Monday, March 25, 2013

Steve Vai - a window into his style development

Here is a great video where Steve breaks down a song from his newest release. It should give you some appreciation for the amount of work he has put in to developing his own style. He clearly listens for new ways and obviously HUGELY loves the path of learning. A critical element to acquiring a massive set of chops like his. Most great players have a built-in curiosity and a hunger to try new things. Demonstrated clearly here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sports and music - "training" for success

A discussion I had on a music forum the other day, prompted me to do some thinking on the similarities between training for sports and music. In that conversation, I made a comparison between playing tennis and playing a guitar - which was met with a luke-warm reaction. Once one gets beyond the distasteful thought of music as some sort of competition. One with a winner and a loser. There are some definite similarities to be explored.

I should step back momentarily and say what triggered this discussion was; in the guitar community specifically, there exists a pretty vocal group, who push some sort of he-man pride in being 'unschooled' or a 'feel player'. (These attitudes usually go hand-in-hand with a general lack of theory knowledge and certainly a lack of reading and writing abilities). My personal belief is much of this bravado is simply a cover for laziness.. and that is kind of what prompted this sports/music comparison.

I was thinking... you never hear a pro athlete bragging in interviews. They just don't say that they "don't know what they are doing" or that they are a "feel player"! Athletes don't pride themselves in not working hard the way some musicians do (In spite of the fact most advanced musicians have put in far more hours on their instrument than a doctor has in school for medicine).

If you hired a professional athlete to train you; they certainly wouldn't just play the game with you would they? There might be something to learn in that approach surely. But also could come with some potential negative effects on you (as you realize the vast crevice between your level and theirs). Just playing wouldn't be enough. I have always made a light joke that musicians are really just "finger athletes" so let's take a look at typically how pro athletes train for success.

Top level athletes implement a targeted training approach and it would be something like this:

  • Spend an unrealistic amount of time devoted to the craft - more than the next guy
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Work out (off-field, court, ice) to strengthen muscles
  • Train specific movements in isolation (i.e. shooting practice or passing drills etc.)
  • Practice visualizations, work on mental aspects and concentration
  • Study different formations of coverage/attack and defence strategies
  • Scrimmage or play friendly game simulations
  • Schedule regular practice sessions
  • Play the actual game
  • Watch video after, stopping to view errors, identify opponents habits - good and bad, discuss and assess individual performances
  • Spend time watching other games as a fan
  • Work in some days for rest
  • Get lots of sleep

Quite a list isn't it. ...

Now let's look at how this relates to musical study.

  • Spend an unrealistic amount of time devoted to the craft - more than the next guy (same)
  • Eat a balanced diet (same)
  • Work out (off-field, court, ice - stage, jam room ) to strengthen muscles (Practice - finger patterns, scales, chords sequences etc)
  • Train specific movements in isolation (i.e. shooting practice or passing drills etc) (work on specific fingerings that are causing problems, isolate a chord change (theory) and practice playing over them, different voicings of the progression etc)
  • Practice visualizations, work on mental aspects and concentration. (Visualizing the instrument, developing phrasing skills, stage freight, focus issues etc. Many musicians meditate for this reason)
  • Study different formations of coverage/attack and defence strategies (theory/transcribing/analysis)
  • Scrimmage or play friendly game simulations (soloing to backing tracks, jamming along with albums, lifting songs)
  • Schedule regular practice sessions (jamming)
  • Play the actual game (gig/performance/recording)
  • Watch video after game (listen to performance recording playback), stopping to view errors (listen for problems in your playing), identify opponents habits - good and bad (transcribing), discuss and analyze individual performances (Post transcription analysis - discuss with other players online or in person)
  • Spend time watching other games as a fan (listening to songs you love)
  • Work in some days for rest (same)
  • Get lots of sleep (same)
As you can see, this comparison isn't so far off the mark. Music, as with sports can come with some definite born in advantages/disadvantages. Sadly for us mortals, there will always be those people that achieve at a higher level... in spite of their practice habits. But even those - despite what they may tell you - have likely done many of the above things through their own intuition. 

To achieve success at the highest level does not happen by accident and clearly medical evidence has shown; we are not born with these abilities. They are nurtured over time through passion, persistence and a truck load of plain and simple work. But look at the number of things on the list above. Of all those points only one of them is playing the actual 'game'. The vast majority of the milage is made up outside of these moments.

So... Does your practice routine look similar to the above? Because, if not - and you dream of playing at the highest levels - you may have some things to consider.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Writer's block - some thoughts on overcoming

Writer's block... seem to have it now as I stare at this page! For any artist, musician, writer, who creates original compositions just those words strike fear. For the purposes of this entry remember,  this is really a music blog, that will be the sometimes unavoidable focus of this article. But a most of these concepts apply to any medium.

Just do it
A great piece of advice on writing came to me from my lovely wife. She - a part-time journalist and one-time journalism major back in her college days - has dealt with this issue a myriad of times before. Her advice (paraphrasing here): "Get a pencil, and just start writing - anything and everything that comes into your mind. No matter how nonsensical. The act of simply writing will just get the mind flowing. Soon it will transform into something usable. Or a grain of something you can build on". This, works. Plain and simple. No matter what the medium, sometimes you just need to start 'doing'.

