SEASON’S GREETINGS, EVERYBODY! WITH THE holidays upon us, two different readers, Jason and Jim H., wrote to ask similar questions.
Jason asked, “What are your thoughts on using the mind to practice, away from the instrument? And how does one do this most effectively? What would be a good mental routine or system that I could incorporate in to my daily practice?”
Jim H. from Atlanta asked, “What are your thoughts on using visualization to practice away from the bass? Are there any specific exercises or visualizations you recommend, such as fretboard exercises to increase mobility, or specific mental exercises—for example, visualizing arpeggios to increase my facility?”
Hi, guys. Visualization away from the bass and using your mind to practice are false concepts. You can’t musically accomplish what you wish to achieve if you don’t have an instrument in your hands. As an example, I could visualize or mentally practice downhill skiing, but these efforts won’t teach me how to do it. It’s the same with golf. No matter how much I visualize or mentally practice the game, I can only learn how to play golf if I have a club in my hands and a ball at my feet. Music functions the same way. You can’t visualize your way to improved musical ability. You need to be in the experience to get anything significant out of it. (P.S. You might want to avoid any deep thoughts or visualization of music as you are driving or involved in any other event that requires your full attention.) Thanks for writing. If any readers disagree, please write to me with your reasons so I can address them here.
Another reader, Ronan, wrote, “Hi Jeff . I agree with everything you say about not practicing with a metronome. And yet, although tempo is a human thing, not all humans feel it the same, or at the same level. They need to check their tempo against some source. The metronome is a tool. There are people who can’t repeat a simple rhythm; some can’t even play the right notes. Academically they will understand the concepts they are studying, but not physically, no matter how much they practice.”
Hi, Ronan. There is always going to be someone in the world who cannot repeat a rhythm or play a right note. It just happens this way sometimes. Regarding the metronome, I will offer three quotes regarding their use:
“Using the metronome as a constant guide to ramp up the speed or to keep the rhythm is one of the worst abuses of the metronome. If overused, it can lead to loss of your internal Fundamentals of Piano Practice rhythm, loss of musicality, and bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition.” —Chuan C. Chang, Fundamentals of Piano Practice
“The metronome is a lifeless, soulless machine that cannot express the meaning, the object of inspiration, it cannot be used as a means to develop emotion—guided by a machine the performance of which is wholly mechanical.” —Robert Challoner, History of the Science and Art of Music
“Duke Ellington disdained the ‘soulless’ quality and ‘continual churning’ of certain rhythm sections. Uninspired metronomic time-keeping caused ‘apathy in the section[s],’ he wrote in 1931, and a loss of interest among the musicians whose ‘performance becomes stodgy and mechanical.’” —Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine
I understand that people can show me quotes to the contrary, which is why I know I cannot change the thinking of some players once they’ve made up their minds. So let’s look at it this way: Many players talk of their interest in getting a groove that feels good, or to generally play with feeling and emotion. If people are interested in acquiring these musical abilities, then can someone explain to me why the majority of teachers/students/players insist on using a device whose actual reason for being invented is diametrically opposed to the musical goals that musicians state they are interested in acquiring? I would like to know why players are not interested in learning how to play with other musicians in the way that all players relate together, the way live musicians “breathe” the time when they play together. Write your answers and send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will include your thoughts in upcoming columns. Best regards from Jeff.
Since establishing himself as a jazz and fusion cornerstone with Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and Yes, Jeff Berlin has released eight solo albums and founded the Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. He is currently finishing his latest solo recording, as well as a trio CD with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers.