My Year In Review (Dec 31 Update)

For the first time ever, I practiced every single day this year – 366 in a row! Given the travel restrictions and cancelled vacation plans, it’s made it a lot easier to do. Usually when I miss it’s because the family and I are out of town for a week or something and I want to take a little time off. This year, even when we did get away I could practice rhythm or ear training, and it was only a few days. It also helped that when my wrists and forearms started getting sore around October – not enough breaks – I was able to shift to drums and ear training and give myself time to physically recover. The travel guitar and Pandora I picked up a few years ago also helped.

As I outlined in this post, my goal for 10+ years has been to practice at least 15m per day. I did have to become okay with taking some time off, both to recharge my focus and to give my wrists and forearms a break.

As usual, I really try to focus on “what am I going to learn today” instead of “how much time am I going to spend.” I was relatively focused, and I do have some highlights.

The thing I want to share with others is that despite a challenging year for many reasons, music kept me grounded Music was my therapist. Music gave me focus and peace of mind. My plan of “15m per day” continued quite successfully, and as long as you keep learning you will improve. It’s the process, and finding joy in the process. It’s not about finding happiness in a destination. With something like music or guitar, you will never reach the end. Enjoy every day!

What I Learned

  1. Continued progress on my new album project. I haven’t had large blocks of uninterrupted time with family out, like I usually get once a year, but I did make good progress on small tweaks: solos, arrangements, etc. I started a Trello board to keep notes on each song in progress, so I don’t lose track of thoughts like “need to modulate solo section” or “add break after verse 3” or “rhythm guitar tone isn’t meaty enough.” It’s been handy. I used some of my songs for practicing on the drum kit, and some of my “non-guitar” time to iterate on lyrics. I’m excited for this, but it’s too early to see if it will see a 2021 release.
  2. I got a lot better on drums, and put in about 40 hours of rhythm and drum practice over the year. I didn’t have tons of time on the kit, but I did lots of rudiments with the metronome and overall I feel way more comfortable. I learned a bunch of basic tunes on drums, like Back in Black
  3. I spent some time on ear training as well, and did an online course in addition to practice with intervals.
  4. Almost finished a guitar arrangement for Maple Leaf Rag – I bought the sheet music of a really cool guitar arrangement for my birthday, and I’ve been working on it since. It drastically improved my finger picking, as well as renewed my reading skills (such that they are). Dec 31 Update: I have the whole thing! I definitely still need to polish it, but I’m comfortable and able to execute every measure. I’m ALMOST finished with it, on the 5th of 5 pages, and I hope to have learned the entire piece by the end of December. Then I need to spend some time polishing.
  5. Wrote and released the Coronavirus parody single!
  6. I learned tons of songs in a bunch of different styles… and mostly forgot them a month or so later, but it was good ear training. Off the top of my head: several Rush songs, Reggae, rock, blues, jazz.
  7. Worked on improving over the cycle of 4ths (mostly using Jamie Abersold backing tracks) and refreshed my knowledge of a bunch of jazz standards.

What Was Challenging

The biggest challenge again was that after 9 or 10 months, my forearms and wrists started getting very sore, and I had to take a month off of guitar entirely. Fortunately, I could focus on drums and rhythm. I did a lot of rudiments out on the porch with a metronome. I also did some ear training online and at the keyboard. All in all, it gave me a chance to keep growing my musical knowledge, while giving my wrists a chance to heal.

I also didn’t do as much writing and updating my blog as I had previously done. To be honest, I was super busy this year and I’m incredibly thankful for that.

Writing has also been challenging given the intermittent time I’ve had. Most of my practice is early in the morning before my son wakes up, and I have limited minutes. Historically I write a lot better when I have a long, open block of time to really get into it. I also like to be able to sing parts as I’m writing lyrics, and that’s tougher with family around (and sleeping). That said, I didn’t let this new project fall off the radar and made some quantifiable progress. I also continued to jot down interesting riffs, melodies and lyrics as they come.

