Warm Ups

I like to begin my day with some simple slow warm up exercises.  I’m not a big believer in hard stretching.  To me it sounds like something that could be risky.  I’m particularly opposed to stretching one hand by pulling or pushing it with the other, or by using a wall or other object for resistance.  For me, some slow finger movements on the instrument, actually playing, that is, seem like a good safe way to get the muscles warmed up and limber.

The key here, of course, is that these warm ups must be played slowly. I like to start out by playing a little slower than one note per second.  I simply place my left hand first finger on the third string first fret (G#) then play A with the second finger (not picking the first finger up), then adding A# and then B with the third and fourth fingers, respectively. In each case, I place the finger on the string very carefully, trying, as it were, to put the groove in the correct place on the tip of the finger, and placing the finger as close to the fret as possible.  I repeat this set in second position, and so on, up to ninth position.  Then, I descend back to first position in the reverse order (4-3-2-1, etc.)

I repeat this exercise 4 times, once with index-middle alternation, once with middle-ring, once with index-ring, and finally with the thumb.  Here is a video in which I walk you through and demonstrate this exercise.  Try playing along with it!

Fast Tube by Casper



Daily schedule

The school year has ended and I’ve begun to organize my summer practice schedule. During the academic year I find it very difficult to squeeze in any more than 3 hours of practice per day. My typical day begins at 4:30 AM, when I let my dog out to the back yard, start my coffee maker, and let the dog back in. By 4:45 I’m tuning my guitar, buffing my nails and beginning my morning warm up exercises. These include very slow right and left hand finger placement exercises, either arpeggios or tremolo work, and then short fast scales. At around 5:20 or 5:25 I perform my morning ablutions, and at 5:50 or 5:55 wolf down what passes for breakfast.

I get to my classroom around 6:10 or 6:15, and once I’ve opened up the guitar locker-room/music library and fired up my computer, I sit in my office for 30 minutes of scale work.

My teaching begins at 7, and it is an unusual day indeed when I’m able to practice before it ends. Dismissal is at 2:05, and I’m in my office working until 2:45 on some days and 4:00 on others. On the days when I’m finished at 2:45 I then either go home to give some private lessons, or head over to Southeastern University to give lessons or direct the guitar ensemble. I typically finish up everything around 6 or 7 PM, and then have some dinner. So, now it’s 8 PM and I begin my real practicing. I try to get in another 2 hours, and it just depends on how fatigued I am as to whether I get it all in or not.

You can see why I live for the summer! My typical summer schedule begins with an hour bike ride, and I begin my warm ups at 8. Half hour of warm ups, followed by a short break, half hour of scales, followed by another short break, and then half hour of sight reading.

At this point I may take a slightly longer break, and then I resume with half hour of Aim Directed Movement, followed by half hour on my newest repertoire. At this writing the ADM and new repertoire is all the Barrios “Catedral”. After lunch I resume with half hour of repertoire that, while not my newest is still not completely learned. Right now that is the Koshkin “Merlin’s Dream”. After that (and a short break) I spend half hour on my almost-finished repertoire, which now is Troy Gifford’s “Fantasia on a theme by Ravel”.

I then take a big break from the guitar during which I read a book, write letters, articles, or whatever, and then I get back to my practicing with half hour or so of work on choros.

In my next post I will begin to break down each segment of my practice schedule to give a clearer picture of what I do and why I think it’s important.

Targeted Practicing

In one of my guitar classes today I gave the students the following instructions:
“Put your guitars down. Find a small section of one piece of music that you are working on. I will set the timer at 15 minutes, and for that period of time I want you to study your music. You may use visualization, soft vocalization (solfege) and/or Aim Directed Movement. At the end of the 15 minutes pick up your instruments and begin to practice playing what you have been silently practicing. You’ll have 15 minutes to complete that second part.”

You will notice that the first thing I had the students do was put their guitars down. This is essential, because if you are trying to practice mentally with the instrument in your hands, you will almost definitely begin to play before you are mentally prepared. Remember, learning is mental. There is no such thing as muscle memory. What we think of as muscle memory is really plain old every day memorization of physical movements which are so deeply embedded that they can be executed with no conscious thought process or mental effort. But your brain is still in control.

The next thing that you will notice from the instructions was “find a small section of music.” This should be central to your practicing at all times. Not necessarily that the section is small, but that you have deliberately chosen something very specific to practice. To say “I’m practicing the Bach Prelude” is far too general. Far better would be to say, “I’m practicing the 36 measures that I find are technically challenging”, or “I’m going to work on the places in the Villa-Lobos where the dynamics change,” or even, “I’m going to practice the fast runs in the piece.” This process gives your practice a specific goal, without which you are simply repeating large sections of music mindlessly. I think of this as “Targeted Practice”. I target one aspect of the piece and work it thoughtfully and systematically.

Now, while my students were indulging in this form of practice, I was doing something that educators refer to as modeling. That is, I demonstrated the activity that I wanted them to replicate. Put differently, I did exactly what they were doing while they were doing it in front of them so that they could see what it should look like. This of course had a huge benefit to me, because it meant that I was getting in some very productive practice time myself!

So my specific target today was Koshkin’s “Merlin’s Dream”, measures 46 through 76. It’s a section that I’m not completely comfortable with from a technical standpoint. So I spent 15 minutes running it mentally, one hand at a time, while “listening” to it in my head. I tried fingering it on my arm and playing through it mentally without any hand movement. At 15 minutes, I instructed the students to pick up their instruments, and to practice playing for the next 15 minutes what they had been working on. I did likewise. Needless to say, I found the technical aspect of the music much easier, and I was able to clean up the few remaining difficulties rather easily within the allotted time. All of the students found the same result, although some of them may have been a bit more surprised at the result than I was.

My next task for later today will be to spend 15 minutes singing the same section mentally focusing on the dynamics, articulations, accents, and phrasing in order to get a clear picture of what I want it to sound like, then I’ll spend another 15 minutes practicing those interpretive aspects. Ultimately, the goal is that by day’s end I will have mastered these 40 measures.

Slow Practice

Yesterday I spent some time practicing the Troy Gifford Fantasia which I’ve been learning for a little while, but which I haven’t touched in nearly a week.  Since it is not yet learned completely there were two issues:

1.Some spots that I had not memorized as completely as others seemed to slip my mind,

2.The trickier technical spots were not as clean as they were last week.

What to do? One very important part of effective practicing is to have specific goals in mind every time you sit down.  I decided to address the technical spots first with the intent of working on the memorization today.  So the title of this post should make the answer obvious.  I practiced it slowly, sometimes with a metronome.

A word about the metronome.  It can be a very useful tool when used correctly.  I usually use it to keep myself from playing too fast too soon.  Although I have in the past used it to build speed in my scales, I almost never use it to increase my speed in repertoire.  Increasing speed in repertoire should be organic.  Learn to play the music correctly and don’t try to play fast, and it will speed up on its own.  If anything, one must sometimes make a conscious effort to keep it slower longer, which is where the metronome comes in.  The idea is that if you develop speed before you are really ready the music will get sloppy, and you’ll have a hard time cleaning it up.  But if you work slowly and carefully the speed will eventually come on its own.  On the rare occasion when I use the metronome to help pick up speed I use it only for short flurries of fast notes, in order to make sure that they are keeping pace with the rest of the piece.  And this is done only when I know that I can play the notes fast and clean.

So after about 45 minutes of practicing the Fantasia at a snail’s pace I found that I could let myself speed up a little without losing any clarity.

Now that I can play it more or less up to speed again, it’s time to address the memorization issues.  I’ll tackle that later today, and report back on it tomorrow.