MoPToP Practice Theory part 4: Technical Practice

Now we get to what most people think of when they think of practice, also the part you’re most likely to associate with unpleasant and uncreative chores. But this is where you assemble the toolkit that will enable you to realise your ideas – if you do it right, it will open up avenues of expression you would never have had otherwise. And if you don’t bother, you will be forever cursed to compromise your vision and make do, while being overtaken by peers who did make the effort.

You have already laid the groundwork through mental and physical practice, your goal now is to translate the latter into reliable dexterity and drill the theoretical ideas of the former into your subconscious, so when you go to perform (live or on record) you can get on and do it without having to think about the mechanics.

Learning the Language

Let’s start with the first technical drills everyone thinks of, and for good reason: scales, chords and arpeggios. This is the melodic and harmonic language that everything you play and sing will be based on – you need all that theory in your subconscious, so when you have an idea you can go ahead and play what’s in your head, otherwise it’s like trying to write a novel while having to consult a dictionary or phrasebook every time you attempt a sentence.

Start with the 12 major scales – yes, all of them. There are various ways to go about this which I will save for another article and it isn’t as difficult as classical grade structures would have you believe, but once you’ve got them all under your fingers you will be able to play in any key, including (minor) modes of those scales (starting from different root notes). Harmonic minors are worth learning if you’re planning a cover of Inna Gadda Da Vida, along with any other weird moon scales you might hear about and want to try, but prioritise the 12 majors. Pick one or two every day at random, spend five minutes practicing them and before long they’ll be yours for keeps.

To work your blues chops, drill minor pentatonics (a blues scale is just an augmented pent, and you’ll play better blues if you let blue notes happen naturally off of those licks rather than sticking rigidly to what is pretty much a six note simplification). Do these as straight scales, broken chords and spider exercises (for guitarists). The theory isn’t too hard here, so you can go straight to internalised jamming pretty quickly, making these great warm ups at any level.

Next up, chords; in full voicings, block inversions and as spider exercises and arpeggios. Now you’ve learned all your scales you will have no trouble finding major and minor triads and might even be adding sevenths (major and dominant), sixths, ninths or combining into slash chords. Once you have the fundamentals in place the harmonic world is your oyster, and it won’t take long to get there once you’ve made the decision to get on with it.

These paragraphs are written with instrumentalists in mind, but singers need to know this stuff too – practice scales and intervals to work on pitch (with muscle memory), while arpeggios and broken chords will be invaluable when it comes to creating harmony parts.

Technical Repertoire

If you are the sort of musician who prides themselves in only ever playing their own music and never covers that’s fine for public performance, but it’s a kind of zeal that you will have to leave outside the practice room if you want to get better as a musician.

Technical repertoire is existing songs and pieces that you learn not because you ever intend to perform them in front of anyone, but because they will make you do and learn things beyond what you will do on your own. Technical repertoire can become performative repertoire (songs that you find you can bring your own voice to in a way that develops you as a performer, though actually presenting these cover versions to the public remains optional), but what you are looking for is music that will either present new challenges, force discipline in techniques you know but are maybe slapdash with or will unlock new styles, colours and aesthetics that you can try to emulate in your own music.

Classical repertoire is great for this, as are transcriptions – but if you get these online, remember to take the accuracy of submitted content with a pinch of salt – if in doubt use your ears.  

The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

Don’t make the mistake of only thinking of technical practice in terms of melody and harmony – when it comes to expressing yourself musically, what you play is only as good as when you play it. If you’ve learned all of your scales and drills but can’t play them in time (or are deliberately rushing them to cover up your mistakes), you have not finished learning them.

There is a dreaded torture device used on musicians called a metronome, but it can be befriended. It helps if you can find one that’ll make a sound that’s bearable – BLEEP bleep bleep bleep BLEEP bleep bleep bleep is not that conducive to a relaxed and constructive rehearsal vibe. Then take some time to get used to thinking in pulse – listen to the click and think about breaking it in two (eighth notes), in four (sixteenth notes – still count these as eighths, or use a four syllable mnemonic like kookaburra or cheeky bugger to even out the divisions) and in three (triplet eighths). There is even beat work you can do away from the practice room, with music you hear, the second hand of a clock or anything that generates a consistent pulse. Try turning it down or looking away while maintaining the pulse, then see how close you are after about 30 seconds.

This done, when you practice technical drills or any bits of music that are consistently causing problems, switch on the metronome, take the tempo way down and make yourself play to it exactly. Or do what rehearsing dancers and rappers do and leave the tempo the same, but play half time (every note twice as long) – this approach can be preferable when you want to work on technical intricacies in a song without losing sight of the beat or pulse you are aiming for.

Finally, find drills and material that will force you to work on co-ordination – combining one rhythmic part with another. For polyphonic instruments using left and right hands and feet this is easy to visualise, but for singers and melodic instruments this will involve working different rhythms against a prevailing groove, for example drilling a 3 or 5 count phrase against a straight 8 backing.

The purpose of technical practice is to lift the bonnet/hood and get every part of your skillset working as well as possible. Because now it is time to reclose the lid, put all the science and theory aside and get on with being what you set out to be all along: an artist.

NEXT TIME: PERFORMATIVE PRACTICE

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