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(©Ivor Ottley 2012 (No copying in part or whole unless permission obtained.)
Calling all musicians! How would you like to dramatically improve your playing in a matter of days and weeks rather than the years you may think you need?
This may sound far fetched, but after years of travelling between Europe and the USA working as a full time musician, playing with inspirational musicians and attending workshops both as a teacher and observer, I have come to the conclusion that many players could dramatically improve by simply clarifying their concepts of both practice and music.
I have noticed over the years, that many players, no matter how experienced, may recurrently play out of time with poor tone. Rather than focusing on these core essentials, they seem to have concentrated instead on expanding their range of licks (musical phrases). The real challenge is to play simply, with authority, in time and with a great tone. I have heard near beginners with a good sense of timing, who play simple phrases with good intonation and sound quality. The secret is to build directly upon these solid foundations, not lose them when we pick up the speed and note count. In truth, it is better to play simple phrases well than complex ones badly, and every great player and teacher I have ever spoken to seems to feel the same way.
There are great technological advances in the modern era. The availability of recorded music, film, television, ease of travel and computers are just some examples. These are great tools and can help us as musicians develop both our playing and understanding of music. They can also be a hindrance if put before the actual process of holding and playing an instrument.
Before television, music would have been passed on from musician to musician, meeting, listening and jamming with each other. This is true even of Classical music. We learnt by playing with better musicians than ourselves, hearing the language of that particular style. We spent hours burning the language into our muscles and minds. When I read about the great old Jazz, Classical and Folk musicians, they seemed to concentrate less on 'studying' music, and more just playing it and absorbing it, as you would any other language. They learnt the building blocks of the style from each others playing, from hours of sitting together. This is how many players still learn. I lived in Ireland for many years and learnt an ‘East Clare’ fiddle style, by living and playing in East Clare. In America I listen to and play with great bluegrass players. I know we cannot all travel, but where possible If you have the desire and the means, just go to the places the music is really emanating from and absorb it from there. You will get better very quickly. So, having that as a given, what else can we do to facilitate rapid improvement? Here are some of my viewpoints.
I will look firstly at resources.
Unless accompanied by a cd, an instruction book or book of tunes is fairly unhelpful. What you end up with, is a player, generally of classical training (because they read notation) buying the book, and playing a tune or break without any of the nuances of the style. Not only does that not help them, but also that type of player needs to be developing their 'playing by ear' skills, not reading a musical language that is fundamentally an aural tradition.
Books with Cds:
These can be VERY helpful if you get the right book. Now this is just my own theory, but I do not buy books from people unless I really appreciate their style and whom I feel are playing on a very high level. I don’t want to learn musical language I don’t like, but rather want to be filling myself with language I do. I learn tracks from the cd first by ear, and then check this with the book afterwards, not the other way round.
I personally love DVDs. Bowing is of great importance to style for fiddle players, and I am sure there are important technical things for every instrument that can be seen in video footage. By focusing on the great players I enjoy, I learn many aspects of their playing. I also travel to see the fiddle players I respect and film them and myself jamming together. That way I can compare my playing and sound to theirs, as well as learning all the great music they play! This is the next best thing to jamming with them everyday at home. I have also found YouTube a great source.
Essential. Get the great classic recordings and listen like crazy. If you cannot be around the great players personally, at least you can listen to them.
It is also essential to record oneself playing. The tape does not lie, however painful it feels.
This is a great idea. Go to the best possible players/teachers who’s playing you like and admire and can really help you.
Personal lessons and workshops:
Again, this is great if the person you go to plays the style really well, and importantly for me, authentically. I also believe a beginner should get the very best instrument they can, and the very best teacher, because you will feel more inspired and therefore learn faster.
It is also worth mentioning that to learn to play a style quickly, it is far better to find a great player in that style than another. You can waste a lot of time having classical lessons for example if what you really want to play is jazz or bluegrass. (Unless of course you just need fundamentals, like how to hold a bow etc) That’s not to say you cannot learn different styles. Great players may learn bluegrass from one teacher for example, and jazz from another. You may even find someone who plays several styles authentically and well.
Now lets summarise the musical fundamentals:
1. Play simply. Listen to great recordings, find a few simple classic phrases you like, and learn them very well. The truly great really musical players often play very simply with only a few hot licks thrown in once in a while.
2. Play slowly. If you can play slowly with control, you will ultimately play really well fast.
3. Play with a good tone. Listen to great players in the style you want to learn. Generally every note they play is heard, nothing gets lost. Play simply and in time with a clear tone. It really is the quickest way to improve.
4. Relax and stop learning vast amounts of licks that are overly difficult and complicated. Once you can do the above suggestions 1, 2 and 3, really well, then learn some harder phrases, again, slowly with great timing with a really great tone.
5. Learn to separate both hands. I play as light in my left hand as I can get away with, whist learning to play as strong or as light as the music requires with my bow/ pick. It is of great benefit to be able to play with an effortless left hand whilst producing a really strong tone with the right.
6. Play in time. Use a metronome. If you practice with a band, Use a drum machine.
7. Theory. I personally want to be a player, not an academic. That’s not to dismiss theory, but rather to keep it in its place! Most of the great players I love are not theoretically orientated. The theory follows their musical strivings on the instrument.
8. Scales. Scales can be helpful, but many modern players solos can sound like scale exercises rather than musical phrases. I would rather hear and learn wonderful phrase, as these contain elements of scales within them anyway. Another modern approach is to learn every lick in every key. I believe every key has a unique sound, so I rather learn the licks I like in the keys I like them in. I don't want to sound the same in every key because I find that boring to listen to.
9. Melody. Call me old fashioned, but I generally find solos unrelated to the song or tune uninteresting.
10. Repetition. Burn the language into your fingers so well, that when you come to jam or perform, you have the secure bedrock of solid technique and muscle memory. If you do this enough and with good technique, it becomes difficult to actually make a mistake, your muscle memory does all the work for you.
11. Get a band together with the best players you can, and jam with them. Play simply and when possible, with a drum machine. Again, playing slowly, in time, in tune, with great tone is going to help you improve far quicker than the opposite.
12. Learn what your instruments role in the music you play is. Great music is often simple in many ways. Each instruments role is often clearly defined, but you need to understand that role clearly and facilitate it very well.
13. Good music is based fundamentally on doing simple things very well.
I hope this article has been of some help and interest. If applied properly, everything mentioned here can make you a better player much quicker than you may believe, which of course is my intention.