Takin’ care of business

Here is another simple method that is helpful for conquering a challenging piece of music. You can do this with a lick, a solo, or even a whole song.


The main thing that stands in our way of successfully and smoothly playing a fast or difficult passage is generally not being familiar enough with the passage- we hesitate when we ask “what is the next note”. I usually use the analogy of our locker in high school. The first week of classes, when we got a new locker and combination, we would always have to focus on what the sequence of numbers were, initially referring to the sheet of paper that they were written on until they were memorized. And then, we had to still think about them. But a week or two later, after doing it numerous times a day, the sequence is ingrained, and we flew through them, even becoming so good that we could spin the dial around and catch it on the right numbers. We became very familiar with the process involved with opening the locker. If we tried to go too fast in the first week or so, we would more than likely make mistakes. But, if we just did it at a speed that we were capable of, it would get faster as we became more acquainted with it.


There isn’t any easy way to conquer a piece of challenging music except through time and effort. Though, there is an easy way of kinda half-assed conquering a challenging piece: don’t practice enough. This is real easy. And the results will show that. Most of the time, easy solutions don’t have the best results. But simple is very different than easy.


This is the method I use. The first step is to become familiar enough with it at a very relaxed and comfortable tempo. Let’s say for example that the piece you are working on has a tempo of around 150 bpm. Forget that number totally, and just worry about memorizing it, and being able to somewhat smoothly go through the entire passage. Once you can do that, find out, with a metronome, what that tempo is. Let’s say it is 80 bpm. Start that metronome and play the piece until you can successfully do it. Then, lower the speed by the smallest increment available. I usually go one beat slower at a time, eg. From 80 bpm to 79 bpm. It is a great investment to have a metronome that is able to be adjusted in these small increments. I would imagine that you could find free websites that do this, or even a drum machine. If all you have is a metronome that adjusts in larger increments, that will still work.


Play the piece once at this new tempo, and then move it down again in that small increment. Do this until your metronome doesn’t go any slower, your fingers hurt, you can’t take it anymore, you run out of time, or you wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend,kids/friends or pets are ready to kill you.


This can take time, especially if you are doing a whole song. If that is the case, break the song up into individual parts, such as the verse, chorus, etc., and work that way if possible. If it’s just a short lick, it might still take more than an hour.


The way people usually work on something challenging is to begin where they are able to play and then get faster. Often times, what happens is that they might achieve the goal tempo, but it ends up sounding and feeling like they are barely hanging on and very sloppy. This method creates much better results.


By working with this method, you develop a confidence in the piece. The end results are a very strong rhythm and groove, a greater understanding of the dynamics within the notes, and confidence in “what comes next”, along with how to use your fingers properly to execute it. Instead of just tab numbers, notes, or fret patterns, the piece becomes music. It is a very cool transformation that takes place as you do this exercise.


Most of the time, it is more difficult to play something slower than faster. Try playing a solo that you can already play at 30 bpm.


One important point in doing this is to play at these slower tempos and try to make it good. Imagine that the lick really goes that slow. Relax into these brutally slow speeds. Don’t do this exercise and fight it- really try to make these slow tempos groove.


Once you finish doing this method, give the piece a try at a faster tempo- you will most likely be amazed. If it still not up to the goal tempo, a good idea might be to do the same process, but this time getting faster, starting at the same beginning tempo. Of course, that might have to wait for another day, once your fingers heal, and you have the available time.


When I do work on increasing the tempo, I usually do it the same way until I get to a speed that begins to challenge me. I then stay there for a few repetitions, and then move it up again. I repeat this until I get to a speed that I just can’t do, let’s just say 155bpm. I stay there working at it for a while, and then move it back DOWN to 154 bpm. 154 was tough the first time I got there, but after the time spent at 155, that little bit of change feels like a breath of fresh air. I then stay there, or sometimes I continue to go slower a few clicks, and then try moving back up, essentially getting a running start at the previously unplayable 155.


Like I said earlier- this can be a long marathon of a practice session or sessions. But, the alternative is to continue playing the piece poorly, for a much longer time. This is a great way to take care of business and finally polish up that musical piece that has been kicking your butt for a while.