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Fixing Mistakes and Improving Problem Areas

Part 1: Location, Isolation and Repetition

To ensure that your playing is constantly improving, you need to spend some time working on improving the things that are holding you back. This seems common sense, but my experiences have taught me that a disturbingly large portion of musicians don’t do this effectively. With this series of articles I intend to shed some light on the issue, looking at a number of useful strategies along the way.

The material covered is appropriate for all levels of instrumental proficiency and for all instruments, though it is written principally with guitarists in mind.

Locating the problem area

How many guitarists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Eight – one to do it, and seven to say they could do it better.

Guitarists can tend to be really critical of other peoples’ playing, yet remain oblivious to their own imperfections. Next time you sit down to practice and you have warmed up, play a piece of music. Really try to listen to what you are playing. Imagine you can observe yourself as if you we part of an audience. What would you think?

It can be really helpful to record yourself. When you hear a recording you probably instinctively adopt an ‘I’m better than that’ mindset. When you remember that it’s a recording of you it can be quite a shock. When the mistakes are there on tape it’s much harder to make the same excuses and ignore the same problems.

So how did you go? Was there anything that made you wince? Any mistakes? If you did, that’s fantastic! Now you have an idea of what you need to work on. It’s nice to know that mistakes, if approached positively, can be a gateway to improvement.

Isolating the problem
Now you need to go back to the section you feel contained the biggest problem. Play through that section and get a feel for exactly what the problem was. It might be as simple as a single pick stroke. Try to isolate the problem, and play over it a few times slowly, exactly as you would be playing it within the piece. Make sure that you are using the same fingering, picking directions, etc. as you would when playing it in the context of the piece as a whole.

Experiment with your approach to that area – try altering various aspects of your technique to see what provides the best result. This includes hand positions and angles, fingerings, picking directions, etc. You may find that you have to alter your approach to the preceding section to make the current one work. For example, you may have to start the earlier part on a different finger so that you can use a new fingering for the current section. Keep checking back to see if any changes you make are going to work when you put the piece back together.

It is very important that you do this slowly so that you can hear, see and feel the idea in detail, and can understand exactly where the problem lies so it can be fixed. However, you need to keep trying the changes you make at the piece’s speed so that you know what will work in context.

A lot of people have trouble starting at a phrase in the middle of a piece without playing from the beginning of the whole section. It makes sense to get used to isolating a small section and being able to start there – why waste time playing over something you’re comfortable with when you could be spending it on improvement? You may have to play the longer version first to get a feel for how to begin the shorter version, but try to get comfortable with starting from the problem area as soon as you can. Being able to play from random points within the piece will also help you to develop a greater understanding of the music.

Repetition is an important tool for practice. Through repetition the muscles in you fingers memorise a series of movements. So if you play an idea over and over you will eventually be able to play it comfortably without needing to put too much concentration into how to move individual fingers. This means that you can pay attention to more musical things like dynamics, tone and articulation.

All movements practiced repetitively will be memorised. This goes for the bad ones as well as the good. If you play a mistake over and over, your fingers will memorise it and it will be very difficult to un-learn that mistake. For this reason it is important to make sure that every aspect of the way you play the idea is as perfect as possible. Consider rhythms, tone, articulation, technique and posture. Make sure you are relaxed (especially in your hands) and have a straight back.

But if it’s a problem area, how can you just start playing it perfectly?

Practice slowly
You can do this by playing it slowly. It makes sense that if you can’t play it perfectly at a slow speed, you have no hope when you speed it up. Take your time and make sure it is really sounding as good as possible. When you become comfortable with it you can try speeding it up a little. Then when you are comfortable at that speed try it a little faster. Do this until you have reached the speed of the piece (or until you have had enough).

Other approaches to repetition
It can be good to try some different approaches. If you are having trouble playing the idea through mistake-free, even at a slow speed, you may wish to try just starting with the first two or three notes. Play them over and over until you are comfortable with them. Then add the next note in and play this over and over until you are comfortable with it. Repeat the process until you can play all the notes. This is useful for runs and phrases with several notes.

Another approach is to play the idea twice at half the desired tempo, then four times full speed, going back and forth. By ‘full speed’, I don’t necessarily mean the speed of the piece, but the fastest speed you can play the lick. This might be much slower than the piece.

Applying the idea back to the piece
Try playing from a bar or two earlier than you have been and continue for a bar or two after the idea. Concentrate on moving from one bit to the next. You will probably have to slow down a little again before you can do all of this comfortably. Then try a larger chunk. Do this until you are confident that you have resolved the problem.

You may find that you only need to play the isolated section through a few times slowly before you feel you are ready to try it in context again. This is fine, but make sure you are being honest with yourself and not rushing through the process. Rushing will actually end up making it take longer to achieve the desired standard of performance.

I should also mention that you are using repetition whenever you play through a piece of music several times, including over a long period of time. But because you are playing a large collection of musical ideas there is more chance that you will play something less than perfectly. If you do this every time you play through the piece you are training your fingers to do play this part poorly, and making it harder to fix the problem later. This is another reason why it is important to isolate a smaller chunk of the music when you practice repetitively - so you don’t unwittingly train yourself to play anything badly.

Take breaks
A downside to repetition is that if excessive it can lead to repetitive strain injuries. Don’t let that turn you off – just be careful not to overdo it. Make sure you are warmed up, stretched and relaxed. Take occasional short breaks and give your hands a chance to recuperate. Pay attention to your body and don’t play through any discomfort. I will often just practice the right hand part or other right hand exercises if my left hand is getting tired, move to something else, or just put the instrument down for a few minutes. You don’t have to fix your problem all in one session.

Use a Metronome
If the problem area still needs work after ten or so repetitions, try using a metronome or drum machine. This will help you to play with a more accurate sense of rhythm and make it easy to focus. Just set the clicks to a comfortable speed, and go over and over the idea. Once you can play the idea comfortably, slightly increase the metronome speed and practice the idea until it is comfortable again. Continue in this fashion until you can play it comfortably at the speed you would want to use in the context of the piece.

I find that practicing with a metronome can become quite meditative. It is quite pleasant to sit and feel your playing gradually improving. If you approach it with a negative attitude it will be a drag, but if you are positive you will enjoy and benefit from the process. Just be careful that you don’t get carried away and overdo it – if you experience any discomfort stop immediately, as described above. Also, if you do it for so long that it becomes boring you will not look forward to doing it next time, so be reasonable.

Do it again in another session
You shouldn’t necessarily expect to perfect everything in the space of one practice session. It may take days, weeks, or months to get something to the standard you want. It comes down to where you are at with your playing. If you’re starting out it doesn’t make sense to expect to be able to master six-string sweep picking in the space of a single practice session. So be aware of your capabilities to avoid too much frustration.

Also, if you really improve something during a practice session but don’t look at it again for a couple of weeks, you’ll probably find yourself back where you started. Try to check back within a couple of days on what you were working on to see if you can do it at the level you want. You will most probably need to go over it with repetition again but you should find that you don’t need to work as hard to get to the same level, and can improve on your previous achievement. Over time you will notice a huge improvement and that will motivate you to do this more.

Remember that you are playing your instrument because you enjoy it (what’s the point otherwise?). Keep your practice sessions fun and play music you love.


About the Author
David began playing guitar at the age of 13, having since gained experience in many styles including jazz, rock, metal, folk, classical, and Indian music. He completed a Bmus.studies(Musicology) degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2004. David has been involved in teaching and session work, as well as playing with several bands including Fergus Recliner and Tapestries of Sound.See www.davidcarrmusic.net for more details.

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