The studio guitarist’s guide to happiness and personal fulfilment, as related by session ace Mitch Dalton. This month: How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Irecently wrote myself an arrangement of When You Wish Upon A Star, the hit song from Disney’s 1940 classic, Pinocchio. It was a chord melody thing for fingerstyle guitar. I threw in a few altered voicings, one or two harmonic devices and some of my own particular clichés and jotted it down the old-fashioned way, utilising papyrus and pencil. In all fairness, I thought it wasn’t bad. A couple of committed fretting chums showed interest and I scanned it and sent it over to them upon request, thus combining traditional rustic skills with cutting-edge modern technology. One recorded his interpretation and emailed it back and the other afforded me a live rendition. Both of which gave me food for thought concerning the mechanics of practicing our common instrument.
Putting to one side the fact that it’s rewarding to write something that others find useful and fulfilling to play, a number of features of their interpretation seemed common to both performances. It struck me that while I considered my modest effort to be of ‘intermediate’ technical difficulty, they both seemed to make heavy weather of it both in specific places and in general (I’ve always loved that delightfully vague word, by the way. As far as I can tell, it means “harder than Three Blind Mice but easier than The Ring Cycle played from memory”).
Nevertheless, the following is a condensed version of my observations. I am pleased to report that both friends took my thoughts in good part and in a spirit of comradeship and maturity. Most of the stitches were removed after only a few days.
First, learn the tune thoroughly. Memorise it. Music is a horizontal art. By which I mean that although notes may be written vertically on a page to imply a chord, there is an arc to the melody that moves forward and along. It’s easy to become bogged down in figuring out the chord shape or the position of a series of arpeggios (I did indicate all that since you don’t ask, not being The Marquis de Sade of Manuscript) and thereby lose the flow of the toon.
Secondly, isolate the sections that are problematical, one bar or even one beat at a time if necessary. Slow the segment down and practise it at a tempo that renders it playable, accurately and consistently. If we assume that the idea of practising incorporates the notion of repetition, then it is a matter of simple logic to conclude that fumbling through passages at performance tempo repeatedly will lead to perfecting your mistakes. A sobering thought.
Thirdly, record your performance. You may well be surprised. Perhaps not in a good way. We humans have a remarkable talent for self delusion. You might think you sound like the very embodiment of Andrés Ségovia, Joe Pass and Joe Satriani combined in the form of a 10-stone weakling, but Garage Band doesn’t lie (they fixed that on iOS update 12.0.2, as it happens).
Fourthly, don’t kid yourself that the word ‘rubato’ means, “Bloody great! I can play this mother any way I want, taking my time over the difficult passages and generally bending the piece to mask my limitations.” It so doesn’t.
Fifthly, use a metronome. I refuse to explain why. So there.
And now, some psychobabble which I know to be true from bitter experience. Differentiate between ‘Practice’ and ‘Playing’. The former is a disciplined approach to improving a technical aspect of your playing you have identified as requiring attention. The latter is having a good time. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the latter - indeed it’s the raison d’etre for our entire endeavour - think of it as your reward for putting in the effort with the former. Treat with scepticism remarks like, “I’m really shedding it this week. I’ve been doing six hours’ practice a day.” I dare to suggest that in most cases that’s... er, piffle. What our self-satisfied protagonist usually means is, “I’ve been sitting in my room holding a guitar all day, meandering mentally between Smoke On The Water, Stairway To Heaven and whether I should ring that girl I met last night.” Half an hour of concentrated practice my friend is exhausting. Time for a cuppa, a Hobnob and a headclearing walk. And then back to it.
And last off. Improvement is not a linear thing, sadly. You may think that nothing is happening, you’ll never crack that difficult lick and it’s time to pack it in and take up the ukulele. But - courage mon brave. Follow my simple guidelines and, Voila! It will happen. Just not today. Probably.
don’t kid yourself that the word ‘rubato’ means, ‘great, i can play this mother any way i want!’
Mitch offers words of wisdom on guitar self improvement