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Music Life: 03 - Practicing With NO Instrument
By Brian Donovan - 06/14/2008 - 03:24 AM EDT

So this month I'll give you a couple of quick ideas on how to practice while you're away from your instrument.

Here's the scenario: you're stuck in traffic and after listening to the traffic report on the radio, you realize that you're going to be there awhile.  While you inch forward, you also deduce that you're not going to have time to practice once you get home, have some food and get what little sleep you already had planned before tomorrow.  So, here's what I would do.  When you think about it, the instrument you play (whatever it is) involves either your hands, your feet, your mouth, or some combination thereof.  We all know that.  If you're using any other part of your body, well, we either don't want to see you play your instrument for fear of too much exposure, or you're holding your instrument all wrong!  ;)

I'm kidding.  But it's safe to assume that moving your hands, feet or mouth can help you practice at least SOMETHING before hitting the sack.

So here's the plan: systematically move the body part in question to strengthen it so that when you DO get to practice, the appropriate part(s) will be stronger.  There's a book that I use regularly for just such an occasion.  It's called "Stick Control For The Snare Drummer" and as a matter of fact, I happen to be in Canada for 2 gigs this week and have used the book a couple times already to keep myself on track with my goals.  But, okay, you may not play snare drum and I, myself, play several instruments, and not just drums, so watch how I make this work to my advantage.

See, this book is a rudiments book.  So, I've taken a page out of it, folded it, and put it in my wallet.  When we all boarded the plane for the Toronto gig, I pulled out the page, and checked off the next example which simply read: L R L R L L R R.  I read it, memorized the pattern of Lefts and Rights, then I put the page away and started practicing while occupying my extremely small airline accommodations.

The first part of my practice was to review my practice goals that can apply to what I'm about to do:
PIANO: practice left hand agility
DRUMS: grooves, grooves, grooves

Remember that these goals are based on having great control while at my instrument(s) and they are going to lead me to my goal next year where I will "write, arrange and perform acoustic drums, acoustic piano, acoustic guitar and all vocals on the recording of my next CD."  And, of course I can't always bring all of the instruments I want to practice with me on all my gigs.  That's why this approach comes in handy if I'm out of town on a guitar gig and thus, won't be near my drumkit for 5 days.

Now that I've reviewed my goals, I can start working on how to apply the snare drum book example.  I need to work on 2 things: ease of left hand movement and also, limb strength and independence for groove control.  So I start with the pattern L R L R L L R R and tap it out simply (and slowly) with my Left and Right hands on my knees.  Sure, the guy next to me looks at me a tad weird, but if he says anything, I can tell him exactly what I'm doing, chat him up for a bit about music and ultimately get him to Pre-Order my next record. ;)  Remember that most people find what you do fascinating and wish they had the guts (and discipline) to do it.  So you're definitely a celebrity in their eyes no matter how far along in your career you are.

I'm working on piano right now and so after I've tapped it out with my hands a few times, (this can help in terms of comping skills) I'll focus on the fingers of my left hand primarily.  Pinky is Left and ring finger is Right.  I do the pattern on my knee.  Then pinky=L, middle finger=R.  Then pinky=L, index finger=R.  And finally, pinky=L, thumb=right.  After I've finished one time through all my left hand fingers once, I'll start with the ring finger=L and move through the fingers again.  It can be very relaxing to focus on the movement of your fingers like this.  Especially while everyone else is fumbling around you with their luggage to get to their seats.

After I'm done there, if I'm feeling especially adventurous, I'll be so bold as to tap out this same pattern using my feet (perhaps with my heels up AND with my heels down).  And once the captain has approved the use of our electronic devices, I'll break out my ipod and tap this pattern in time with almost any song.  I may even stretch out the eighth notes I HAD been using to some variation based on a given song.  Meaning, if I'm listening to an old Van Halen tune, I may run this pattern using a shuffle feel or even a swing feel.  There's no limit, so go nuts with variations.  But set a goal to practice ONLY until you reach cruising altitude or until the drink cart comes by.  THEN, MAKE SURE YOU STOP!  Never practice until the point of boredom!  You'll never practice twice if you are bored the first time out.  The mere 10 or 20 minutes you spend now, can pay off substantially in several ways: 1. you'll actually enjoy yourself and your practice time AND 2. you'll be itchin' to practice again later.  Not to mention the benefit of actually feelin' like you got somethin' done.  And don't be fooled, you TOTALLY just got a little closer to better control on your instrument.  Not bad for someone who is nowhere near an instrument.  Unless you count the instruments located behind the locked door of the cockpit...

Bear in mind that we aren't looking to practice so much that we don't go anywhere or do anything else besides practice, so being able to get in the practice time you want and need and crave, while living the rest of your life, IS the ultimate goal.  So, no matter what instrument you play, or how you play it, this technique can have you getting faster, stronger, and ultimately better at an instrument you don't always get a chance to play.

Until next time, appreciate the horizon....

Brian Donovan is a songwriter in Los Angeles, CA, graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been working in the music industry for over 12 years.  Check out his new CD, Mugu Point, at his website: www.BrianDonovan.com

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