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3 Ways To Improve Musicianship Outside The Practice Room

Posted by christianhowes on Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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Good musicians practice.

Great musicians practice better. And they gain an extra edge by using their time wisely outside the practice room.

Shedding in the practice room is important, but you can improve during "downtime" if you apply yourself in the right ways. Although I've used these tactics as a jazz violinist and jazz violin teacher, they're relevant for any musician:

Practice on the Gig

Sometimes the gigs we play are boring and no one's paying attention. I like to take downtime moments on a throw-away gig to play in alternate positions, improvise, harmonize, and challenge myself in any way I can think of.

Listen Back

Record yourself every time you play. Later, while you're eating, traveling, or just chilling out, listen for tendencies in your playing you don't like that you can easily correct. Fix the things you can, whether it's intonation, rhythm, tone, phrasing, creativity, etc. Getting better at music isn't only an additive process. Eliminating bad habits is just as effective as adding to your skills; the key is in hearing what your bad habits are.


Years ago I decided that as long as I was making the commitment to teach my daughter, I might as well challenge myself during lessons. I tried accompanying her with my violin on everything. It was tricky  because I needed to find ways to create the harmony, bass, and groove behind the melody.

We started with "Twinkle...," and on down the line of ALL the Suzuki tunes in books 1-8. We worked on jazz violin techniques and fiddle tunes. We'd make up songs from nothing, singing in the car, her turn then my turn, and so on.

Here are a couple videos with Camille and I performing duo recently at the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp. On one of the songs I use a loop pedal connected to my electric violin pickup (I strongly recommend the Yamaha VNP-1 violin pickup):

One of the videos features the Stevie Wonder tune, "Sir Duke," and the other one is "Dark Eyes":

Hours of teaching over the years have provided a cumulative opportunity for me to improve dramatically as a jazz violinist. I've used the same approach when teaching  jazz violin and jazz cello students at the Berklee College of Music, during summer, fiddle camps, and traveling to give workshops for orchestra programs in schools around the world. My students learn to walk bass lines, articulate inner voices, compose counter-melodies, harmonize, strum, chop, etc., and they therefore feel ownership in the music. Since 2011, I've been including all of these teachings in video tutorials and worksheets on my online lessons site, "The Creative Strings Academy," where a few thousand string players worldwide have been digging into short, easy lessons.(Legendary Cajun fiddler Michael Ducet gives a video testimonial for my program at the bottom of this page)

I remember what it was like as a classical music student to feel "in the dark" about music before I changed my focus during practice and downtime. I was jealous of musicians who could express all the elements of a song. Now I enjoy music more and never find it boring. My aim in teaching or learning jazz violin is not necessarily about the "language" of jazz as much as it is about developing understanding, creativity, and ownership in music.

If you had a typical classical training like me, I'm guessing you may feel the same frustration I did. (Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know either way) I hope you'll try these ideas and let me know how they work for you.

And if you are seriously interested in overcoming these frustrations and transforming your musical experience, click the link here!

P.S. Here are MORE ways to practice while killing time:

-Sing stuff - try to sing all the parts of a song, or harmonize and improvise against recordings.

-Tap stuff out - practice interdependence tapping with multiple limbs, or tap with one hand against a recording, playing with subdivision groupings.

-Practice in the car - for violinists, you can practice pizzicato (guitar style) in the car, whether unaccompanied or with the radio. Sometimes in the tour bus I'll plug my headphones into my Yamaha Silent Electric Violin and use a guitar pick.

Here's that link again:

What do you think? Leave a comment below, and feel free to share this!


Photo by Cyrus Fire

2 comments on “3 Ways To Improve Musicianship Outside The Practice Room”

mudbug Says:
Thursday, September 20, 2012 @3:09:07 AM

Well thought out and articulated. Being a musician is trying to improve daily, practicing and anylising.

boxbow Says:
Thursday, September 20, 2012 @2:41:03 PM

Sounds like a good, solid, workmanlike approach. Say what you will about practice in its myriad forms, we do know what to expect when we don't practice. Practicing away from the woodshed is just as sensible as practicing in the woodshed. I like the idea of ownership of a tune. I also like the idea of whistling, singing, and tapping it out. I often practice fingering runs on the steering wheel while I wait at red lights. Not good for driving in traffic, though. I really stop paying attention.

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