Stats

It’s Friday morning, December 31 and I just put in 20 minutes of practice. While I may play some more later in the day, here’s where we’re at for the year:

Days Practiced: 366
Hours: 164
Average Minutes/Day: 27
Hours of Rhythm (mostly drums): 41.5
Hours of Ear Training: 7.75

Here’s how my historic trends shake out over the last 10 years:

Hal Galper Master Classes

These are mandatory, frequent listens… I discovered them about ten years ago, and come back to watch them all a couple of times every year. They changed my life. No matter what instrument or what genre, these are worth your time.

The Illusion of an Instrument

This was the first one I watched and it blew my mind. It was one of those moments of complete revelation, but also something I already had an internal feeling of. He articulated it, brought it to light, and changed the way I looked at music forever.

One of the best videos on youtube

Attitude is Everything

What I love about this is that it’s so completely applicable to all of life. It’s not just music he’s talking about.

True in music, true in life.

Technique

These are more music-specific than the above two, but definitely worth frequent review.

More on Hal Galper

Please visit halgalper.com for more information, music, lessons, touring, etc.

Here is his music on Spotify and Amazon.

He also wrote a very interesting-sounding book titled “Forward Motion.” I intend to check it out some time, but it’s one of those things I want to make sure I actually have time to dig into before buying.

Playlist

Youtuber Jazz Video Guy put a whole bunch of Hal’s masterclass videos in a convenient playlist.

Bruce Forman’s “Mother Tunes”

If you haven’t checked it out yet, give a listen to the Guitar Wank podcast. It’s incredibly entertaining, funny and insightful. A while back – episode 99V – jazz guitarist extraordinaire and co-host of Guitar Wank conducted a special episode in which he walked through 10 “Mother Tunes” for folks learning jazz. What made this so special is that he explained exactly why each song was so important, and what it can teach you. It really sets the foundation to learn and play jazz well. He also touched a lot on how to learn songs effectively, how to solo, how to play these in every key, how to practice. In my opinion, it’s a must-listen discussion regardless which genres of music you like. If you’re a guitar player, you need to check it out.

My Journey

What’s interesting about this particular episode is that it mirrored my own experience. When I first got interested in playing jazz, I made a goal: “I’m going to learn to solo over Giant Steps!” Yeah… two months into that I figured I needed to take a step back and actually learn the building blocks of the genre. I opened up the Real Book and started learning some of the standards (including a few the Bruce calls out below). It was sooooo much more productive and fun. After learning a dozen or so standards, my ear started picking out ii-Vs, my reading improved, my ability to improve over slower, more basic changes improved. It gave me some kind of foundation to build on. It was absolutely the right approach, and I feel kind of silly jumping right from basically nothing into Giant Steps. Live and learn. Even though this was quite a few years ago, Bruce’s overview of these ten tunes has been really useful because of all the detail he goes into about why these tunes are valuable. What they can teach you. Just learning to play a song from the Real Book is one thing, but there’s so much more to learn from these songs than just being able to “get through them.” That’s why I loved this episode so much.

The Songs

All that said, let’s get to the songs. I’m going to summarize my takeaway from each, but please don’t stop at this. This is the Cliff Notes version at best. You’ll get a lot more out of actually listening to Bruce Foreman go through them in detail, and there’s a lot of side-information he covers. I’ll also call out little bits I personally want to practice with [Practice].

1. Summertime

It’s a minor blues, just a different form. The melody tells you what the chord needs to be. Learning that will make this and every other song make sense. There’s a little turnaround and relative major at the end of the form.

2. Honeysuckle Rose

It’s the best study of ii-Vs, and features an iconic melodic phrase (Charlie Parker used it all the time). [Practice] Try altering practicing that phrase over ii-Vs – come from below, come from above, etc. The bridge harmony is also iconic (AAB Form song). It goes to the key of the IV (ii – V I of the IV) | 2 Dom | 5 Dom. It’s a similar bridge to Take The A Train. Again, the key is always hearing the melody. Scrapple From The Apple = Honeysuckle Rose with the I Got Rhythm bridge.

3. Take The A-Train

The most obvious use of the II7 (2-Dom7 or V of the V). Other examples of the II7 – Girl from Ipanema, Jersey Bounce, etc. The note is actually the +11, the II7 doesn’t try to change keys, it just adds color. AABA, version of the Honeysuckle Rose bridge.

