A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Basic Template for a Practice Session--Part 2

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In Basic Template for a Practice Session--Part 1, I talk about starting the first half of a practice session with fundamentals. In the second half of the session, I learn new songs. To get the most out of this half of the session you need to keep in mind that there are two goals:
  • Learn some new songs (duh!)
  • Get better at something!
The focus of the something you want to get better at can change. It might be a particular technique, the ability to read sheet music, or to learn a specific artist's style, etc. Just keep in mind that this part of your practice should develop more than just adding a new song to your repertoire--it needs to add a skill that you can notice in other aspects of your playing.

Sources of Songs

There are several ways you can learn a new song:
  • Tab and audio
  • Tab alone
  • Sheet music and audio
  • Sheet music alone
  • By ear with audio
  • By ear from memory

Tab and Audio

Of all of these options, I think the most efficient and productive from a learning perspective is tab and audio, i.e., CD, DVD, or whatever medium you use to hear the song. Before I hunkered down and decided to develop better practice routines, I would learn a lot of songs by ear but stop at a point where I was "close enough" to play a reasonable version of it. Well the problem was I was learning more songs but I wasn't getting any better. So now I learn new songs from one of my CD instructional programs and learn to play it as written, note-for-note and finger-for-finger.

Essentially, the audio demonstrates what the instructor is playing and the tab shows how he is playing it. But it is more complicated than that. I go back and forth between the two with each giving me a better understanding of the other. I think I heard what he was playing until I see the timing in the tab and I say, "He's not playing a quarter note there." Then I go back to the audio and sure enough, now I can hear that quarter note. Or I read the tab and can't make sense out of a particular run of notes until I go to the audio and hear it. This iteration back and forth reminds me of an adage we have in technical writing "You need the machine to understand the manual as much as you need the manual to understand the machine."

The best instructional CDs have the song at two speeds: slow and not so slow.

If you learn songs this way, you not only get a new song, you pick up new fingering techniques, new licks, insight into someone's style, and you get more fluent at reading tab.

Tab Alone

I find it very hard to learn a song by tab alone, I only mention it in case someone says "Hey what about learning by tab alone?!?" Maybe as I get more fluent at reading tab, that will change. But I can learn rolls by reading the tab without an accompanying CD.

Sheet Music and Audio

I enjoy arranging songs for Dobro, so I often learn the melody line from sheet music and then convert that to a Dobro arrangement. For example, I use the Steve Kaufman Four Hour Bluegrass Workout series to learn a new fiddle tune. I start by learning it note by note the way Steve has it in the music. Then I rearrange it to accommodate the Dobro. I find that this keeps my arrangements more honest to the melody line and less likely to be just playing rolls along a straight bar while I follow the chord progression.

By the way, I find I'm getting much better at this since I started practicing scales, especially folded scales. My note-to-note dexterity has improved.

Sheet Music Alone

Not as hard as it sounds. I have a somewhat dyslexic ear and if I learn a song's melody by ear, I might have all the notes, but rarely in the right order. I like to pick up a song book and just play the melody to make sure I'm getting it right.

By Ear with Audio

Sometimes you have a recent CD with a cool song and no one has transcribed it to tab yet. I think learning it off the CD develops your ability to hear notes and discern chord progressions.

By Ear from Memory

I'm not saying don't do it, just don't expect it to make you much better.

Disassemble, Learn, Reassemble

Learning a song is not as simple as just sitting down and going through it in a linear way from beginning to end. Music is essentially a language and you should approach learning it the way you learn a language.

First of all, language is not a string of single syllables pronounced in sequence. It is a collection of words and phases, each of which we have come to treat as units in their own right. For example let's consider the following song lyric:


Someone who was not a native speaker of English would not try to learn that as a sequence of syllables as it is written above. He would learn combinations of syllables we call words, like "somewhere," "over," and "rainbow." He would practice these separately until the individual syllables flowed smoothly as words. Then he would use those words as units to build and practice the larger phrase "Somewhere over the rainbow." Then he would learn and practice "skies are blue." Then he would try the whole thing, "Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue."

Learning a new Dobro song is just the same. Don't see the song as a long string of notes, break it down into its musical "words" and "phrases." For example, don't just learn to play the notes G,A,A#,B,D,E,D,G. Learn this as a word (G-run) and practice it until it becomes a smooth unit.

Then start putting these words together into phrases and then put the phrases together into the musical parts.

And don't get discouraged if the going is slow. It takes me a week or more to learn the A part of a song and then another week or so to get the B part. Then I start working on speed (and that takes months).

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