Student Corner: 5 Ways to Mix Up Your Practice Routine

Contributed by: J.T. Lee

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Musicians of all ages and abilities have one thing in common: eventually, we all have times when we hate practicing. No one wants to spend hours everyday doing the same thing over and over. While practice can be the most rewarding thing a musician can do, it can also be one of the most boring tasks we have. So how can we fight through  the boredom? How can you make practicing fun again? Here are five ideas for getting excited about practicing again:

1. Branch out

So many times we get into a rut, sticking to our books or our collections of instrumental pieces, using the same materials over and over. Sometimes to fall in love with playing again, you have to get out of the books and comfortable styles and try something new. If there’s anything we can learn from pop music crossovers, it’s that even artists who are giants in one style love to push themselves by trying other genres of music. Take the Herbie Hancock Possibilities  album, where the jazz legend teams up with pop artists like John Mayer and Christina Aguilera. Another similar project is the recent Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga team up, Cheek to Cheek. For a musician to be successful, they must be versatile, and each unique genre brings a unique collection of skills needed to accomplish a believable performance.

One of my favorite experiences was meeting Jazz legend Joshua Redman when he was brought in as a guest artist while I attended the University of North Georgia. When Redman arrived, he went straight to his dressing room and began to practice. We eagerly sat outside waiting to hear what crazy bebop or funk jazz song the giant would be attempting. Instead we heard a flurry of classical runs from a piece that Redman was working up to take to the studio. Imagine our shock: a master of jazz saxophone spending hours that day working up a modern classical style piece! We were blown away! And what was crazier was that he was struggling with it! But the struggle only went on for a short time until he had attained the skills needed to perfect the piece. A drive to do things out of his comfort zone is what sets Redman apart from every other saxophonist out there today, and that same willingness will help us grow as well.

2. Use live accompaniment…alone in your home!

Let’s be honest, metronomes can get irritating and tiresome. The monotonous click is not only annoying after a while, but we eventually tune it out. So how can we practice and still be honest about staying in time? Try using a backing track!

Tracks are a great way to get the feel of playing with others, while still learning the parts. Tracks are also extremely easy to find. A great place to start is YouTube. People upload tracks for every musical style you can imagine. There are also countless karaoke tracks. “That’s great,” you may say, “but what if I need to slow it down?” Great question. There are programs for that too. My favorite is a program called Transcribe!, a $40 download online. You can also use some recording softwares like Ableton or Logic. If you have a Mac, you can manipulate Garage Band to do it too.

3. Learn another instrument’s part

When we pick up our instrument we usually like to practice what we most often play. Drummers like to work on grooves, while bass players work through chord changes or riffs. Guitar player focus on chording or ripping licks in various styles. Piano players stick to what’s written, singers tirelessly work up lyrics and vocal melodies, etc. But the truth is that parts are just parts and no one has to stick to theirs alone.

In fact, it was this attitude that set Jaco Pastorius apart from every other bass player past or present. In his video, Modern Electric Bass, he states that he started as a drummer trying to play bass, and no one told him to learn the changes, so he learned the whole song. This lead to his massive ability to rival horn players with intricate licks. Another bass-centric version of this is the SMV version of Michael jackson’s Beat It, where the vocal and guitar parts are played by bass players. On the flip side, you have groups like Pentatonix, where all the instrumental parts are performed by vocalists. There is also a wonderful drum practice where a drummer uses the different sounds on the kit to recreate melodies. If you’re stuck, try learning someone else’s parts.

4. Change your perspective

If you’re anything like me, you have the one place you call your practice space. Figuratively (or literally in some cases) we call this place the woodshed. But let’s face it, sometimes to grow we just need to go somewhere else. A change in perspective can lead to a change in performance. We may be stuck on an idea, or a certain song and the longer we’re in the room the more frustrating it gets. Sometimes you just need to set the horn down and go fix a cup of coffee. The time it takes for the drink to brew may be just long enough for your brain to rest.

Other times it may help to get out into the world. Some of the best writing I do is when I’m sitting on the balcony overlooking some kind of scenery, whether it’s the beach or a new city I’m exploring. In fact it may help you become a better musician if you explore. Go out and sit at a singer/songwriter club or a jazz bar and see if you’re still unmotivated to practice. Go to a concert or festival and see if just being out around music doesn’t inspire you to get better! Stop looking at practice as a boring action we have to do, and look at it as the gateway to greatness; the path in which leads to you selling out that theater one day.

5. Go back to the classics

If all else fails, take it back to the basics. You may need to review your fundamentals to get better. Am I saying to break open the Essential Elements 2000 book and start again? Well, maybe in some cases, but that’s not really what I mean. Every instrument has its core collection of songs that define how that instrument is played. I am more than willing to bet that you don’t know every part of all of them. Sometimes we need to take it back to Bach and relearn that piece we used to know. If only to recapture the technique needed to master it. Go back to those genre-specific tunes that teach you the style you know and love. Bass players, kick up some Michael Jackson lines, and piano players, get back to Mozart. Guitarists, you may need to relearn those Clapton blues riffs, and vocalists, can you sing all of the greatest hits? If not, you still have something to work on and it will make you better!

Practice can be cumbersome and frustrating at times. We all know this, but with the right attitude and strategy, we can overcome the struggle and continue down the path of musical enlightenment. Next time you’re stuck in a rut, try giving one of these strategies a shot!


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