Speed practice

posted on #1
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Yes i know, practicing speed is not something that is considered completely kosher, but i also believe that everybody has encountered a moment when hitting his personal speed limit has caused some frustration. Politics aside, have look at this video:
[youtube]89ZtpOWEt4s[/youtube]
It worked as supposed and even more. For the purpose of testing i converted a exercise of a ionian scale played in thirds. For me this was a very good example of hitting a personal speed limit. No matter how much i practiced it i just came up to a certain point, after that development was very, very slow if any. The exercise was straight 8ths and very boring.

I did two conversions of the exercise, One where i converted the first 8th to a dotted 8th and the second 8th to a 16th. The other variation was the opposite, first a 16th and then a dotted 8th.

There where a number of things i noticed. First my muscles became sore very fast, something that doesn't happen too often and that is a very good sign that you are actually challenging your motorics. Altering the exercise this way means that you are playing half of it with double speed.

Secondly the intricacies of note duration versus beats became very apparent. Especially on the second variation where the 16'th was on the beat (which means emphasis) followed by a non emphasized dotted 8th. This took some focus to execute properly

Thirdly i previously had a hard time recovering from errors in this exercise. Since all the notes were straight 8ths picking up again on the fly was very difficult. The grouping of the notes made it very clear and easy.
Edited by nilton on 04-07-2016 10:29
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #2
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This is very interesting, and certainly relevant for classical payers who practice these sorts of tricky fast passages. It could also be relevant for "improvisers" who basically follow the changes using cut and paste licks and well practiced arpeggios that become "finger memory". The technique presented in the video seems like it could help those who wish to speed up those finger memory situations.

However, if you are improvising without using cut and paste (finger memory) patterns, then you will always be limited by how fast your brain and hands can conceive and coordinate; or said another way, how quickly you can hear where you wish to go and achieve/facilitate it.

When you don't have a set pattern, the desire to play "cut and paste", or written music, what might be the best practice for playing what you hear/imagine? It's certainly not what is in the video as that relies on practice of a specific phrase or passage. I can only speculate at what might be effective. Could be that listening to a passage and trying to repeat it immediately (by ear) at the same tempo could help? Maybe just ordinary practice that improves speed, accuracy and fluency? I'd be interested to hear what (if anything) others do for situations that are not cut and paste.

I know that this is not exactly the same as what was posted, but I think it's very relevant to people who have the intention of being fluent creative improvisers.
posted on #3
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I see it this way. The best practice is the one that actually happens. And a even better one has a lot of variation and does constantly incorporate new approaches. Its as simple as that, the more you practice and the more varied and effective you practice the better you get. (period) There should be no discussion about that.


So why are we not practicing enough or effective enough? Make an inquiry and you will get two answers that stand out. I dont have the time and its boring. Analyze these answers and you see that they are essentially the same. Time and effort are the only resources that we really possess and the only ones that really matter. And most of us can make time for a lot of activities as long as they appeal to us. Be it watching TV, drinking beer, going on vacation, driving in a car and so on.

I believe one thing that makes us practice less than we should is the impression that our progress is slower than we hope and thus the time and effort spent practicing is not effective. But nothing could be further from the truth. In my profession as a teacher i have encountered a lot of students that actually did spend more time and effort avoiding their chores and assignments than i would have taken to actually do them. What their achievements would have been if they had decided to actually get to work should be quite obvious. But in a way that is just human nature, but an aspect that certainly needs to, and can, be improved. One way of improving on that problem is to present exercises that are novel and effective. If we feel that we make progress we are more likely to spend time and effort on an activity. Another way is eliminating frustration.

I myself feel often very frustrated about hitting my technical limits. Speed is of limited use per se but there are other aspects of it that make it interesting. First of all speed is a very good metric of general technique. Secondly Guthrie Govan made a very important statement in one of his books "speed is a by-product of precision". Together this means that every exercise that improves your speed actually improves a lot of other aspects of your playing as well, but these are often harder to measure.

For me "finger memory" as Wade calls it is an integral part of playing. Our conscious bandwidth is limited to 25 bits/s which is neglectable in comparison to wast processing power of our brains. We learn and improve by automating tasks and grouping these tasks into higher level tasks. This applies cognitive tasks as well as to motor tasks. Our brains make very little, if any, difference between these. This process comes at a cost though and must be actively maintained by application and exercise. The more "finger memories" you create, the more myelin will be formed around the neural pathways involved in these memories. This is the brains way of making these processes faster and more effective. And just as the the brain makes very little distinction between cognition and motor tasks it makes very little distinction between cause and effect. This means that once we learned something we have learned to recognize it as well.

Actually purely cognitive tasks like pitch recognition (both relative and absolute) are very hard, if not impossible, to practice directly. This is one of the roots of the myth that have to be born with absolute pitch.