4. Autum Leaves

Teaches you and highlights the concept of Sequential Ideas. That’s what makes melodies work, and it makes solos work. [Practice] Your solos need to consider that every line should have some DNA from the line before. Learning the melody from Autumn Leaves should change the way you solo. [Practice] Learning in all 12 keys if you hear the melody intervallically! Practice finding these intervals with an easy tune (Happy Birthday). Play the melody all over the neck, using different fingers to start. Play the changes in zones (positions) – force yourself to find all the chords within those 3-5 frets. It’s the world’s best study of how relative minor and relative major live together. It ounces back and forth between major & minor (sounds bittersweet). 32 bar form, it gives you the impression of AAB, but B goes on…

5. All The Things You Are

Best study of the cycle of 5ths. All the melody notes are 3rds (note: 3rds are like the guitar player’s root, since the bassist usually covers the root). What a gift it is to really hear the 3rd of all those chords!

6. There Will Never Be Another You

Great example of backcycling / Bird-style changes. Similar to “Blues for Alice.” Just another way of playing the blues. Just a moving 5th. 8 bar A, 1st ending, 8 bar A, 2nd ending (A1 A2 tune). Goes to the IV, then 2dom, 5 dom, 1st ending, 2nd ending resolves. Most A1 A2 songs do this.

7. Just Friends

It starts on a IV chords – lots of songs do this. “Limehouse Blues,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” [Practice] strum the chords in 8th notes to really hear the motion – that motion is very common. Another A1 A2 song (note: A2 is where it resolves, but it needs to have a turnaround to set up the following chorus).

8. Green Dolphin Street

Introduces the “triadic shift” – could play it as a “bullfighter progression.” Parallel motion A1 A2 form. Miles Davis rewrote the 2nd A. A2 turnaround (36251 (E- A7 D- G7 C).

9. Ain’t Misbehaving / (Alternate: It Could Happen To You)

Both tunes teach the same thing. Ascends chromatically. [Practice] try this variation on chords (I learned it as D F#7 E-6 A7 instead of D D#dim, E-6 A7). They’re both fine, they’re interchangeable. Depends what kind of sound you wnat.

10. Stella By Starlight

Everybody plays it. In some ways, it’s a song that doesn’t make sense, but it works.

GuitarWank and Bruce Forman

I’ll repeat: this is a wonderful podcast, full of humor and wisdom. It’s not appropriate for kids, so language warning.

http://www.guitarwank.com

Here’s the page with Episode 99V: http://www.guitarwank.com/podcast?offset=1527480000157

Support GuitarWank on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/GuitarWank

Please support Bruce as well, his records are awesome and he’s a blast live; http://www.bruceforman.com/

How Long Have You Been Playing?

I totally get a non-musician asking the question. It makes sense, it’s not offensive… it’s looking for a very general answer. It might give someone a sense of beginner or expert. That said “I’ve been playing guitar X years” is a pretty worthless answer.

The first three years I played guitar, I didn’t learn much. I took lessons, but didn’t practice. I could play a couple of riffs, but no full songs. I didn’t know how to improvise. I had a terrible ear. I just didn’t practice much in those first few years. Steve Vai probably put in more hours on the fretboard in his first three years than I put in over my first twenty. No joke.

A Word from Mister Vai

“I never thought I’d amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. I thought everything I could do, I’m sure everybody could do. But the one thing I didn’t realize is that I was spending 10, 15 hours a day learning how to do it.” – Steve Vai

Math Is Fun!

Let’s do some math, shall we? 1 hour/week x 50 weeks/year = 50 hours/year. That’s probably where I was for the first couple of years I played. However, 1 hour/day x 300d/year = 300 hours/year. 4 hours/day x 300d/year = 1200 hours/year. 8 hours/day x 300d/year = 2400 hours/year. If I kept at the “one hour a week” thing it would take me 24 years to get as much time on the fretboard as someone playing 4 h/day. 24 years. And according to every Vai interview I’ve seen, he put in a lot more than that (see above)… even as an average.

So “I’ve played guitar 5 years” could mean a lot of different things. You might very well be a complete beginner after 5 years… or you could be professionally gigging.

