Friday, January 29, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

It sure is hard to move forward with this guitar playing thing. I practice quite a lot for a guy with very little time on his hands, yet I seem to move ahead so slowly, it's like I'm a glacier or something.

The thing is, I don't practice very well...

There are two pretty simple things that I just don't do enough of, which I'm pretty certain could really help me improve more than anything else besides just putting in the hours - transcribing, and playing along with backing tracks.

For many many years I have heard from a million people that one of the best ways to learn to play blues and jazz is to transcribe the solos I particularly like. Becoming facile with scales gets the notes under your fingertips and helps the execution, but there's little in that to help the musicality of what gets executed. Transcribing lets you see how someone you admire has put together the building blocks to arrive at something exemplary, and learn from it. The goal is not to play just like, say, Wes Montgomery, but to explore the things about Wes that made your ears perk up and take notice.

Yet have I done it? Hardly at all. I just bought a software tool called, oddly enough, Transcribe, which is a fantastic thing - it allows you to mark off parts of a piece of music, slow down the playback without changing the pitch, and play it in a loop if you want. So much easier than the old days when you had to pick up the tone arm on the record player to repeat a phrase or section, or use the fast forward and rewind buttons - and if you wanted to slow it down, the pitch also dropped. I have started working on my first project, transcribing Pat Martino's solo from "Later," a straight-ahead blues from a Willis Jackson recording called Bar Wars. I've gotten through the first chorus and the first couple of bars of the second... in about four weeks. OK, I'm not going to beat myself up yet about how long it's taking, at least I'm doing it.

And backing tracks. There are thousands of well-recorded tracks available from folks like Music Minus One, Jamey Aebersold, Hal Leonard , and many more, which cover practically any style you can imagine. These have been available for many years, first on LP, then cassette, and then CD. It's also become easy to create your own arrangements using a computer and MIDI - these have the wonderful advantage of allowing you to alter the key and tempo at will.

I've had a computer-based MIDI setup since the mid nineties, and I have a dozen or more Aebersold recordings and similar things.

Yet do I practice playing over tracks? Nowhere near as often as I could. I seem to spend way more time practicing things in isolation, without so much as a metronome ticking away, than I do playing over backing tracks.

Amongst my new year's resolutions is to shift the balance of my practice time - more time transcribing, and more time playing with chords, bass lines, and drums providing a reasonably realistic emulation of a infinitely patient band. After the first month, I'd give myself maybe a D+ so far.

I'm writing this as a form of arguing to myself about doing better with it. Sure, conditions are not wonderful, but I can do way better.


Kathy Farrelly said...

Transcribing is interesting, and useful in its way, but at least, for me, it's more of a distraction. For me, anyway, playing with recorded backing tracks keeps you honest -- no stretching out those difficult measures to squeeze all the notes in. And how can you improvise without a backing track?
But you're way beyond my level - what do i know?

(how the hell are you guys?)

Alan Oehler said...

Kathy, hey there! We're fine, how about you guys?