Go For Great
by Stan Munslow on 06/27/16
It can be so frustrating. You hear a comedian tell the absolute funniest joke in the world. It’s so funny that you’re on the floor for five minutes, shrieking hysterically. The next day you tell the same joke to your friends and their reactions are, to say the least, more subdued. Now you’re devastated. “Don’t you get it?” you ask. They tell you that they did get it, but that it just wasn’t all that funny. “Oh, well, I guess you had to be there,” you mutter.
Often it’s not so much the joke that puts you on the floor, but the way it’s told. Comedians are masters of expression, voice-tone, timing, and all the subliminal little things they do that make their renditions sparkle. Without these, yours will most likely fall flat.
In music it’s the same way. It’s not just the notes you play, but how you play them. And an important part of how you play the notes is articulation.
Articulation means how the notes are struck, held, or connected. A lifeless string of notes can be invigorated with the right “attack.” They could be played smoothly (legato), choppy (staccato), hard (accented), or short and hard (marcatto). You can slide quickly into a note (grace-note), or from one note into another (glissando). You can flutter up or down a step from the note you’re on (trill), or, on most instruments, waver the pitch up and down (vibrato). Then there are things you can do to the volume: crescendo (gradually increasing the volume during a note or phrase), and diminuendo (gradually decreasing the volume).
Of course, many of these can be combined within the same passage. In a single six-note phrase, for example, you could play legato for the first three notes and staccato for the last three. The possibilities are endless.
These are simply suggestions for you to consider. If you are a beginner and are unsure how to execute some of these, there is no shortage of instruction books written for your instrument that you can consult.
Of course, it is possible to overdo it. Part of the process of getting good is to develop a sense of tastefulness. Even just a few well-chosen accents here and there can do wonders for a melody. But for most students I’ve worked with, overdoing it is not the problem. Under-doing it is.
Most published music will give you at least some suggested articulations. Certainly, you should try them. But you should also consider putting in some of your own.
Listen carefully to players you admire. Listen to how they articulate. Very often their melodies may be quite simple and still very effective. The sparkle in their music is due to much more than their articulations, of course, but the articulations definitely help.
For now, experiment with articulations. Take a simple melody you know well and try playing it legato, then staccato; add some accents here and there; vary the volume; trill a long note; add vibrato to another. Then mix and match and discover what you like.
Playing music really is like telling a joke. Sometimes, it’s how you play it.
by Stan Munslow on 06/27/16
The ability to play with blinding speed has long been a dream for many musicians. But in recent times this dream has mushroomed into a national obsession. There is a proliferation of musicians, on all instruments, who are on a speed rampage.
It used to be that players strove simply for the ability to play as fast as their music demanded. Now it has become a craze of “speed for its own sake.” It has taken on the character of an arms race with many taking up the call for more velocity for no practical reason and with no limit in sight. No matter how fast they get, it is never fast enough.
Many have moved from appreciating another’s music to rating that player by how many notes he can squeeze into a sixteen-bar solo. “Who’s better?” discussions often become “who’s faster?” debates.
Preoccupations or obsessions with playing faster and faster would not be such a problem if it were not for three things:
First, many players devote so much of their practice time to speed exercises that they end up with little or no time to work on more important matters such as feel, expression, rhythm, or tone. Their playing becomes cold, calculated, and uncreative. Their listeners become confused, bored, and unmoved by music that is big on clutter and short on just about everything else.
Second, those who have not been blessed with the ability to play fast will often judge themselves as incompetent, even if they have abilities in other, often more important, areas. They spend their time comparing themselves to their heroes, even their peers, feeling all the more inadequate, sometimes abandoning their dream altogether. What a waste of talent that is.
Finally, ask anyone in the audience if they really care how fast you can play. Sure, some of the musicians in the crowd might. But remember that, as a musician, you’ve cultivated a different set of priorities than most non-musicians. In other words, most folks simply don’t listen to music the way you do. They don’t analyze it and judge it on its technical merits. For example, Eric Clapton’s nickname is “Slowhand.” That shows what sort of priority he attaches to speed, doesn’t it? Does he suffer from any lack of respect from the community as a whole? How about B.B. King, Elton John, Maynard Ferguson, or the many other greats who have little interest in showing the world how fast they can wiggle their fingers?
That’s the key to beating an addiction to speed: Realizing that our efforts to show off and impress the audience almost always fall upon deaf ears. It just doesn’t work. Playing well impresses people; playing fast does not. Too many musicians have gotten to the point where they can’t see the difference anymore.
Music is art; it is not an Olympic event. Are other artists judged by how quickly they perform their skills? Have you ever heard anyone say something like: “Oh, that painting is so wonderful ... the artist painted it so fast!” Or how about: “This book is great ... I hear the author typed it in only four days!” You get the idea.
