Recording as a Learning Tool

Recording yourself and listening back to that recording can be one of the most invaluable tools in your self-improvement as a musician. It allows for critical analysis of your own playing, but from an audience’s perspective. It will quickly reveal your technical flaws and give you insight into how your music may affect an audience.

If you have listened to a recording of yourself, you may think it’s an embarrassing experience. Every mistake becomes crystal clear. It’s important not to shy away from this situation, but to use it as an opportunity to grow as a musician. The benefits of this process will accelerate your improvement.

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Third-Person Objectivity

The greatest benefit to recording yourself is the ability to experience your music as an audience, as opposed to a performer. When you are performing music, it’s incredibly demanding on your mental capacity. The focus is on perfect execution and technical elements that facilitate it. It’s important to be able to step out of that mindset and try to experience your music as if you’re hearing it for the first time.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • How does the music make me feel?
  • Is there any technical deficiency I can improve upon?
  • Does it keep my interest throughout the whole performance?

Musical Sandbox

Until the revolution in digital recording technology, musicians’ creativity were constantly limited by what tools were accessible to them. The biggest limitation would arguably have been the necessity of hiring other musicians to perform parts for an arrangement. It was financially unreasonable to be hiring musicians just to try out every musical whim a composer might be taken with. That ability was reserved for only the elites with wealthy patrons. Now we have access to as many (simulated) instruments and tracks as our computers can handle, at a fraction of the cost, and with the ability to make as many revisions as we want.

One of my favourite artist, Jacob Collier, has said that he considers the recording experience as one of his greatest teachers. This is a guy who has gone to music school and has been mentored by the likes of Quincy Jones. We can all see the result of his hard work, though, and it’s hard to argue with that!

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Practice DOES NOT make Perfect

“Practice makes perfect.” is an often repeated phrase in the world of music lessons, but it’s a misleading one at best. Truth is, practice doesn’t make perfect. If that were true the person who practices the greatest amount of time will achieve the most. However,there are many students who “practice” diligently but never make progress in the ways that our necessary. There are others who seemingly practice little but progress in great strides. What’s happening?

The reality is, Perfect practice makes perfect.”

What’s the difference?

The difference is in the quality of practice, not quantity, and it makes all the difference.

Here are examples of bad practice:

  • Consuming study material as fast as possible without completely internalizing the lessons within.
  • Continually repeating mistakes with the hope that it will work itself out eventually.
  • Always starting from the beginning of whatever study material.
  • Trying to play fast without being accurate.
  • Practicing without an understanding of rhythmic placement.

While you might make initial progress while practicing badly, you will quickly plateau if you never address the core problems. Worse yet, you may learn bad habits and will have to spend more time fixing those than had you practiced properly.

Here are some examples of perfect practice:

  • Extracting as many musical lessons as you can from a single piece of material.
  • Practicing good technique slowly, and gradually increasing the speed as the movements become internalized.
  • Extrapolating problem areas in a piece of music and fixing them before reintroducing them into the full context.
  • Practicing with a metronome click placed on different beats to reinforce your internal sense of rhythm.

Perfect practicing will make sure that you address all of your problems and ensure steady musical progress.

Perfect practice is also a great time saver! This is a powerful motivator for me, or anyone who finds limited time for practice. If you don’t practice perfectly, you will inevitably have to correct the bad habits you pickup. As a result you will be spending more time on material that could have been conquered if you did it correctly from the start.

 

 

One Reason Why You Might Sound “Amateur”

A common mistake beginners make is to play most of their notes short, or staccato.

The cause is usually habits that develop in both fretting hand technique, and sometimes even the picking hand technique. Staccato phrasing should be a deliberate technique that is created by using string muting techniques in both hands. Unintended staccato playing is caused by unintentional use of muting techniques.

For the fretting hand causes (if you’re right handed):

  • The fingers leave the notes too early in anticipation for the next note
  • When fretting consecutive notes on a single string, the fingers are not left on the notes

For the picking hand causes:

  • The pick rests on the string in anticipation of picking, making it impossible for any note prior to be sustained on that string
  • Any part of the picking hand making contact with the strings which end up muting them

It is important to listen to the music you are learning, with attentive ears, and pay attention to long held notes and the fluidity of certain musical phrases. When you hear a phrase being played with awkward staccato phrasing, it’s like hearing someone speak with a pause be-tween ev-er-y syl-la-ble.

The opposite of playing staccato is called legato, which means to play fluidly. To correct unintentional staccato playing, you can practice legato playing. On the guitar, this often translates into the usage of hammer-on and pull-off technique.

Once you learn to control staccato and legato phrasing, your playing will take one giant leap towards sounding more like the pros!

Equal Loudness Contours

Equal loudness contours are  a graphical representation of perceived loudness of different frequencies at different volume levels.

equal loudness contours

Does that confuse you? First of all, loudness and volume have different definitions in this context. Loudness is subjective, volume is the objective measurement of the amplitude of sound (a more technical term is sound pressure level). The gist is that we subjectively perceive certain frequencies to be louder, even at the same volume as other frequencies. For example, a 40hz sine wave is perceived as being much quieter than a 1khz sine wave, even if the same amount of volume is being measured. Conversely, if we want a 40hz sine wave to sound as loud as a 1khz sine wave, we will need to add about 10db of gain to the 40hz sine wave to perceive it as the same loudness.

