Don’t Forget to Practice

keep-calm-and-practice-your-instrument-3What does it mean to practice? If you’re like me, you are happy just to have time to pick up your instrument and get a sound out of it. More often than not I’ll just play a bunch of tunes. And that’s not a bad thing at all, I suppose, but if you’re just playing aimlessly and not really paying attention to what you’re doing, is it really worth it? If you’re playing tunes incorrectly the whole time, or executing ornaments sloppily, is it really beneficial to you, or does it just make things worse?

Practice, on the other hand, is performing a skill repeatedly to perfect it, right? But you have to know what your goal is. If you have no clue what “perfect” means in your particular field, you’re shooting spitballs in the dark. And I doubt you’ll like what you see once the light is turned on. Neither will your mother, so clean that mess up!

Wow, I’m the analogy master.

But really, you need goals. Short, medium, and long-term goals. It’s kinda like life. If you’re not aiming for something you’ll be lucky to hit it. So take a few minutes to sit down with a pencil, paper, computer, whatever you have to write with, and jot down what you want to accomplish with your playing.

For example, and hypothetically speaking, let’s say I want to play fiddle at regular, full speed sessions. (This is actually true.) That would be my long-term goal. Now I have to decide what I need to do to get there.

There’s a lot involved in playing Irish music, like rolls, cuts, and intonation. Also, string crossing and figure-eight bowing patterns that happen in so many Irish tunes. As short term goals, I can set a little time aside at each practice session to work on those things.

Another short-term goal might be to work on my speed–playing regularly with a metronome, and increasing the speed gradually over multiple practice sessions.

My medium-term goal might be to learn 3 tunes that I can put together as a set, so that when I get to try my new skills out I am prepared. So I can devote a little time at each practice session to that as well.

Both the short-term and medium-term goals serve the long-term goal, obviously. It’s up to you to decide what is important to you in terms of reaching your long-term goals. You might not think that snappy rolls and cuts really matter all that much for session playing, or that you want to defer working on them so you can work with a metronome to increase your speed. Don’t set intonation practice aside though, please–no one will want to play with you if your intonation is bad.

So let’s say I get an hour to practice every day. I might break down my session like this:

INTONATION–10 minutes scales along with a recording or drone note.

ORNAMENTATION–5 minutes each rolls, cuts, trebles, slowly (15 minutes total)

BOWING–10 minutes play part of a tune that uses the figure eight bowing pattern, slowly.

TUNES–25 minutes learn/practice playing a tune, slowly (at least half-speed) focusing on the notes and intonation. Use a metronome for consistency, and increase speed regularly.

As I get better at the skills, I can change my goals. Eventually I’ll want to play the tunes adding some ornamentation, but I’ll save that for later.

Anyway, I hope this helps. I know it’s difficult to be disciplined about practice when you just want to PLAY. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing. Practice at home, play at the session. And may your practice be focused and productive–you’d be surprised how much your playing improves if you devote a little time each day to the basic skills. And furthermore, there’s already a ton of info and opinion about effective practice online and in published form, so do your own googlin’ and see what else is out there. Most of what I have written here is based on what I’ve learned online, but al ot of it is just common sense.

Happy practicing!

P.S. I recommend recording yourself as well–this can give you valuable feedback on your progress. DO IT! I do: ME ON YOUTUBE

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Closed vs Open Sessions

357410-closedThere’s a session I go to monthly that is held in a public place, but in order to play you need to be invited. Seems kinda exclusive, right? Well, it is, really. See, there are two kinds of Irish sessions–“open,” and “closed.” Ok–not entirely true, but read on…

At an open session, anyone can play. That’s not to say that there aren’t rules around playing. There’s an etiquette in place to guide the behavior of the musicians who play at an open session to help insure that everyone gets along, and more importantly, that the music is honored and that the quality of the music remains as high as possible. You’re going to get folks who can play very well at an open session, but you’re also going to get those who play only passably, sometimes poorly. As long as the poor players follow the rules–only playing tunes they know well enough to play without too many horrible mistakes, not noodling* during tunes they don’t know–then they probably will avoid irritating their fellow sessioners, and will be welcome to return. There’s a great potential for unexpected wonderfulness at open sessions, as new players might introduce new tunes to the group that they hadn’t heard before, or new sets, or stories. It can also bring in players with no respect or knowledge of the tradition, much less skill at playing. God forbid a cocky bones or tuba player should show up. But that’s why the etiquette is in place, and hopefully folks are mature enough to enforce it without being insulting–except when absolutely necessary!