Of course, there are times when you will need to play fast. The key is balance. Speed deserves no more of your attention or practice time than any other element of your music. Work on speed sometimes, but don’t overlook the other things. If anything should be a priority in your music it is enjoyment and enrichment.
For you and your fans.
by Stan Munslow on 06/25/16
Some time ago, a friend of mine hired me to do the improvised lead guitar solos for his latest recording project. The songs, all originals, were already recorded, so I told him I would listen to each tune once and then do a “practice take” to get a feel for the music. By then, I hoped to feel comfortable enough to try a real take.
After the solos were recorded – some of which required four or five takes – I listened to a playback and was stunned to discover that my friend had secretly told the engineer to record only my practice takes. And it was these that were used in the final mix, not the polished and precise final takes!
I was more than a little upset and asked him why he’d done that. “I like the energy of the first take,” he said. “Being on edge, as musicians usually are on first takes, brings out an excitement I like, even if the results aren’t as flawless as on later takes. There’s a spark that tends to disappear after you’ve grown too comfortable with the music.”
In time I came to realize that these solos were among my best, rough around the edges and all.
The concept of over-practicing is a controversial one. If, after considering this point of view that it is possible to practice too much and subsequently damage the piece, you still feel that a precision crafted song is always best, then you should continue to do what works for you. Classical music, for example, demands perfection and has little tolerance for sloppiness. And there will be other times as well when this will turn out to be the best approach.
But there are times when it isn’t. We can literally practice the life out of songs by sanitizing every single scratch, dent, and character line right out of them. The result can remind the listener of a photo in which the model’s imperfect skin has been airbrushed into unrealistic perfection, making him or her look somewhat less than human. Audiences probably wouldn’t notice many of the imperfections you scoured out. But if you’ve practiced your music to the point that you’ve grown bored by it, they will notice your lack of enthusiasm.
How do you know if you’ve over-practiced? You’ve over-practiced when the thrill begins to disappear; when you’re just not as into playing the song as you once were. Or if you find yourself making more mistakes than before. If you ever see yourself at this point, my advice is to put that song aside, at least for a few days, and let it clear itself out of your head. If you really still have more work to do on it you can always pick it up again later, hopefully with a fresh perspective and some newfound enthusiasm.
Whether or not you are over-practicing is, in many cases, a judgment call, and it can take a while to develop a knack for knowing when you’re going over the edge on a piece. For now, at least be aware of the fact that, to many a listener’s ears there is such a thing as over-practicing and that they will often prefer imperfection to tedium on your part.
And that’s the other side of that coin.
by Stan Munslow on 06/24/16
When are you finished learning a piece? The answer to this question may seem obvious at first. You are finished when you can play it right. But there is more to it than that.
Part of the problem with answering this question is that it rings of impatience. It sounds a lot like the infamous “Are we there yet?” of our childhood car-trip days. Of course we want to finish the piece; we all look forward to that wonderful feeling of completion and accomplishment when we’ve mastered a song. So, as the days, weeks, and even months drag on, we become consumed by an overwhelming sense of urgency. We just want it over with, as if it were a trip to the dentist.
Why? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy the journey? If learning and working on a song is, in fact, enjoyable, why do we rush through the process at all? Why do we want the fun to be over? If you were at a party having a great time, would you want the party over with as soon as possible?
Learning a song should feel no different than attending a great party. Of course it must end at some point. But part of good musicianship is learning to enjoy the process, not just the goal.
That still doesn't answer the question, however. When are you finished?
Our earlier answer: “When I can play it right,” falls short of the mark. Playing something “right” means that it is correct, that it is merely adequate, nothing more. There are, in fact, three steps involved in finishing a piece. Getting it “right” is only the first of the three.
You are finished with a piece when you can:
1. Play it correctly, three times in a row, just to make sure it isn’t luck that got you through it the first time.
2. Play it well, going beyond “correct” to where articulation, dynamics, phrasing, feel, and tone are on the mark as well.
3. Play it well, with ease. Playing something flawlessly in the privacy of your practice space does not mean you will be able to duplicate those results when the time comes for you to play it in front of an audience or a teacher, when you’re distracted and nervous, and in unfamiliar surroundings. Unless you can play the piece easily, that is.
Then ... you are finished.
And when you do find yourself there and you feel that rush of achievement at having mastered the song, I suggest that you bask in that wonderful feeling for a while. Play the song at least a few more times … just for you, just for pleasure, just for the feeling of pride you are sure to receive.
Take time to enjoy the results of your effort before rushing into your next challenge. Take time to feel really good about your accomplishment and I promise that, in doing so, you will play your next piece even better. Success, after all, begins with feeling good!
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