For many of my students learning how to play other people’s music is a big goal. It’s also one that takes a lot of practice. As with any goal there is a skill set involved. For learning songs this could include…
Knowing how to read tablature or standard notation.
Having the physically capability to be able to play the music on your instrument or even how to practice to be able to develop the physical capability.
To know how to practice in the most effective way to make the most of your time and reach your goal quicker.
All of these are very important skills and I work with my students almost constantly to help them to develop these key areas if learning how to play other people’s music is part of their goal as a musician. It’s not about the learning of other people’s music but learning how to learn that is important. For many students though there are various barriers to completion that they are unable to cross so I will cover some of these in the hope that they can help others.
Ditching The Sheet Music
In the classical world it is often considered the norm to have sheet music in front of the player when reciting a piece of music. It can be helpful as a reminder, especially in ensembles and in long repetitive pieces of music that rely on cues to different section. However in lessons I find that many students have trouble letting go from the music in front of them and often form a dependency on it. Whilst it is good, especially for visual learners, to be able to reference a manuscript even after they have learned it, it can actually be a hindrance over time, particularly if they are still looking to develop playing techniques and timing.
Imagine if you are playing a new piece of music and you have the music manuscript in front of you on a music stand. Generally speaking you have three points of attention; your fretting hand, your picking hand and the sheet music itself. That’s a third of your attention that’s going on each element. Now imagine that you know the order of the notes, the rhythms, articulations etc and have no more need for the music manuscript, outside of quick checks as an aid to member, now imagine how music more attention the other elements will get. Your overall results will improve because you will be able to focus on your weaker areas.
Learning things by memory can be a challenge and probably deserves it’s own blog post but needless to say, breaking the piece down into smaller sections to learn is helpful, even if these sections are a few bars or even a few notes. Next, create a summary sheet or ‘chart sheet’ of the main elements of the song to help you remember the general structure. Finally, have patience and persist! Work towards many smaller goals when learning a piece of music so that you don’t get overwhelmed by trying to do too much too soon.
Playing In Time Consistently
Playing music in time is an often overlooked element of practice. In general when learning a piece of music, people will give themselves longer to play the harder elements of the music and less time to play the easier elements. This leads to an irregular time feel that may not be how the music was intended to be played. Time feel is important and when practicing music it is important not only to be able to play something in time but to be aware of where the beat or pulse lies within the music.
Slight disclaimer: When learning a new piece of music it’s not necessary to practice it in time right away! If you are still learning the notes then having a metronome ticking away behind you will only serve to annoy your and not aid your progress. This step assumes that you know the notes and are comfortable playing them to a good (but not necessarily perfect) level.
Once you know the notes of the music you need to figure out the top speed in beats per minute (bpm) that you can play the music at. You do not need to be able to play it perfectly at this speed but you can use it to give you a general idea of where you are at with it. Next, work out a comfortable pace to play it at, usually 60-80% of your personal top speed is a good place to start. Finally, section by section or bar by bar you need to identify which notes are located on a beat. This will give your practicing of time feel something to aim for so that you know that certain notes, chords or sounds need to happen at these points. As you progress you can focus in on notes that happen between the beats and work in their timing. Overall your aim should be to pay more attention to how the notes fit around the beats so that when playing at 60-80% you can easily play the piece in time. Once you feel comfortable playing at this speed, feel free to notch the speed up a bit but only when things are ready. Remember that it’s not a race; it will happen when it happens!
Listening And Critically Assessing Your Playing
For even the most experienced players this one is an issue. When playing an instrument your perception of how it sounds can be different to someone who is listening to you play. You may feel that a particular performance went really badly but in actual fact it went rather well (or vice versa!). Either way it helps to be able to objectively listen to yourself when you are playing so that you can be aware of any areas that need work. In this day and age it’s easier than even to record yourself. Most modern mobile phones have some sort of sound recorder on them. When you are confident that you have practiced something as well as you can take a moment to record yourself playing it and listen back. Improvement on an instrument first happens with an awareness of what needs improving. If you are playing and consistently making a mistake but are not aware that it is happening then you’ll have a hard time working to make it better!
Learning how to learn other people’s music is a skill like anything else. If this article has been helpful to you then please get in touch and let me know. Alternatively if you have anything to add or would like to see a blog post on something that you have observed when learning guitar or need help with, please get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you!