So Wades recommendation of repeating a unknown phrase is a good one because it gives the brain an application for pitch recognition (among others). But it is not enough since there is no way you can do that as a conscious process. Hence the process must be automated and the only way we can do that is by practice. But this is true for every exercise provided that you practice in a way that you emphasize both cognition and motor skills.

So: Every exercise is a good exercise as long as it is actually done. A new exercise is a better exercise as long as you do not quit half-ways. A compounded exercise is better than a isolated one as long as you don't neglect any aspects.

From this perspective i believe the advise given in the video is well worth following
Edited by nilton on 06-07-2016 08:00
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #4
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Not sure about the generalisation that everybody hates to practice. I certainly don't. It's often that I'll start off with practice stuff with the intention of playing some of the downloads and never get to them because I was engrossed in the practice. May also have to do with the type of practices I'm doing. There are the usual scales and stuff then I try to go into improv play mood with random stuff that becomes impromptu pieces that have no particular form or format. The exercise is centred on playing what I can hear and building on what has been played so that it "works". Playing only the notes I'm hearing is what it's about and trying to keep it all in rhythm without mistakes. If mistakes are made the rhythm has to still be kept (no stop-starts). It's tough but satisfying.

Nilton's original post is intriguing in that I'm continually trying to play as fast as I can conceive/hear lines. It's a frustration, but may just be a reality of physical coordination that can only be pushed so far. I'm 100% positive that playing a riff/passage very quickly doesn't = being able to play everything at that speed. Otherwise I'd already be there as I can play scales chords and various runs at speed (finger memory as compared to conscious playing of lines that are not made up of those practices).

In the world of sax players (and other instruments?) There are players who can only string together those finger memory licks. Their ability and training may dictate that it's all they can do. For them the sort of training shown in the video may be ideal as there is little/nothing that they wish to play outside of that arena. In the sax world this is the prevalent type of teaching, you play "standards" and play the changes using either well worn copied riffs or develop your own riffs that are practised until proficient. These are strung together according to the changes (cut and paste) with the intention of blowing away a listener with your "chops". It was a style from the 1950s and 60s. Thankfully that eras has passed, yet it still seems to be a quest for many aspiring musicians to play technically brilliantly with the intention of impressing rather than communicating something deeper to an audience.

We all need to be proficient in playing our instrument in order to communicate and have it be "our voice". Anything that helps us accomplish that must be good, yet I see and hear nearly every sax player being taught that they must play in that antiquated style that seeks to take praise form an audience and gives little to them as entertainment. Exercises that only reinforce speed at specific riffs and arpeggios feeds that attitude and style of playing. The result for sax players is a cliché. This wonderfully expressive instrument mostly only gets calls when someone wants that 1960s jazz sound (the Simpsons, Sesame Street). The same thing happened with the clarinet. The clarinet was a top popular instrument in Dixieland (trad jazz) and big bands. That became "the sound" and standard for clarinet playing. Result?...extinction.

For many players it may be enough to be able to just play a bunch of licks really fast and try to impress. Others players may wish to have something to say in their playing that comes from within.

The question posed is aimed at those other players. How do we practice to become more proficient at playing what we want to hear (which is not a collection of repeated riffs). It should be obvious that this is a different path towards a different goal. If there is anyone out there with experience I'd love to hear what they do.
posted on #5
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Wade wrote:
Nilton's original post is intriguing in that I'm continually trying to play as fast as I can conceive/hear lines. It's a frustration, but may just be a reality of physical coordination that can only be pushed so far. I'm 100% positive that playing a riff/passage very quickly doesn't = being able to play everything at that speed. Otherwise I'd already be there as I can play scales chords and various runs at speed (finger memory as compared to conscious playing of lines that are not made up of those practices).


I my experience practicing one piece or exercise, fixed or improvised, up to a certain speed DOES spill over to a more general ability but only to certain degree. But coming back to challenges after they have been abandoned for some time gives me often the experience that they are a bit easier to tackle having done something else for a while. An explanation might be that the brain is very good at choosing the most effective neural pathways to insulate with myelin. And challenging the brain by variation in exercises and methods does probably enhance this.

When practicing i use the speed trainer feature of guitar pro that loops a selected part with increasing tempo between assignable limits. I also have the metronome on and make tapping my foot in sync a integral part of the exercise. I found that to be a very effective way of practice, especially in that it helps me accept challenges that would have been out of reach otherwise.

Using this method i normally strive for double the nominal tempo in order to eradicate all "road bumps" that could impair performance. I want to be able to focus how to play, not what to play, and the limited bandwidth of the conscious mind does not allow us to do both. So what to play must be automated by any means possible.

Does this method hamper my ability to improvise? I think not. On the contrary, since cognitive skills and motor skills are virtually inseparable practicing one improves the other. And this can be further enhanced by adding additional challenges like using certain modes and timelines for improvisation etc.