A closed session is one at which musicians may play by invitation only. There’s probably a leader, or organizer, who wants to keep the quality of the music from falling below a certain point, so they invite only those who they know who can play well. Those invited to a closed session have usually already demonstrated that they respect the tradition of the music, as well as the rules of conduct, so there’s no worry that there will be any unexpected friction. I suppose there’s some variation in leading style from various organizers, and from session to session, but that’s to be expected.

That said, some sessions are more closed than others. For example, trusted invitees can sometimes invite others who they feel can play well enough to attend–sometimes those players are further vetted by the organizer, sometimes not. Around here, in western Massachusetts, the “closed” sessions I have attended have most often been house sessions. There is one closed session I attend currently, and I think that regardless of my place as one of the least skilled musicians (my own opinion) in the group, the fact that I respect the tradition, the music, and the rules goes a long way toward making me welcome. And that is a result of the very important social aspect of sessions–it’s a place where both music AND friends are made. In fact, it’s a lot like college–you’re all interested in the same subject, and you get together periodically to practice and study. Birds of a feather, and all that.

Regardless whether the session is “open” or “closed,” or something in between, the rules apply. The music is played. Friendships are made.

Do you have experiences with closed or open sessions? Share them in the comments!

Thoughts on Picking Up a Second Instrument Before You’ve Mastered the First

ImageI am curious by nature. If something is a mystery to me, I’ll try to find out more about it. Take the Japanese language, for example. After learning Irish I found myself very curious about Japanese because I watch a lot of anime, and the language and its native speakers seemed very…different from myself and my own language. Was it as hard as I had heard? Were Japanese people special because they could speak it?

No, on both counts. It’s just a language. If you put in the time and effort, you start to get it.

I saw the fiddle in a similar way, and asked similar questions about how it’s played and the people who play it. So I decided to take it up. Like Japanese, I really love it. But since it’s music related, I have a feeling I won’t let it fall by the wayside the way I did with the native language of Japan.

Taking up another instrument, especially if you’re not a master of your first, brings up some issues. You should be aware that the second instrument can take time away from your first–I still need to practice the concertina, but I’m pretty dedicated to the fiddle as well. I am lucky in that i am able to play the concertina most days at lunchtime at work–either outside or in the car–so I get to play it pretty regularly. This means I can practice the fiddle at home without using up a ton of time. If you don’t have this advantage, though, think hard about whether a second instrument is going to work out for you. Picking an instrument that is portable, like the concertina or the whistle, might be a good choice if you have the option to practice away from home.

One advantage of playing two instruments is that your playing and progress on one will inform your playing and progress on the other. Your sense of timing, pitch, and your ability to really memorize tunes are all enhanced by the different approaches to music. It’s also true that if you have progressed well on the first instrument you will probably progress well or better–and possibly more quickly–on the second. It’s that way with languages too–you learn how to learn. It makes it much easier the second time around.

Another caveat which I have heard mentioned is that if you pick an instrument that is too similar to your first, it can trip you up. I’m not sure if this would be true for everyone, but I do think it could cause some folks a headache or two. For example if I had picked the English system concertina–it would feel familiar in my hands, but it’s played very differently. I may find myself wanting to use techniques that apply to the Anglo system that would never make sense on the English.

So think well, weigh the pros and cons. Your second instrument will take just as much time and effort to learn as the first, so make sure you have it to give! And by the way, cowbell is alot harder than it looks, believe me–I recommend fiddle instead. ;)