Friday, November 12, 2010

No Instrument, No Problem


     Everyone's busy, and unless you are one of the lucky few who get to make the entirety of their living from playing music, odds are more time is spent away from your instrument than with it in hand.  I have been very busy lately with one thing or another, which got me to thinking: How can I practice when I'm not around an instrument?

    I've devised several methods to do just that and thought it would be a good idea to share them.  A few of these approaches were told to me by other musicians, and there is one thing that needs to be stressed for every one of these exercises: Visualization.

    Just the simple act of running through a scale or a song in your head while visualizing yourself playing it is extremely useful.  By actually seeing yourself play it in your head your brain is going through the exact same processes it would go through if you were actually playing it.  The only thing missing is the actual muscle movement involved in playing it.  It's essentially the same thing as practicing it with your instrument.

    One thing I've gotten used to doing over the years is to carry a notebook of blank manuscript paper with me.  When I have some free time without my instrument, I imagine myself playing a phrase or section of a song I'm working on, and try to write out the notes I'm seeing myself play in my head.  If you can't read music, the same thing can be accomplished through using tablature.

    The benefits of the aforementioned exercise are twofold.  It forces you to really internalize what you are working on, which will in turn provide you with a much more solid feel for the music when actually playing it.  The other, and possibly more rewarding, benefit is that the better you get at writing down what you see yourself play, the more you will be able to do the opposite, which is to visualize yourself playing what you write down.  This is excellent training for your mind's ear, and will shorten the gap between reading music and playing music, eventually reaching the point of being able to come up with a melody in your head and immediately know how to play it on your instrument.

    This brings me to the next exercise, which is simply to write melodies in your head and sing or hum them to yourself.  When you come across something that really catches your ear, try to remember it, or if you don't think you will be able to recall it later, use your cell phone to record it.  When you are back at home with your instrument, transcribe what you came up with.  This greatly exercises your mind's musical imagination.

    Another useful exercise is to listen to a song you know the chord progression to either in your car or while walking with your preferred portable music device.  Follow the chord progression in your head, visualizing yourself playing the chords along with the recording, imagining you are actually on the bandstand and were just given the song to play with the band.  Putting this kind of pressure on yourself, imagined or not, is great practice for reaching the appropriate mindset for actually performing at a jam session with other musicians.

    Just simply naming chords at random and spelling them out in your head is also great practice, which brings me to one more exercise that can be performed without an instrument, which I call the Pitch Axis exercise.  Pick a note and name it against different chords, for example C is the 11th of G Major, the #11th of Gb Major, the b9th of B Minor, and so on.

    There are other ways to practice away from your instrument, and I encourage you to figure some of them out for yourself.  Hopefully I have provided some good ones for you to use, and the next time you have the urge or need to practice and are without your trusty axe, fret not (pun intended).




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