Deliberate Practice

It’s also about deliberate practice. It’s not just raw hours, it’s what you do with them It’s how focused you are on getting better with that time. See my post on “5 Ways To Get The Most of Limited Practice Time” for more on that. The book “Talent is Overrated” also talks a lot about deliberate practice, and the concept behind that. It’s a great read, highly recommended.

The general concept of Deliberate Practice comes down to a few things:

  1. It’s specifically designed to improve performance – who’s designing it, are they qualified?
  2. It can be repeated a lot – it’s in the “learning zone,” and improvement needs frequency
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available – this is tricky with things like rhythm practice, how do you really know if you’re off – in the moment?
  4. It’s highly mentally demanding – no “autopilot”
  5. It isn’t (inherently) much fun – “if it were, everyone would be a master.” I’ve found a way to find joy and fun in even mundane practice. Once you get to that state, you’re in a good spot to improve.

So you can sit down and noodle over the same diatonic chord progression you’ve jammed over for years, and do it for hours and days without getting much better. You need to have the mindset of “what can I learn today” not “how much time can I spent today.”

So, how long have you been playing?

I won’t get offended if you say “five years.” Just keep in mind it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It might be better, at least when talking to other musicians, to talk about what you can do – “good at improvising, can’t play metal, can read okay, good ear but bad timing, big repertoire of rock but don’t really improvise, etc.”

On Metronomes and Rhythm

Let me get right the the point: the value of a metronome is in helping you learn to feel subdivisions of notes in time at various tempos. What do 16th notes feel like at 100bpm? What do 8th note triplets feel like at 120bpm? How does it feel to play them on your instrument? What tempos give you trouble? What techniques cause your timing to slip? Where are your limits, and where do you feel your technique and tone changing to keep up? The value of a metronome is not in being a test to see how fast you can alternate pick a single note.

The value is in teaching you, not testing you.

It’s not a score card where higher is better. A metronome won’t magically give you great rhythm just because you play along with it. It can absolutely help, though, if you use it the right way.

Like any practice, it’s important to focus while using the metronome. You need to notice if you’re putting notes ahead the beat, behind the beat, or right on. If you don’t notice what you’re doing, you can’t control what you’re doing. That control is key to having good rhythm, in my opinion. You’ll just be playing notes on autopilot. if you tend to rush, you’ll keep rushing no matter what that part calls for.

Awareness leads to control.

Other Ways To Improve Your Rhythm

Since guitar is my primary instrument, I’ve tended to focus all of my coordination in my hands. Forcing myself to tap my foot while I play has helped internalize rhythm for me. It’s made rhythm a whole body thing. It’s forced me to put my attention on the one until that’s became somewhat automatic. It’s helped with my rhythmic deficiencies just as much as hours with the metronome.

For many years I was lazy and just relied on the drummer to keep time for me. I listened to the hi hat and snare, and of course I relied on the drummer to cue changes. What a missed opportunity! I never learned to keep track of the song as I played, so if I didn’t have those fills I’d miss changes. I never developed my own good timing. I think I was a decent rhythm player in terms of finding good parts to fit the song, finding good voicings that worked with the other instruments, and having a good sense of blues and swing… but that internal clock was never solid.

I started taking drum lessons in 2018, and even though I don’t put in as much time as I’d like I do practice consistently. Learning to play drums, even at a basic level, has helped me internalize the placement of notes. I hear them better. I can communicate them better. I have more awareness. I also have much better individual control over my hands and feet.

There’s no substitute for recording yourself and listening back. Think you’re spot on? Create some simple loops with, say, 2 bars of a 4:4 beat and 2 bars of silence. See how well you can come right back in on the 1. Then try 4 bars of rest. Then 8. I bet you’re not as solid as you thought. It’s tough! I’ve found my success with this exercise depends greatly on what I’m playing. If it’s just strumming a 4:4 rhythm, I’m pretty darn solid. If it’s improvising a solo with lots of complexity I’m rarely on, particularly after 4 or 8 measures. Some note in my phrases will throw me off a hair, but it’s shard to tell which.

