Many of my pieces are born out of repetition and focus.
I start my practice sessions connecting with my inner calm, and approach my practice sessions from a place of beginner’s minded discovery. What was the first time you played anything? I was so free. I want to get back there every time I make sound.
Start playing and notice where your hands go, without controlling them. Observe what happens. My muscle memory takes over, and I make something that sounds somewhere between spaghetti western, recitative, koto and space. Rhythm free. It takes me 5-10 minutes to warm up this way, then I can focus on some trance-inducing exercises.
I begin by playing through modes of the major scale, and really kind of wander around them, looking for patterns to percolate up that have the slightest inkling of musical value to my ears. I always give myself a small challenge to keep things fresh – lately, I work through the circle of 5ths in one position, so I might start on Bb ionian:
..then move to F in the same position
And so on. When I started out, I was shown to cycle through intervals and sequences in groups of 3 and 4, but I grew to apply that thinking with groups of 1 and 2 (great aid to learning where notes are on the neck), as well as 5 and 6 and on up. Here are some verbose examples with this F scale:
Notes per string:
You get the idea – there are multiple approaches to playing with scale material which I permute with groupings of 1-6 (I usually stop there, but you need not). You will find something worthy of repeating and permuting with time spent. I will quickly find something deserves technical attention and needs to be played slower and with more presence of mind. In slowing it down, I will hone in on something to repeat, which leads to permutations, and ultimately to something resembling a piece of music.
I’ve writing a bunch of music this way, which I’ll be diving into here. For me, these scale fragments permute into something engaging for the ear and hand.
So: the takeaways for practice time:
- Start by sitting and observing what you naturally do.
- Begin to add structure with simple scale exercises.
- Look for interesting things to focus on and repeat, then evolve these to new exercises.
- Any of this, of course, can be fodder for new music.
Here’s the last one from my notebook:
I practice meditation by sitting down and shutting up for 10-20 minutes a day. I practice guitar an hour a day. I practice running for about 1-2 hours, at least 3-4 times per week. I visit similar headspace with each activity, and each sympathizes with my music practice.
In my music practice, I always start out with some itenirary in mind. Warmups for 1/2 hour, scale drills for 1/2 hour, harmony for 1/2 hour, then work on a specific piece. Very often, though, I feel a pull to ‘zoom in’ on one particular area, one very specific little aspect of what I’m working on. Usually it’s a rough section of a piece I’m working on, and I turn it into an exercise. It feels like identifying a little rough spot on my musical surface that needs sanding – repeating the thing slowly and methodically makes me comfortable after a while, with speed and facility not for behind. It feels like some combination of play and meditation.
I first heard about someone else adopting a similar thought-process in John Stropes article on Michael Hedges’ Ragamuffin.
When practicing these opening two bars, you encounter a series of challenges. Here are the two bars, followed by a correlating bit from Stropes’ essay:
Maybe it seems obvious, but if you’ve ever practiced this tune, you know that this piece contains a series of brain teasers, ‘koans’ for your muscle memory – if that makes sense. Whether you’re a fingerstyle diehard or not, I suggest checking Stropes’ book out.
One goal of this blog is to share my thoughts around music, and this reductive practice is key for me. It’s key for me personally, in developing my ability like I just said, but also key in my composing. For some reason, with me, I am repetitive in practice but avoiding outright repetition in my music. More on that another time!