Practice with a Plan

Let’s face it, we all have times when we are short on practice time. Work, school, and social commitments cut into your time that could otherwise be spent improving your guitar abilities. We simply can’t abandon certain responsibilities, so it’s important that we make the most of the little time we do have. The most effective means to do this is to plan out exactly what is going to happen in your practice session.

How should a practice session be structured? There is an infinite amount of material you can practice. What is important is that we challenge ourselves continuously. In other words, we should be prioritizing that which we are not good at and to decrease the amount of time we spend reviewing what we are already good at. Many students can fall under the illusion that they are practicing by simply playing their favourite songs, which they are likely performing well already. Even worse, they’ll do it while watching TV and only be passively engaged with the material. This is not effective practicing, it’s simply maintenance of what you already know. Reviewing material has its place, but it should be less of a priority.

The first thing you should practice, perhaps after a short warm-up, is the most difficult challenge on the menu. Difficulty is subjective, so don’t pick a topic that is way beyond your reach. Simply do something that challenges you and keeps your mind engaged. Depending on the time constraint, you might not even get through the entirety of the topic at hand. That matters less if you consider that you will have opportunities in the future to revisit it. Repeat this process until you’ve mastered the topic, then move on to a new one. You may not be satisfied with the small progresses that are made in each session but over the long term you will be able to make far more progress than if you were to choose the easy stuff. The easy stuff is gratifying in the short term but will leave you feeling like you’ve wasted time when there is no progress over the long term.

I guarantee that if you can practice with this mindset, progress is certain and you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish even with limited time!

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Solkattu for Polyrhythms

Indian classical music (Hindustani & Karnatic) has a long tradition of rhythmic complexity that became popularized in the Western world through bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti (both lead by John McLaughlin). In this tradition, rhythms are often learned by vocalization (spoken syllables) and gestures (claps and tapping with fingers). This tradition is known as Solkattu.

Western European music’s distinction is found in it’s harmonic system, which is rooted in the understanding of the harmonic series. Many non-Western musical traditions do not have as sophisticated a system for harmony, but they frequently excel in rhythmic complexity. In the Western tradition, rhythms are approached by counting beats with numbers, and subdivisions in syllables. If we are to take 16th notes as an example: 1e+a, 2e+a. Triplets can be counted “one-trip-let” or “1+a”. While this is effective, it can become difficult to manage multiple layers of contrasting rhythms (polyrhythms) since the voice can only produce one sound at a time.

Even a basic understanding of Solkattu can benefit your rhythmic awareness.

Hand gestures are used to keep track of the meter: IE 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc. Let’s take 3/4 as an example. Beat one is played with a clap. Beat two is played by tapping the pinky on to the palm. Beat three is played by the ring finger, then the cycle repeats. You can keep adding beats until you run out of digits, making a total of 6 beats possible. More beats are possible by turning the palm around.

Over top of this, you can use vocalized syllables create a second layer of rhythms. For groupings of two, “ta-ka” is used. Three note groupings: “ta-ki-ta”. Four note groupings: “ta-ka-di-mi”. Five notes: “ta-ka-ta-ki-ta” and so on. Most rhythms will be easily handled with combinations of 2 or 4 note groupings. combines with 3 note groupings. For example, seven note groupings can be expressed as “ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ki-ta” or “ta-ki-ta-ta-ka-di-mi” depending on where the rhythmic emphasis is placed.

As an exercise, try this rhythm: Using hand gestures, tap a 3/4 time signature. In eighth notes, sing a 4 note grouping over it. When you do this correctly, the claps will fall on the emphasized syllables: “TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta, TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta”. There you go, you have a polyrhythm!

This is only scratching the surface of possibilities. I highly recommend exploring different combinations of time signatures and subdivisions to create your own unique rhythmic grooves! If you’re interested in some literature on this topic, check out this link.