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The Mentality Behind Practicing - By Kim Michele LaCoste
Practicing on any instrument, as we all know can sometimes be quite boring. But if you want to be able to play a particular passage or song well, the only way to do that is by practicing. Playing an instrument can be easy or hard. It depends on how good you want to be. I've always abhorred those books that claim to teach you how to play an instrument in a week's time (or less). If music doesn't mean that much to you, where it's just a hobby, then I suppose those books are fine for you. However, if you want to play with the best of them, you must practice, practice, practice! The better that you want to be, the harder the instrument becomes. This is because one's goal is to easily execute a melody, riff or rhythmic pattern, especially if they are complex.

Everyone has a different method behind practicing. With me, sometimes I have to switch instruments to keep from getting bored. I'm an acoustic and electric-bassist and the two instruments are very different in character. But sometimes when I get tired of playing exercises or jazz standards, I'll switch to playing some classical music on my acoustic guitar. In doing so, I'm inadvertently practicing how to interpret melodies. This in turn teaches you about the melodic flow of music. That's what separates the good classical musicians from the great ones, whether they are in the orchestra or conducting the music. There is a level of understanding in classical music that transcends the music. It's an innate ability where your sensitivity to melodies prevails. Therefore, not only do you have to practice scales and various rhythmic exercises; being able to emote when you play is just as important and these aspects don't fall into place overnight. It takes a lot of practicing.

However, there are times when just the idea of practicing is something that you don't want to deal with. This is where one's mentality/attitude toward music comes into play. One has to be able to understand the sacrifices behind learning an instrument. There will be times when you just don't want to practice! Period! On days like that, don't do it, because you want be doing your brain any favors. I can't stay away from my instruments any more than 1-2 days at a time. I get this "guilt complex", even after all these years! If you truly love music, then over a period of time, your instrument becomes a part of you. Your instrument is an extension of yourself. Therefore, when you aren't attentive to your music, you neglect a part of your self. You have to want to learn an instrument. It wouldn't matter if Mozart were your teacher. If you don't want to learn about music or the instrument, all of the instruction in the world won't help. So to parents of the world: don't drive your child crazy to learn an instrument if he/she has no interest, whatsoever. But if you have a son or daughter, who truly loves music, give that child plenty of support.

A suggestion I'd like to add here is that if you are a composer or has aspirations to be one, a helpful tip would be to start creating lines or passages as you learn the register and/or position of an instrument. For example, I've been learning the arco technique on my acoustic-bass. As I've been learning the different positions, I have begun to create and play short melodic lines in those positions with my bow. It's a nice break from playing the same exercises all the time. You may want to try that sometime. It has been helping me to get a better feel of the instrument. Using the pizzicato technique for jazz is great, but any great bassist will tell you that using the arco technique "is another animal". You've got the bow itself in how you have to ensure the position of it as it moves over the strings. Then there's finger pressure from the left hand and correct positioning of the fingers and wrist on the right hand. On top of that, your ears have to be able to discern being in tune! You want to create artistry, not sound like you're killing a cat. Again, practicing is the key. I can vouch for that 100%! There are times when I sound terrible and it makes me laugh. I tell myself, "this is only temporary". I may skip a day of working on the arco technique and work on something else, just to give myself a "mental break". But, I go back to practicing the arco technique because I want to develop my skill in using the bow. That's another thing: if using a French bow is too much of a strain on your hand, try using the German bow. Personally, I use the German bowing method because I find it to be more comfortable for me. Don't use French or German bows because someone told you to; use what feels comfortable to you. Remember: if you are a serious musician, you want your muscles and tendons to be able to work for a long time.

Another item to add here is that it's imperative to learn proper hand technique. I've seen guitarists and electric-bassists that don't use their left hand properly, where they hold the neck as they play on the fingerboard. This method could damage your muscles in the future. Don't start your musical career by learning and playing an instrument incorrectly. Buy books that will help you, especially the kind that offer illustrations or pictures of the hands. When I had a classical-guitar teacher in college, he once told me that the thumb and the middle finger on the left hand should be almost parallel in movement. As the thumb is moving on the back of the neck, your middle finger should be moving (or in a parallel position, ready to use when needed) over the fingerboard. The left hand should be forming a small arc around the neck, instead of being pressed up against it. Using the proper technique will help you to keep your fingers looser as you play. Also, when you practice, don't let the fingers fly all over the place. That's another mistake that I've seen in musicians over the years, string players and horn players alike. Your fingers should be kept somewhat curved and ready for execution. Have you ever noticed how a spider moves? Watch one building a web and notice how it almost seems to "dance" as it moves. The legs are designed to execute a precise movement; they don't slip and slide. In watching the spider I thought, "that's how my fingers should look. They should move precisely and easily across the fingerboard."

Go to concerts whenever possible and watch the artist's hands closely. See whether he/he executes the music using a good or bad technique. Buy recordings of great musicians in your field and listen closely to how they play. If you can find videos of them, that's even better. The great musicians, in any field didn't develop their style in a day. It took years of practice...

BY Kim Michele LaCoste

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