This phenomenon is mainly caused by the fact that our ear canals resonate at a range of 2khz-5khz. Notice the dips in the graph at that range, representing the most sensitive range of our hearing.

How does understanding this concept help us as musicians? The most important lesson here is that loudness affects how we perceive tone.

When we are shaping the tone of the guitar on an amp, we should be doing it at a level that’s similar to when we’ll be performing. What may sound good at “bedroom level” may reveal a bunch of problems (like too much highs or bass) at “gigging level”.

Another quick tip I’ve learned is that if a sounds is too “harsh” to the ears, then the likely culprit is the 2khz-5khz range where our hearing is most sensitive. Grab the EQ and do a little bit of reduction in that range to take the harshness out of the sound without sacrificing volume.

If you’re interested in these types of acoustic phenomenon, you might want to take a look into the field of psychoacoustics. Hope this was helpful!

Giant Amp is a Giant Pain

If there is one thing all working musicians can agree on, it’s the fact that hauling musical equipment is a huge pain. Many of us take public transportation and walk as a means of travel. If you have to haul 50+ pounds of equipment then you’re definitely going to feel it by the time you get to a gig. Who wants to open the set with a cramped arm?

Amps are probably the heaviest piece of equipment in most people’s setups. Many musicians tend to go overkill on their amplifiers too. This is true even for bedroom guitarists.

Bigger ain’t Better

Guitarists are notorious for following the “bigger means better” approach with amps. The problem is compounded by the fact that the guitar legends they idolize used massive amps and they are wanting to emulate them.

The truth is, the iconic Marshall stack was an amp design from an era where PA system technologies were still being developed for the massive stadium sized venues these acts were touring. They didn’t have much choice but to play through these massive amps or they would not be heard beyond the front rows. Now couple this with the issue that these amps needed to be pushed to its limits to get the desirable distortion and saturation from the tubes. There is no way you can reach those volumes without getting a complaint from a neighbour.

Avoid these 100+ watt amps with 4×12 speaker cabinets. You’re likely never going to get the opportunity to play at those volumes.

Minimize

With the proliferation of digital amplification technology, we have a plethora of choices when it comes to getting a great tone at a reasonable volume. Apart from that, there are many new tube amps that are built in the 1-5 watt range so that you can get that sweet tube tone at lower volumes. For a bedroom guitarist, that’s usually enough. Maybe shoot for the 10-30 watt range if you’re using a solid state amp, since they don’t get a pleasing tone when driven hard.

If you’re a gigging musician, ask the venue if they have a PA system and plug into that. You can use a mic or take a D.I. output from your amp to the main board. That way you can get away with carrying a small amp. You also don’t have to worry about being heard throughout the entire room, as house PA systems tend to be designed with that purpose in mind.

There’s no need to break your back to get that amazing tone, nor is it necessary to annoy your neighbours and deal with noise complaints! Size down for the right setting and your body will appreciate it.

Get More Mileage from your Licks

When people begin to learn improvisation, they often do so by learning “licks”. Licks are musical phrases that have been transcribed from other players and is a great way to develop an improvisational vocabulary. If you’ve learned several licks already, you might begin to wonder how many licks you should learn as a goal. The truth is you should be constantly learning new licks. Then you might wonder how to keep these ideas all organized and accessible in your brain at a moment’s notice. Then you realize that it’s nearly impossible to keep more than a few licks in your mind at a time.

A large musical vocabulary can be useful, but what is more important is how we can modify and develop a singular idea to create hundreds of variations. Take a simple arpeggio for example. How many ways can you play a major triad? First we can play around with the order of notes and come up with 6 different possibilities. Now, what if we took one of those versions and modulate it diatonically? Now we have 7 possibilities with that one idea. Combined with 6 possible orders of notes, we now have 42 possible ideas generated.

That was one simple example taken through two processes and ended with 42 possibilities. This gets exponentially greater as we use different processes and combinations of processes. We can alter an idea by rhythmically lengthening or shortening, inverting the intervals, parallel transposition, diatonic transpositions, etc.

So if you’re at a point where you’re sick of learning more licks, try to apply this thought process to what you are playing. If you can’t do it in a real time performance, try writing out your examples before playing them. You may soon be breathing new life into old ideas and getting even more mileage from them!

The Five Scales to Conquer Jazz

Did you know that as complex and exotic jazz improvisation and scales seem to be, the majority of jazz vocabulary is derived from only five scales?

They are:

  • The major scale
  • The harmonic minor scale
  • Melodic minor scale
  • whole-tone scale
  • diminished scale

That isn’t to say that learning to use them well is easy, but I hope this can dispel any misconceptions about jazz improvisation requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of different scales.

So how can you get so much musical material from just five scales? Well consider that each of these scales have modes. The major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales will each have seven modes and seven chords that can be derived from them. The whole tone scale only has one mode and the diminished scale only has two modes because of their symmetrical structure. Therefore they are often used in a parallel fashion.

What’s important is not how many scales you know, but how thoroughly you understand and utilize each of them. If you can do that with just these five scales, you’re well on your way to becoming a jazz musician!