I put a zip file with several drum loops (1-2 bars of 4:4 beat, 1-4 bars of rest) on dropbox. Feel free to download and enjoy!

Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation.

Finally, I think it’s important to put rhythm in its proper place in your playing: first. Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation. It’s all about the rhythm. Clap “Happy Birthday” – most people will know what that is without the notes. So the next time you play, keep your mental focus on the rhythm and groove. Don’t worry about which notes you play, think about when you’re playing them. Do this enough and it will become part of how you play.

Bonus Videos

Late addition, but I wanted to share these random videos which I found contained some great exercises for improving your timing, feeling playing behind the beat and getting more control over placement. Definitely worth your time to watch.

He explains exactly what I’m trying to say as well, and has a good exercise.

5 Ways To Make The Most Of Limited Practice Time

Any Time is Better Than No Time

Prioritize some time – any time – to practice on a consistent basis and stick to it. For me the goal was 15 minutes a day, every day. Given family, work and other responsibilities, that was totally feasible and sustainable. I keep a spreadsheet of practice time, and since I’ve started this method and goal, I’ve averaged closer to 30 minutes a day, and around 6 days a week. I found that once I sat down to practice I could often squeeze in an extra 5 or 10 minutes. Skill acquisition = frequency x duration x intensity. You can’t always get a lot of duration, but you can control frequency and intensity. I practice more now with “no free time” than I did when I had all the time in the world.

I made a lot of lifestyle choices as well – that meant less TV, movies and video games. Almost none. When I *do* partake in those things, it’s great, I enjoy it and have fun. They aren’t something I do day-to-day, though. That every day use of very limited free time is for music.

If you want a copy of my practice spreadsheet (template) to get you started, just reach out via my Contact page. I’ll happily email you a blank 2019 version.

What’s Your Mindset Going in?

Think “what am I going to learn today?” instead of “how much time do I have to practice today?” You’d be surprised what you can learn in even 5 minutes. Go over that tricky measure and get it just a bit smoother. Run over that song you haven’t played in 2 months to refresh your memory. Practice reading a random song out of the Real Book.

When I first started the “15 minutes a day” thing I got obsessed with how much time I was logging in my spreadsheet. To my detriment, I looked at the clock and the calendar. I drifted into occasionally “mindlessly” noodling in order to get my 15 minutes. Any time with hands on fretboard is well-spent, but there’s a huge range in how much you grow over a given period. After a few years I started thinking more about what I was going to focus on learning in any given practice session, regardless of the time. It’s been much more productive. That doesn’t mean I slack off, I still put in my daily practice, but I get more out of it. I also feel better about it, because on those days when I only get 5-10 minutes it’s okay. I learned. That’s the point, anyways.

Time Off Is Okay, Too

Be okay with taking some time off. One year I practiced 7 months straight without missing a single day. Then I had to take a month off due to wrist pains and problems, and I got more than a little burned out. You have to find the balance of being dedicated and working through it, but also knowing your body and your mind. Don’t be lazy, but if you really need to step away for a little bit that might be the best thing. Ultimately, whether you practice 300 or 320 days out of the year won’t be a deciding factor in your development. What’s your commitment, what’s your routine, your habit. Is it frequent, consistent, focused practice? If so, then don’t fear time off. However, if you find yourself only practicing 3 days a week because you don’t “feel like it” then that’s a separate problem, addressed below. You have to want it, and you have to work.

Carlos Santana was once asked about what to practice and how to get inspired to write good songs. His answer, paraphrased, was “go live life.”

“Mechanical” Practice

Not feeling creative or inspired to pick up the instrument? You can still become a better player. Use your time to work on mechanical things: reading, metronome practice, learning new songs, maybe doing a lesson from a magazine. Once you sit down to do it, you can learn. I often go into modes of “mechanical” practice when I’m not particularly “feeling it” … and it pays off! Those hours of practice still count. This goes hand in hand with the “X minutes/day” routine – even if you’re not feeling inspired you can still make progress. After a few minutes of metronome work I often found myself starting to focus more, paying closer attention, and getting more out of the practice session than I hoped going in.

