Blue Yodel #41 – Practice, Practice, Practice (Part 2)

Judging from the mail I got this week, it seems that people like to read about practicing about as much as they like to practice.

A full month of interviews of people who like to practice is pushing it, I know, but I will not be deterred. We are going to do this thing, people! Let’s go! USA! USA! USA!

Sorry, I don’t know what I’m going to do after London 2012. And with Rio four long years away, I’m not sure how I’m going to keep up the passion about practicing.

I’ve started referring to my practice time as training. Practice? Never. I train. So, here’s my training plan for this week:

  • Banjo: 15-lb clean and jerk (100x)
  • Guitar: synchronized G-runs (10,000x)
  • Bass: I-II-VI-V-I hurdles (10,000x)
  • Fiddle: dust case (1x)
  • Mandolin: learn another chord
  • Dobro throw: work up to 90 feet

I’d love to hear about your own training regimens. Do you pay yourself to practice or have some other effective technique?

Also, one way of shaking things up is to start on a new instrument. So, please advise on which one I should take up:

  • Uilleann pipes
  • Concertina
  • Sackbutt
  • Ukelele
  • Pan flute

The winning instrument will become the sixth child of bluegrass.

Now to the A-Team. This week we have Matt Glaser and Bryan Sutton. Both are world-class musicians and instructors. Matt is artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at Berkelee College of Music, and Bryan teaches online at Artistworks Academy of Bluegrass.

Both enjoy practicing. I’m learning that 90% of practicing (sorry, training) is making it enjoyable.

First, Matt:

CS: When did you first start practicing seriously?

MG: Last Thursday. No, my practicing is very scattershot. That is, I go through periods in my life of intense practicing and other times less so.

Over the last couple of years I’m very grateful to be practicing. It feels really good to me psychologically. It’s something I really love.

Since I’ve had problems with my left hand, I end up practicing a lot of stuff with my bow and rhythmic things, which are really important and I can’t believe how I played all those years without focusing on that stuff.

CS: What is an effective practice strategy?

MG: For me, I’m an improviser and I really need to practice improvising. What I practice is trying to line up what I’m doing with the time, so I encourage everybody to practice with a metronome or some drum track so you can really line your notes up accurately and over and over just try to rhythmically be in the pocket.

So, I like to improvise on tunes. That’s my practice—improvising against a rhythmic basis. Whether I’m playing Little Beggar Man or Salt Creek—I like to practice fiddle tunes—I like to leave as much space as possible and try to play by ear.

That’s really what I’m trying to do when I’m practicing is connect my ears to my hands. I want to hear melodies and try to find ways of playing those melodies on my instrument.

CS: How do you maintain focus when practicing?

MG: My practicing has gotten much more focused. I used to practice more from a technical standpoint when I was younger. Now I practice more from an ear and a wholistic standpoint, which I don’t necessarily recommend to everybody, but it’s what I want to do.

CS: What is the main benefit of the metronome?

MG: Students need different things when they practice. Some people need to be working very much intensively on technical things. There are a million different technical things to work on. But for almost everyone, they would benefit from practicing with a metronome and improvising at medium tempos.

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

MG: There are also a lot of amazing musicians who practice ferociously and I find those people very inspiring: Chris Thile and Béla [Fleck] and Tony Trischka. All those cats practice religiously.


And from Bryan Sutton:

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

BS: When I was a kid, I played all the time. I never really had dedicated practice times, but I recognized that I was getting better based on lots of small, incremental, steps. One little blip of awareness and progress would yield another. It sort of felt like working my way through the various levels of a video game.

CS: How does your practice time and technique differ today from when you first started? 

BS: These days, I still play a lot. I’ve had weeks or months where I’ve had to learn/memorize some pretty difficult and involved music, but I usually don’t carve out dedicated weekly or daily practice times.

For instance, I’ll find small chunks of time inside a recording session to tackle something that needs work. For me, it’s about maintaing that momentum or progress I’ve had since I was a kid. I’m always working on bettering technique related things and discovering more about tension and how to be aware of it.

I’m working less on specific musical things and trying to delve deeper into that area of the mental side of music. I’m trying to get out of my own way and keep the path between my mind and my fingers uncluttered.

CS: What is an effective practice strategy?

BS: I really believe in the small, deliberate, and manageable chunk of time process. Having a goal for the next 15 minutes is great when you’re practicing. I encourage students to maintain an awareness of how they’re playing, not just what they’re playing.

I encourage folks to record themselves, and I also really endorse the idea of having a regular jam session to attend. The jam session is where you can really feel the progress you’re making, and feel the areas that need work.

CS: How do you maintain focus when practicing?

BS: Again, I think working in small fragments of time helps with focus as well. These chunks can be anything, as long as you know and are committed to what you’re going for.

CS: Is there a practice technique would you consider a waste of time?

BS: Not being deliberate in practice is like spinning your wheels. Not having some kind goal for a practice session makes it kind of a waste of time.

There are players, myself included, who get a lot out of just noodling for extended periods if time. I would put this in more of an advanced category though, and wouldn’t recommend this approach for most casual musicians as a way to spend the bulk of their practice time, but maybe as an addendum type thing.

CS: What do you suggest to your students for practice time?

BS: I like the idea of borrowing from the athletic work out technique of warm-up, work, and cool down. Again, working with deliberate, conceived ideas and goals in manageable chunks is very effective.

I like for students to feel they have a way to get to certain level in practice and then work on pushing that somewhat. This happens either by adding difficulty or embellishment, or raising the tempo, etc.

I think for most casual pickers with limited time, having a set of scales, exercises, and a growing repertoire of tunes is a solid approach.

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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.