But this method has its limits that i am trying to address. One of them is this very frustrating speed limit. I previously quoted Guthrie Govan "Speed is a by-product of precision". An other source for solutions to this can be found the book [url=https://www.amazon.com/Art-Piano-Playing/dp/0874870682?ie=UTF8&keywords=george%20kochevitsky&qid=1439571343&ref_=sr_1_1&s=books&sr=1-1]The Art of Piano Playing by George Kochevitsky[/url]. To me hitting a limit is not so much a limit per se but a indication of underlying flaws. And to address these flaws we must make changes to our methods, pushing harder does not help much.

The method in the video is one of the changes you can make. I would very much like to see other examples. One candidate may be excessive legatos/staccatos.
Edited by nilton on 07-07-2016 10:32
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #6
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Posts: 334
Joined: 25.03.12
Wade wrote:
The result for sax players is a cliché. This wonderfully expressive instrument mostly only gets calls when someone wants that 1960s jazz sound (the Simpsons, Sesame Street). The same thing happened with the clarinet. The clarinet was a top popular instrument in Dixieland (trad jazz) and big bands. That became "the sound" and standard for clarinet playing. Result?...extinction.


Jan Garbarek? Paul McCandless? Eastern European gypsy and klezmer music? All seem very much alive to me
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #7
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With all due respect, your idea of improvisation is probably not the same as what I've (unsuccessfully?)tried to describe. Melodic (creative) improvisation is seldom a part of popular music. It's a very small minority who aspire to this (which doesn't mean it's elite, just different). The majority of aspiring players are happy to be in the right chord structure playing fast licks. There is no judgement in this, it's just not what I wish to do.

The question was not aimed at you Nilton and you shouldn't feel that you have to give an answer. I have close to 60 years experience in practicing an instrument and still seek to find a more effective way to coordinate my inner voice with my hands. As said my question and quest is not the same as just playing fast licks...I can do that, and I don't care about doing that. It's a completely different quest and style of playing.

We definitely agree that all sorts of practice can be good. I do feel however that the quest of many for speed and technical proficiency can be detrimental to their development as musicians/artists. There are tens of thousands of sax players who are examples of this failed paradigm.

I'd still like to hear from anyone out there who has a practice routine that brings together the inner voice and hand coordination.
posted on #8
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nilton wrote:
[quote]Wade wrote:


Jan Garbarek? Paul McCandless? Eastern European gypsy and klezmer music? All seem very much alive to me


Now you've got it! Can you get them to give me an answer? Jan and Paul are the type of players that certainly stand out from the pack and are not playing standards or a bunch of 1960s licks. Too bad sax teachers don't seem to be able to teach their type of thinking and playing.

It's sad that there is only room for a few sax stars that shine. There are tens of thousands of players graduating with degrees in performance who will never play as full time professionals. They are stymied by their limited approach to the instrument and improvisation. Most become teachers of the same failed paradigm.
posted on #9
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Posts: 334
Joined: 25.03.12
I can only speak for myself here. The only person that was ever able to teach me anything was myself. Teachers, peers, books, recordings and websites were (and are) just resources in that process. The other main resource was (and is) my curiosity and my desire to constantly challenge myself and being persistent in that pursuit.

And i have the same values and attitude towards teaching. To provide my students with resources and challenges. Many perceive me as a big a-h-e at the beginning of a course and thank me afterwards (and some don't get it and drop out, that's a bit sad but it is OK for me since im dealing with adults).

I do not for one moment believe that any kind of practice can be detrimental to development. But there are (at least) two catches here.

1) If you stick to a single method (both in a broad and in a narrow sense) it will bring a diminishing return on investment. No matter what the method is and how good it once seemed to work. That's just the way our brains work. And this can have an additional negative implication. That is the negative return on investment tends to make you spend more and more resources that could be spent more effectively on new methods. Eventually this will cause development to cease (or you stop practicing long before that..).

2) There is a risk of developing bad habits or adopting oversimplified explanatory models for the sake of ease and simplicity (ie shortcuts, which is never a good idea)

Apart from this, every aspect of cognitive and motor skills is practicable. That does not mean that it is obvious how to practice, far from it. And the higher the complexity and level of the skill, the more individually suited and challenging the practice (and the method) has to be. And it is here where a traditional approach to teaching and learning (do as the teacher tells you and you get a predictable result and the approval that goes with it) falls short.
Edited by nilton on 07-07-2016 14:02
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #10
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Joined: 25.03.12
A little update:
I have been using the method described in the video for a couple of days now. I also have adapted it and incorporated to my method of learning and practicing (using GP, speed trainer, incremental learning, identifying hot-spots etc) And it works astonishingly well.

That got me thinking, what is the mechanism behind such results? The answer i came up with is as simple as it is obvious.

It forces you to make mistakes and correct them in such a way that the desired pattern is preserved and even enhanced.

And that would be a very effective way of practicing
Edited by nilton on 08-07-2016 10:04
Pure fingerstyle
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