Practice breakthroughs

Everyone who has learned a musical instrument has had the experience of hitting a plateau in their practicing. It’s that dreaded feeling of just mindlessly repeating something — treading water — and an inability to make any forward progress.

Then there’s the opposite feeling: you do one little thing differently, you try a new approach, you add something to your practice routine, and then there’s a paradigm shift — an “aha” moment. Suddenly, something clicks and you understand the music differently. Your frustration is gone, and you’re a better musician.

My most recent “practice breakthrough” came on cello. I’ve played simple chords on cello for a very long time — simple major and minor triad “barre” chords — but had hit a wall in my progress. I was unable to understand the way the chords connected to one another. I had zero grasp of the voice leading. Then I remembered something my high school piano teacher had me learn, in the one year of piano lessons I took when I was 17. He had me memorize I-IV-V7-I chord progressions in all 12 keys on the keyboard. My teacher obviously thought this was an integral part of learning the piano — even more important than practicing Bach two-part inventions!

It was a bit of a struggle to translate the idea of I-IV-V7-I progressions to cello at first, and on the first day of practice it was awkward and painstaking to work through the fingerings. The second day was still pretty bad. But on the third day of practice something clicked, and I now have a new understanding of the ways the chords connect on the cello fingerboard. Yay practice breakthrough! Thanks Mr. Gibson!

Do you have any “practice breakthroughs” to share? What was it that pushed you past a practicing plateau?

Basic Harmonic Motion: Rising Fourths

To wrap up April, Jazz Appreciation Month, I made a video using Music Compass to demonstrate a bass line walking up major tetrachords: Do-Re-Mi-Fa. The interval between Do and Fa is a perfect fourth — this is the “rising fourth”.

Harmonic motion over a rising fourth occurs twice in the ii – V7 – I chord progression so ubiquitous in jazz. A remarkable example of this ii – V7 – I progression is in the Ray Noble jazz standard Cherokee, in which the B section and reprise of the A section are a long chain of 12 ascending fourths!

In this demo video below, you’ll hear the bass line (played on cello!) walking up sequential major tetrachords.

The harmonic motion, indicated by the movement of the red tonic piece, is in rising fourths: starting at C and moving to F, a perfect fourth, and then from F to Bb, a second perfect fourth. You can follow the major tetrachord shape being rotated on the Music Compass. The pattern of rising fourths continues from Bb to Eb, Eb to Ab, Ab to Db, and so forth. The sequence of tonal centers is known as the Circle of Fourths, and it goes through all twelve major keys. It ends back where it began, on C.

Harmonic Motion: Rising Fourths

Daily Music Practice: Why it Works

Years ago, Brendan showed me a version of this practice circle:

I’m not sure where this circle originated, but to this day, I have it up on the wall next to my drum kit. Whenever I lose motivation to practice I try and remind myself of this little circle and how everything is connected. It feels counterintuitive, but practicing when I don’t feel like it (even for just few minutes) can slowly build momentum and help regain confidence and motivation.

Part of the difficulty with establishing a practice routine is discovering a habit loop that works for you, and tweaking it as needed over time. Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit" describes how habits work as simply a cue -> routine -> reward pattern.

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He explains that if we wish to modify or create habits for ourselves, it is helpful to observe the how and why of what we do. Similarly, it is helpful to observe and tweak the patterns we have in our daily practice routine.

To do this, sometimes I imagine that I’m running my own mini-laboratory. I use the margins of my music notebook to write "lab notes" about which parts of my routine seem interesting and useful, and which parts are becoming boring and useless. I try and run experiments to see what adjustments to the routine might work and what doesn’t work. For instance, if practice feels monotonous, maybe I can use a dice roll to decide what to work on. Or maybe I can try using a stopwatch to set timed intervals to help focus how time is spent and to create a sense of urgency.

A few years ago I was trying to do a lot of triplet exercises out of method books that I had since I first started playing drums. However, I found myself losing interest. I was bored practicing them and they seemed incomplete. So, I started to experiment with making my own triplet exercises. Because I had created them, I felt more motivated to test them out to see if they would be more successful than the previous exercises that felt so dull.

It helps to remember that if one goal of practice is to stay motivated to practice in the future, then it shouldn’t feel like a monolithic chore. Sometimes things work for a while, and then they don’t, and at that point it is probably time to switch things up and try something new.

It’s always a challenge to remember the long term goals and outcomes that come from short term activity. The impact of daily practice may not show up until weeks, months, or even years later. I believe staying motivated is the hardest part.