I would always say mindful practice is superior to “mindless” practice, but some of these mechanical types of things use a different part of your brain, or exercise more of your physical body than your mind. That’s okay, you’re still moving yourself forward as a player.

Set Goals

It’s been helpful to me to keep track of yearly goals. I’ve been playing long enough that I know the steps to get there. I don’t need weekly or monthly goals, but having those yearly goals helps a lot when I sit down and I’m just not sure what I should work on. I look over them and think about what will get me closer to achieving them.

Throughout the year I certainly change things around. Some goals fade away, some new ones are added. That’s fine, the point is to have something to work towards.

I do have some long-term goals as well. Those are more inspirational and aspirational, although some of my yearly goals get me closer. Those are more a matter of “can I put in enough practice at the right things to get there?”

Recommended Reading

These are some books that have inspired my practice mindset. I highly recommend checking them out.

How Important Is Originality?

There’s lots made of originality. “So-and-so is good, but they aren’t doing anything new.” Thinking about the last century of popular music, or any music, really, and it’s hard to think of very many truly original bands, let alone guitar players. There are only so many Zappas and Hendrix’s and Eddie Van Halens to come around. And yet, there are a million really, really good guitar players whose music I love. I certainly distinguish between playing music that’s original and having a unique voice. The former is not a factor in whether I enjoy particular music, but the latter certainly is.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” – Steve Jobs

I’ve been a fan of blues for a long time. I would argue that there hasn’t been much original in blues in many decades. While I have a pretty broad personal interpretation of the genre – I’m not a purist – I do think that if it strays too much it’s not blues anymore. Just like rock and roll became its own thing. Does that mean there haven’t been any great records in 50 years? What about Muddy Waters’ 70s material? Was SRV doing anything original in the 80s? What about Buddy Guy’s 90s albums? What about Gary Clark Jr.’s live double album from a few years ago – that was cool as heck. I recently saw Billy Gibbons’ Big Bad Blues band in 2018 and it was one of my favorite shows of the year. None of this is original, but it’s still great listening. All of these players have a unique voice, have something to say, and they say it with passion and conviction. That’s what I care about. That’s what connects with me the music. When it comes to new blues, those are the things I listen for.

Here’s a bunch of new blues. I don’t know if there’s anything really original here, but there’s great music!

Genres seem to arc – there’s the initial creation of something new by combining things in new ways (jazz, rock and roll, metal, hip hop); then there’s the growth to mass appeal and wide creation; then there’s the descent into niche as the genre’s offshoots gain in popularity.  This seems to be the natural way of things. Genres morph into new genres, elements are combined and fused. Influences build upon influences, and some fade away. All along the path of that arc, great music is created. That’s what matters.

Don’t get me wrong, when truly original artists come along it can be a beautiful thing. Then again, it can also be terrible. Lots of original stuff has gone by the wayside without a ripple in mass consciousness. It’s not that originality isn’t a good thing. It does seem important that music evolves, grows and explores. It’s just not a factor in what I like and don’t. Then again, I’m the kind of guy who can listen to Electric Ladyland for the thousandth time an still love it!

Image result for eddie lang
Eddie Lang, Jazz Guitar Pioneer

Lately I’ve been listening to Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson records, as well as a lot of Soft Machine… so you can probably tell I don’t care a lot about whether music is new or old, popular or not… original or not. I don’t know if either Eddie Lang or Soft Machine were particularly original in their day. They didn’t invent jazz or psychedelic rock, but they did have unique voices within their genres. I suppose they were pioneers. They helped the existing genres explore and evolve. They’re a link in that chain. Ultimately, they created great music that stands the test of time, and that’s what I’m drawn to.

How important is originality to you? What does it mean to be original? How do your listening habits align with the arc of genres?

My Top 5 Music Books

I love books. I love music. It only stands to reason that I love books about music. While I tend to read a lot of biographies, in this list I want to tackle books that have had a big hands-on (brains-on?) impact to my making music. I’ve learned a lot from each one and many of them are almost reference material to which I come back frequently. They all get my personal stamp of approval, check them out!

5. The Art of Mixing

4. Behind The Glass

3. The War of Art

2. Modern Method for Guitar, Vol. 1

1.The Music Lesson