Muscianship at work?
February 17, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

What can I do when I am away from my instruments to be a better musician?

In the course of my work day, I end up with free time. I am looking for suggestions on how I can improve my musicianship when I can't actually practice. I am vocalist and a guitar player. Music is just a hobby not a profession and I have a little, but not a lot of formal training. That being said, I am serious about improvement.

My desk is in a cubicle and I can't be out wandering around or really make a lot of noise. I have a computer, in-ear monitors, unlimited access to the web, an iPad, and I am willing to buy software or a book if need be.

I am open to any suggestions you might have, whether they are simple or complex. Thank you in advance for the help.
posted by Silvertree to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Download a copy of Ableton Live or Reason and make music.
posted by empath at 11:50 AM on February 17, 2011

Assuming you have headphones and internet access, there are a great number of Flash-based music apps that you could play with to develop your ear and play with tune invention.

Or maybe even install Audacity?
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2011

Be your own worst critic. In your home hours, make recordings of yourself playing - practicing on your own, playing with friends, recordings of gigs, home recording sessions you've set up to be as perfect as possible, whatever you've got. It's really illuminating to hear what it actually sounds like, as opposed to how I felt like it must sound. It's fascinating what aspects of the phrasing and accenting that I hear in my head actually make it out onto the tape, versus parts of that art that are lost, and things I was intentionally doing that sound like mistakes. Times I felt I was playing sloppily don't necessarily sound bad at all; times I thought I totally nailed a tune may sound like I need another week of practice.

These recordings aren't as much benefit as background music as they are intensive study tools - if you can really listen during your work downtime, that could be a great help to your style. With the added benefit that you're not doing anything "weird", you're just listening to music.
posted by aimedwander at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

in high school band we were all encouraged to get a grip strengthener to improve our strength and dexterity. i can see it being very useful to a guitar player.
posted by nadawi at 11:57 AM on February 17, 2011

Simple, but often overlooked (by me, anyway): listen to recordings of music you're working on. I mean *listen*. Playing music in the background while you're working is fine, but listening critically takes focus. (on preview, aimedwander's suggestion about turning it on your *own* recordings is right on).

Too -- as you might have seen -- there are loads of online "ear training" exercises online (computer plays a tone or chord through ear buds and you select the right answer). Some free, some not-so-free. YMMV. Takes more patience than I usually have.
posted by GPF at 11:57 AM on February 17, 2011

If you can read music, you could practice sight-reading. Eventually, with enough practice, you should be able to "hear" the music in your head as you read it on the page. You might not get the beginning pitches right, but you'll be able to "hear" the correct intervals. Confronted with difficult rhythms, you can puzzle out how they should go. With difficult fingerings on your instrument, you can mentally rehearse how you would play it.

Later, when you get a chance to actually play the music out loud on your instrument, you'll be surprised by how much better a job you do with it for having mentally rehearsed it ahead of time.
posted by rhartong at 12:42 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite] has some good exercises and lessons.
posted by Rykey at 12:48 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could read Not Playing Guitar when you're, um, not playing guitar. And finger independence exercises and stretching exercises are always good for guitarists, although many such regimens are recommended to be done with an actual guitar.

The best thing you can do to develop your voice, however, is to take lessons from a professional teacher. In my experience, you really can't adequately address breathing, and proper development of chest and head voice registers, without one-to-one instruction.
posted by paulsc at 1:47 PM on February 17, 2011

Two skills to develop:
1) Mental training, that is, actually practicing without your instrument. Read the music, imagine the sound, imagine the movements necessary to play those sounds. Do it as slowly as your mind wants it to go. Even slower. In the beginning this might make your brains boil, but mental training actually works: it does train the relevant areas of your brain in a dedicated way. Sports people do it all the time (example: ski jumpers just can't go jump 200 times until they've got it; they must train mentally.)
2) look at guitar players on youtube; preferably good ones. Works great as a support for 1)
posted by Namlit at 2:04 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Finger strengthening etc. will improve your technique (as, crucially, will the visualisation method; in pianists, visualising five-finger exercises has been found to improve technique almost exactly as much as doing them), but not so much your musicianship. Make sure that you do some focus on this, though (and be kind to your voice - hydrate and generally take care of it, even if you can't actually sing or do exercises). Don't just exercise the hands, either; think about posture, strengthen the core, all that stuff (I've had RSI for about 20 years now, as a direct result of playing with bad posture; if you're playing seriously and doing the amount of practice that entails, you don't want the pain that will eventually go with bad posture).

When you do visulation exercises, practice as well as you can - don't just vaguely go through songs you know; focus on the problematic bits, slow them down, get them perfect. Don't make any mistakes, because getting into those bad habist will screw you up just as much as practicing mistakes on a real instrument. Relate the movements to the sound - don't just practice moving that finger a bit - hear the difference it's going to make.

As regards musicianship training, there's loads of good stuff here, but the ones I'd particularly support are:
Listen to yourself
Listen to others
Do some aural training - including sightreading. Even if you don't currently read, find some sites/videos that link music to the score, and follow along. Trying to hear what you read in your head is excellent aural training.

GPF is absolutely right to emphasise 'listen'. It's not the same as just having the music on. Buy the best headphones you can, and try to pick out every detail. Play the same song many times. Follow each instrument individually through the song (picking out and identifying instruments is an important aural skill), and ask, at every point, what exactly they contribute to the overall ensemble at that point, and why. This will help your ensemble playing and arrangement skills so much, and if you bring the same skills to bear in rehearsals, it will make the whole practice thing so much more efficient and effective.

Treat it like practice. Don't spend too long on one thing, and structure the time you spend doing this so that you get a variety of stuff over the day, and aim to cover everything - exercises, visualisation and learning specific pieces, aural skills, theory. A structured approach with lots of variety, and focused sessions will keep your interest up much longer, and make sure you get much more out of it. Don't do anything without knowing what you want to achieve in a particular session, or over a course of sessions. Set yourself targets and work towards them, and check your progress on a real instrument regularly.

posted by monkey closet at 1:26 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, another aural training thing - kind of the reverse of the sightreading advice. Either write your own songs, or work out something you're interested in playing, entirely in your head. Only take them to the guitar once you think you know exactly how they go.

Once you get the hang of this, it'll have two big positive effects:

1. It will significantly cut down the amount of time you spend learning stuff. If you know how to play it when you hear it, it cuts out a whole load of sitting down trying things out. I have been known to learn songs in the car on the way to a gig...
2. It cuts your songwriting free from the constraints of your physical playing habits. Your songs will be closer to what sounds good in your head, rather than where your hands go automatically (and they go there because that's where they usually go; the road more travelled by)
posted by monkey closet at 1:40 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's something fun and educational and ultimately, I think, very useful to you as a vocalist, and also for your songwriting, if you are a songwriter. Any phrase or sentence that you overhear in conversation, or from a nearby TV, or some phrase or sentence that you read or see on a billboard, take that and sing it to yourself. Make a little melody for it. Make alternate melodies for it. Sing it aloud, or in your head, if you're somewhere where you can't sing. And make it fit into different styles or genres. Try to take the phrase and sing it as if it were a blues, or a jazz standard, or a country, rock or pop song.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:53 PM on February 19, 2011

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