When I wrote a blog on practicing more than a year ago, I apparently touched a nerve, judging from the amount and tone of the comments it generated. (Fun fact: No one ever comments on my blogs.) Some readers concurred with my thesis, which is basically that I don’t like to “practice” anything that I won’t someday use in a song. No fingering or stretching exercises, no mindless drilling of scales, no “warm-up” exercises that sound terrible. I’m going to only play stuff that is real music that I can eventually use in real musical situations. It made sense when I wrote it, and it makes sense to me now.
Some readers, however, took issue with this concept, and made some compelling arguments against it. One of the best came from Gordon Wimpress. You can read his whole post here, but a part that caught my eye was this:
“I'll have to strongly disagree with Matt's approach. As Dee implies, playing guitar is a physical, athletic endeavor. To do your best in a sport, you do things that will help you physically perform better on the field, such as lifting weights, running laps, doing sit-ups, etc. According to Matt, why would I do that? I never lift a barbell on the field of play! Because it builds up your strength and endurance. Why do I stretch my legs? I don't do that the game! Again, it's to improve your performance and prevent injury.”
I was considering Gordon’s words when I saw a Steve Morse video in which he demonstrates a warm-up exercise where he trills with each finger from a fretted note to the open string. The catch, according to Morse, is that you need to keep all your other fingers anchored while you trill, because that isolates the muscle in the trilling finger. Hmm. Steve Morse sure has better chops than I do, I thought. I gave it a shot. I laid all four fingers on the G string, one finger per fret. Then I trilled on the D string with my first finger, leaving the other three anchored on the G string. I then put my first finger back on the G string and trilled on the D string with my second finger. I went through the process with my remaining fingers and back again, over and over. It’s definitely a workout. Maybe there was something to this whole exercise thing after all.
Reader Jeff didn’t give his last name (Beck? Loomis? Skunk Baxter?) but he had this to say about my theory:
“Scales, exercises, arpeggios, granted on their own are not always musical. But I would argue that you never know when some exercise or practice routine, or scale is going to pay off. Saying you’re not going to practice a certain way or thing just because at that moment you don't know any songs to use it with. And lots of times if I master something obscure or maybe mundane, I will turn it around and write it into a song I am working on. You just never know when a little lick, or practice diddy, or inverted arpeggio will lead. Want proof, try ‘Sweet Child Of Mine.’ Slash wrote that as something to practice and Izzy went, ‘Hey, what was that?’ You never know... So don't be quick to dismiss anything.”
Fair enough. I realized that I had put a fair amount of time into learning how to play Justin Derrico’s “Slip Trick” that was in the 10/11 issue of GP. It’s a slippery, pseudo-chromatic head-turner that also happens to build strength and coordination. I can’t recall using it in a tune, but I love the fact that I could and in the meantime it’s fun just playing it.
So is my position on practicing evolving? Am I flip-flopping on my stance in this election year? Not really. I still think life is too short to play stuff that doesn’t sound good, but certain things can be a means to an end—the end being playing better. I also realize that everyone is different and some people might really enjoy playing exercises almost as a form of meditation and if that gets you centered and confident and then you go play a better gig as a result, great.
For me, I noticed that the Steve Morse exercise didn’t seem to make me faster or stronger and the best “warm-up” for me is playing slowly and in time. I’ll play chord progressions, licks, arpeggios, or songs—slowly, gently, and in time (I use the Time Guru app on my phone). Those are all things that I use in songs and they all seem to be in keeping with what Gordon, Jeff, and my other critics were getting at.
One final truism I’ll leave you with comes from a guy who has spent just a wee bit of time in the woodshed. Mr. Yngwie J. Malmsteen told me this:
“There is no secret. Record yourself and listen back. If it sounds good, it is good.”
Want to know what to practice? Easy. Whatever doesn’t sound good in your playing. We can all agree on that.