them one by one as single-notes and together.
I proceeded to get my booty handed to me. I think I got two right (and one of them wasn’t the tri-tone – the fucking fundamental interval for all of heavy metal!).
I was speechless. I turned around, and this guy gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice about art anyone has ever given me:
Music is humbling.
The musical greats of the twentieth century – Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, etc – understood and worked on the fundamentals of their craft like they brushed their teeth. These are things you don’t ever really know, because they aren’t things that you can just take and keep forever. They exist in nature – we just get to point at them, talk about them, and play with them.
I’m not saying you need to go study with a musical genius with the aim of becoming one yourself, but I am saying that if you don’t think music is humbling, or if you think you are “above” practicing something, then you aren’t quite there yet. And “being there” doesn’t really mean that you’re there – it means that you understand what it takes to get there. Musical greats are chasing the pink dragon until the day they die.
Find out for yourself what it is you want to be great at. If you want to be a great death metal guitarist, hone in on the fundamentals of alternate picking (using a metronome!). If you want to better understand chords, work out of a good theory book. If you want to work on your ear, then make use of resources like online chord/interval recognition programs (like this one and this one!).
Hope these help! We’ll be digging a bit deeper into some of these topics in the coming months.