By: Chris Standring
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for music students is knowing what to practice. In the early years students listened to their teachers and did what they told them to do, which is still of course perfectly valid. But the real turning point that sets a student on their own path is the ability to self motivate and take the reins without the aid of a mentor.
This usually happens around the time that the student falls in love with music. When a student starts out, they usually practice out of fear. Fear that they might be told off because their teacher will scold them for NOT practicing.
So much later, when the student has some basic playing facility behind them, music all of a sudden becomes fascinating to them. This is when the craving to pick up the instrument starts to happen.
As the student continues to explore on his or her own, there are doubtless times when road blocks appear. I've always thought that improving happens in peaks and plateaus, where the plateaus of seeming UN-improvement seem to last forever! This of course is never the case because the plateaus are the times when the information is being absorbed which is so necessary.
However, it is during these plateaus that the student often gets stuck. Personally, I have always got through these troublesome times because I have always paid close attention to a little inner voice that would always tap me on the shoulder and say "You know you have a weakness when you play over diminished chords", or "Your sight reading in the 8th position needs a little work when you play in the key of Ab". And so on.
This little voice never went away over the years. She's still there today, tapping me on the shoulder every few weeks, making sure I am not resting on my laurels. But I have found that if I am committed to improving and really open to working on whatever I need to work on, I will always get the advice I need.
I think deep down we all know what our strengths and weaknesses are as players at any level. Therefore as we continue to grow and develop as musicians, we must always pay very close attention to our weaknesses and work on them. They usually stare us in the face. The trouble is, it is very easy to ignore what is usually obvious to us.
One thing I have found is that, unless I am really open to learning and in the mode of wanting to improve, that little inner voice tends to go away. She's not tapping me on the shoulder telling me what I need to work on unless I really want to know.
So I guess what I am trying to say here is ask yourself questions! What is your real commitment to music and what are your weaknesses? If you truly want to be a great player then you simply need to focus on your weaknesses.
Now as time goes on, and you cover the playing field regarding technique, harmony and melodic vocabulary, then that inner voice directs you to more and more specific things. She might say "You sound unsure when you play over that G7(#5) bit in the bridge of Stella By Starlight", or "Blowing in 3/4 time isn't really quite together yet is it? -let's work on that".
Now, I also find these days that my inner voice offers me inspirational things to practice. She might say, "You know when you played that augmented idea at the 10th fret over D7 - that's cool - work on that!" or "When you played that 2 5 lick but with open strings - yeah - develop that - that's interesting!". I get this all the time these days, giving me fuel to work on my things rather than other players' ideas. This is what intrigues me today.
Self improvement as a player seems to be a never ending quest for inspiration and ideas and I find the best source these days comes from within.