Blue Yodel #40 – Practice, Practice, Practice (Part 1)

I practice all the time. Today I practiced watching the Olympics. This was after I practiced admiring how good my guitar looks in its stand. I practice that a lot. Later, I plan to practice eating barbecue, but I don’t want to push it—I haven’t practiced ordering pizza in a while.

The point: whatever we do is practice.

This is the first of a short series on practicing. August is practice month. Or, at least, writing about practicing. Talking about practicing. Starting to think about practicing. Actually practicing? We’ll see. The Olympics are on. I enjoy watching the Olympics because you can tell a lot of the athletes practiced.

I know most of you spend at least an hour a day in concentrated practice and are feeling good about your routine and the progress you’re making. For me—as for those of you who might be falling short—I need to do something to shake things up.

So, I asked a few great musicians for their take on practicing. Today, you’ll hear from Ron Block whose quest for tone, timing, and taste is legendary.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: the Story of Success, “By the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.” I don’t think I ever came near 10,000 hours. At 4 hours a day, that’s 2,500 days or 6.85 years—longer if the Olympics are on.

Even when I was younger and had a banjo on my knee for most of the day, I was never good at practicing. My mind tends to wander and I enjoy playing the parts I think I play well rather than those I don’t.

Remember those Red Cross training videos that showed Team A doing everything right and Team B doing everything wrong? Most of us are Team B.

Here’s Team A—this week, Ron Block:

CS: How old were you when you first started practicing seriously?

RB: My Dad gave me a guitar when I was 11, and I liked it but had no direction. I didn’t really get the bug until about 12 or 13, when I first heard bluegrass. Dad says, “I got him a banjo and he didn’t come out of his room until he was 20.”

The biggest prompt to practicing seriously is a love for music and a desire to play the best music one can. I used to think I was disciplined, because people told me that, but I was just going to my room and doing what I loved. At times, later on, I lost some of the intense love for it, and then tried to be disciplined, but the results were vastly different.

Along with desire for and love of music and playing, there must be the sense of faith that one can excel – a growing acceptance in the young player of the gift. When I began playing, I never even questioned my ability; I just loved the thing itself. I loved playing so much I didn’t want to do much of anything else except read books.

CS: What is an effective practice strategy?

RB: Optimally it involves looking at the whole subject and breaking it down into learnable sections. I have never been too good at doing that in a comprehensive way. But if a person wanted to learn the guitar in a complete way it would involve daily transcribing, learning scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythms, playing with a metronome or drum machine, and playing with other people.

It’s important to work on what you don’t know, what you can’t play. Of course there must be review at times, but learning new things all the time opens up windows of possibility. There have been times on the road where I learned, say, a Django solo over the course of a couple days, and it changed how I played the solo on Atlanta.

CS: How do you maintain focus when practicing?

RB: That has been a struggle at times, for various reasons. But in the main, it’s important to keep the end result in mind (playing this particular song better, learning some new chords, etcetera), and yet the process must be for the most part enjoyed. A mindset focused only on results brings fear and tension to the creative process. A mind that chooses to enjoy the process, as well as expecting a good end result, is less susceptible to fear.

There are times where I don’t want to go downstairs and play banjo, but I know I must. If I push through and do it, pretty soon I am enjoying it. It has a lot to do with confidence in the gift. My co-writer, Rebecca Reynolds, has taught me a lot about how creativity works. She told me this:

“Safety isn’t in practice, safety is in identity. Practice is just respect for the calling. Fear says safety is in practice.”

If you believe that practice will save you, you will procrastinate. However, if your practice simply honors the gift that has already has been given, then you will have focus, energy, and drive to do it.

“Practice honors the work God is about to do. It is like prayer.”

Also, it’s important to push aside distractions. Checking email, Facebook, and all that when practicing can destroy the integrity and effectiveness of the practice time. I don’t believe in watching television during practice, but that may just be my own particular inability to focus when the television is parading noises and images through the living room. I don’t multi-task easily, and I’m not sure anyone can do it fully. There is only so much mind to go around, and if doing something requiring a high level of concentration it is not possible to be watching a movie, too. Some, though, may use the television as a means of distracting the mind from tension when practicing something over and over. But it works only when the focus is primarily on the playing; bad habits can form if we are not paying attention and repeat the same motion over and over. Practice makes permanent.

I hear from people sometimes, “I don’t have time to practice.” Now, in many cases that is true – someone may have six kids to feed and clothe, two jobs, a Chevy that needs a head gasket, a leaking sink, and tiny black ants invading the pantry. But quite often, “I don’t have time” means simply, “I am not making music a priority.” If a person is surfing the internet or watching television for two or three hours a day, or more, they certainly have time to practice. But then it is not a question of discipline but of desire.

I think, most often, “I don’t have time” is a lie we tell ourselves when really we do not have sufficient desire.

To stimulate desire to play, listen to great music. Go see concerts. Read books on music and musicians. Passion is something caught, something spread.

CS: What is the main benefit of the metronome, and do you find playing to it almost a form of meditation?

RB: I do find it strangely soothing. I’ve often fallen asleep playing to a metronome or drum machine. It is also comforting to me – “Here is Time Headquarters. Here is the Standard.” Mick Goodrick (The Advancing Guitarist) calls it “Checking into Time Headquarters.” It shows me if I am too far off the mark.

Of course, people can play slightly back of the beat (lots of jazz players), or slightly ahead (lots of bluegrass players). But one thing that cannot be done is to say, “I am not going to pay attention to the standard. There is no standard; it’s all relative.” Because, of course, it is not “all relative” when two or more people come to play together.

Just as there are basic standards of behavior that make society work (“Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery,” etcetera), there are also basic standards that make us fit for musical society: “Don’t rush. Don’t drag. Don’t play a bunch of tasteless junk when someone else is soloing or singing (or ever, really). Be in tune. Find good tone. Honor and respect song by doing your best, by playing what is appropriate. Be on time. Be helpful. Be courteous. Be honest.” These basic principles, and others, make us fit for musical society; they make a band possible. At the very least, they make a band able to not murder one another during rehearsals.

CS: How do you account for some great musicians never practicing?

RB: Some people have an extraordinary dexterity, which allows them to practice less. But I don’t think any musician can not touch an instrument for five years and then pick it up and play it as he did when playing a lot. Hands get stiff, muscles forget. Even highly dexterous musicians, if they’ve not played for awhile, have to warm up.

But more than that, playing music, though it involves learning technique, is not about technique. Technique is just the means for expression of beauty, of longing, of sadness, or sorrow, or joy. So if a person, dexterous or not, doesn’t build a relationship with the instrument, they may not have the level of expression that a more diligent player will have.

I think the idea of someone just picking an instrument up for the first time and being able to play it at a high level is a myth, like the movie, August Rush, which I found to be a sweet movie but more like fantasy than reality. There are those who learn more quickly. There are those with more dexterity. There are racehorses and there are Clydesdales pulling the carriage.

I think God gives gifts with different purposes in mind, and we each have to accept what we have been given and utilize it to the utmost rather than giving up because we think someone else has more.

“Practice honors the work God is about to do. It is like prayer.”

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.