Other angles
In art college (I went to school for graphic design after years as a pro musician) I had a professor who assigned a mock project that required us to paint a cover illustration for a yachting publication. My painting consisted of: Boat on the ocean, sun and channel marker buoy in the distance, seagulls, at sunset. Fairly typical marine scene. Once completed he said "Fantastic! Now redo it, as if you were seeing the scene from the other side". So I re-painted it - sun behind, buoy in front, ship in the distance, added a marina in the background... Whew! He saw it and said "Fantastic! Let's do it one more time as a seagull looking down on the scene.". He had us do this 5 times! I wanted to murder him, but in the end - we had a fully developed 3 dimensional view of the idea. The cool part was that my original perspective wasn't the best one! One of the single best lessons I ever had. Sometimes seeing it from a completely opposite angle changes everything.

Add some other minds to the mix
To begin with, it should be said that a BIG part of the problem these days - in this 'wonderful' time of computer and home do-it-yourself technology - is that artists can sit alone and write ideas endlessly. In isolation, without cost... Sounds great right? Well, it is... But not always. What you need to remember is, your same ideas, when collaborated with others, could change drastically. Maybe even taking what now appears an obvious rip-off, or lifeless piece to completely new places. Your ideas maybe aren't bad... but maybe the fact that they haven't been fleshed out with humans is a big part of their perceived lameness.

I just lived this example. I was asked to join an original band project. I did what was requested of me and wrote a piece of music for us to work on. It was well received and we jammed on it for a bit. The bass player really liked one part, he heard something in it. It was a part I had used as just a filler, a mini-bridge before the chorus. At his urging, the tune got completely re-arranged. The part I was using as the main verse got dumped altogether - replaced by this 'filler' riff. The whole picture evolved from that new place as the individuals added 'what they do' to the idea. The tune in the end, is very much nothing like what I wrote... I mean it is - but it really isn't any more. But it is honestly a better piece overall.

Writing is a process
It's an art. The hard reality is; you need to write some really weak pieces (a lot), before some good ones may be allowed to come. So I say "let the crap flow!" get it out of the way. Write your obvious riffs and get them out on the table, so the real stuff can flow. Don't be frustrated - see it as growth.

Or give up
Which is what most people do.

How about turn the tables on it and TRY to write or create a horrible piece. Write the worst song ever.

You have to ask yourself, did you honestly think all your pieces would be groundbreaking? Because if so, you better check that ego. Writing original pieces is NOT easy. Thank goodness too! Because if it were everyone would do it... making it... no longer original. After all, where's the fun in that!

Some music solutions
  • Take your riff and change the time signature. I guarantee any riff played in 7 or 5 will add a whole new dimension. What about 3? 6? 9? 11? Try them all.
  • What about power chords? Augment or diminish one here and there (move the fifth up or down one fret).. Or add one or two if none appear in the piece.
  • What about sliding into notes instead of hitting them square
  • Or displacing one or two notes by an octave
  • Make one of the notes of the riff a chord
  • Play it on a different part of the neck
  • Skip strings on a guitar - or add a large intervallic leap on other instruments.
  • Half time feel, double time
  • Change the key 
  • Drop the tuning 
  • Add open strings to the idea or chords
  • Alternate open tunings
  • Maybe use less distortion effects, change the feel from up-tempo to a ballad 
  • Try even adding random noise (feedback, harmonic, toggle switch, pick scrape) into the picture.

Let's get all Zen
We all go through more fertile periods in our life. So in less fertile times, you need to rely on your cunning to make your art. There is a great analogy a super successful salesman once told me. He probably stole it from somewhere but I thought it was awesome:

"Most people when they get a job picking apples, grab a basket and walk around the orchard. They grab only apples they can reach. Problem is, most of the good apples are already taken by the people who went before. When the basket isn't quite full, they will grab the best ones they can find off the ground. Cash their basket in and call it a day. Then there is the another kind of person. One who will do what it takes, maybe go grab the long extension ladder. At risk to their personal safety and convenience they will pick the best ones that live near the top of the trees. These are the people who do work of substance."

Speaks for itself really. Sometimes we all need to dig deeper. 
I think maybe we should grab the ladder : )

Thursday, March 7, 2013

triads - the power of three

Hey folks, here is a quick and very useful little tool that can help you expand your note choices when soloing.

Let's set this example as if you were playing over a minor chord... You could always use the old standby options like Dorian and Aeolian, pentatonic minor and blues version among other scales. But typically people are bored of the pentatonic and the 7 notes scales have some tricky notes to work with. Wouldn't it be great to have a pool of notes (or pitch collection) to work with that has only great sounding notes? Well, here's a way to do just that. 

The ticket here is working with 3 easy-to-remember triads. So imagine - we are soloing right now over a minor chord... Let's call it A minor. The the notes of A minor are - A, C & E - this is all you need to know to use this. A little trick to remember is; if it is a minor chord, you work your way up with an alternating pattern starting with the kind of chord (so minor chord = minor,major,minor...). If it were a Major chord you were over it would be the opposite Major, minor, Major. Remember you start the pattern with the type of chord you are over.

So for our example an Amin chord (remember the notes are A,C,E) you could play:
A minor triad
C Major triad
E minor triad
See they flip flop minor,major,minor,major,minor...
If it were a Major chord (A, C#, E) you could play:
A Major triad
C# minor triad
E Major triad.
See they flip flop major,minor,major,minor... as you work your way up the notes of the chord.
Don't just read this - grab your guitar and try it. You will soon see how easy it is to remember. Soon it forms those nice little finger patterns most guitarists love so dearly. Try making up a "scale" build of only notes of these three options. Now use these to make some great music.

Matt Schofield - again - yeah, fanboy

Man this guy is awesome. Love his playing and attitude, the whole bit. His "gear nerd-ery" comment is quite funny and I certainly relate. Enjoy