I recently re-learned a valuable lesson about practice that I have been telling my students about for years but not putting in to use myself. That is the importance of DAILY organized rehearsal of something you are working on.
I had lost track of the importance of daily practice in my own growth as a musician. There’s not much that I haven’t seen technically or musically so I’m used to learning new music with ease. This had led me to become over confident about my ability to learn. In addition it brought about a lack of diligence of any kind when I did pick up new things.
I think a lot of it has to due with the fact that I’ve been playing for 30 years and teaching for 23 and doing gigs constantly. As a result I was subconsciously thinking “With all this experience and practice why would I need to still follow the basics. I’m exempt from that. Too good for it, right?”
This whole thing came about when I started making the instruction video for “Pride And Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn. It was a song I had heard a hundred times but never tried to play. I knew I would have to figure it out lick by lick from scratch. I knew it was pretty much like one big blues solo so I had a lot of notes to pick up and not just a chord progression or pattern. What I didn’t take into consideration was that the memorization and perfect execution of such a complex song would require diligent daily practice.
I lead a pretty busy life. I have a young son that keeps me busy most of the day. I gig a lot of nights. Daily diligent practice does not fit into my schedule very well. So there’s not much time left for digging really deep into learning something new. I play every day but almost none of it can be considered “practice”. Playing a four hour gig a couple nights a week will keep your fingers stretched out and present opportunities to try new improvisational things but it won’t help you one bit when it comes to getting something complex that you need to learn from scratch under your fingers.
Usually when I make a video I figure out the parts real quick, sketch it out on paper, and maybe write down the solo if its long or noodly. Then I do each segment for the camera, sometimes reading it off the paper I just wrote, not even memorized yet. After I have done each segment I pretty much know it well enough to knock out the play along part flawlessly. This works great with songs that have mostly the same pattern happening in a verse-chorus-bridge-solo kinda way. It was a disastrous approach for “Pride And Joy”.
The problem I was running into was that I would figure out a part, write it down, take however long it took to work it up to speed and leave it. Leave it for 2 or 3 days! So when I finally got back to it I would need to refresh my memory on what it was in the first place then review it to get it back up to speed. This went on with a number of parts for like a week and a half. One night I was just kicking myself for being so slow. It seemed that every time I had taken 2 steps forward I was taking one step back, thinking “How could this possibly be? After all I’m awesome, right? I can play anything.”
The truth was I could play nothing. Nothing that was new and required daily, diligent, focused rehearsal and complex memorization. It was going to take forever to learn that song with the approach I was taking. So it was time to actually make an organized effort to conquer all the parts and then put them together. This meant memorizing it top to bottom, backwards, forwards, and sideways. This would require daily review of all the parts I learned and daily practice for the harder parts I actually had to work up to speed.
So I divided it into intro, verses and solos. Then I resolved to practice each for just 10 minutes until all had been rehearsed. Then I played along with the recording the best I could a few times, taking mental notes of where I made mistakes. I like to call that a “practice session”. In this case a “session” took almost an hour and a half. When you finish the session you take a break, at least a half hour, to clear your head and rest your fingers. Then you do it again if you have time. Make time for it DAILY or you will end up “backtracking” and need to re-learn what you forget by taking too much time away.
I had it learned in no time after I started rehearsing it in this organized way. I was re-awakened to the idea that it only takes half the time to learn anything if you approach it methodically and review information already learned as well as focusing on new stuff.
Here’s a step by step way to approach learning a song more quickly:
1) Look for similarities in the song. For example, verses, choruses or licks that reoccur.
2) Look for variations on the reoccurring parts.
3) Isolate each part and make it the only thing you will focus on for a period of time during your session. For example decide to practice a chorus, which may only be 20 seconds long, repeatedly for 10 minutes in the session.
4) For most songs you will probably end up with 5-10 unique parts to focus on.
5) Practice each for only a specified same amount of time. For example spend no more or less than 10 minutes on each of the parts in an 8 part song. Or say maybe 6 minutes each for a 10 part song to make it an even hour of practice. Use your judgement, you know how fast you can learn. Don’t make the time periods so long that you get bored. You wnat to remain excited about what you’re doing. Don’t make them so short though that you barely make any progress. I like to take something at least 10 times through usually more. If I get perfect, many times in a row, I just drop it from the rotation later to save time.
6) After a number of sessions you will find that you may know some parts perfectly while others lag behind. These are identified as the more difficult ones.
7) When you find you can play a part perfectly a few times in a row remove it from the 10 minute rotation. However play it a few times each session just to keep it under your fingers.
8) Repeat the process with the parts that aren’t perfect yet until everything gets learned.
After you go through this routine with a few songs you will find that there are always parts that are very difficult that may take a lot more time to learn than others. Usually I have a few songs going at once and devote a session to just all the very difficult parts from the various songs.
There may be parts that could take weeks to learn at just 7 minutes each. You can be more aggressive and increase the amount of time you want to spend to get them down quicker. But by no means let on lick or part consume all your practice time. There’s way to much music out there in the world to get stuck on just one thing.
You can use this same method for practicing licks, chords, scales, etc. In fact right now I’m getting ready to make a video called “Licks, Licks, Licks” which utilizes this practice method to help you learn 50 repeatable licks that build on one another in difficulty. Be on the lookout for that video. You’ll learn a ton from it.
You’ll find by picking fixed intervals of time to practice a certain idea it will keep you from getting stuck on one thing for two long and have no time left to practice anything else. Also it will help you be disciplined enough to do something perfect repeatedly after you have it down pretty good when the natural tendency is to move to something else right away.
So that’s how learning “Pride And Joy” turned a light on in my brain so I could see what was already there. There’s no substitute for organized, focused, diligent, repetitive, consistent, persistent, tenacious, DAILY practice!