We talked before about Guitar Triage––taking a moment to figure out which things are the most important, then STARTING with those.
This sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s not the way most people approach it.
A related-but-different topic is Plugging The Holes. Oftentimes we’re working on what feels like the most important stuff, but it’s not taking us where we want to go.
This is happening to me right now. I’ve been working hard on my sense of time & feel, trying to become a true badass. I just completed a 30-day experiment where I worked on Cartoon Gravity for an hour a day, and in the two weeks since that wrapped, I’ve been spending an hour a day doing superclick exercises (one click per bar instead of one click per beat).
I can tell I’m getting better, but something doesn’t seem quite right. It’s taking way too long, and the gains I’ve made seemed fragile and domain-dependent.
Then Fate Intervened
On Thursday I had a busy day, and I didn’t get a chance to practice before heading out to teach lessons and play my regular gig. I didn’t want to break my practicing streak, so improvised a solution: I ran a click track at my show.
I used the metronome on my phone and wore one ear bud for my whole show. It was a revelation. Things that I’ve assumed were perfectly grooving were anything but.
There were songs that I started too fast, and others that were too slow. There were a surprising number of tunes where the verse sounded great at a given tempo, but when the chorus came it became obvious that I was going way too fast.
And there were quite a few numbers where the instrumental section sped up or slowed down. It’s like my whole show was marked rubato.
So this is the yawning void that’s been swallowing up my best efforts! An hour per day of working on my time is going to be completely undone by the five to sixteen hours per week that I spend playing solo shows.
I’ve been trying to fill a holey bucket. That bucket is leaking 5-16 units per week, and I’m only filling it 7 units per week. No wonder my progress is slow!
“Most men were in their lives like the carpenter whose work went so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he had not time to sharpen them.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
Two Obvious Solutions
One thing I could do is to increase the flow into the bucket by spending (let’s say) three hours each day practicing with the click. That’d put me solidly in the black even on weeks with lots of solo shows. But even with my enviably uncrowded schedule, two extra hours every single day would be tough to pull off.
Especially when a much better solution would be to plug the holes in the damned bucket by running a click track at my solo show. Now a week full of solo shows is a practice windfall.
But Josh, I Don’t Gig 16 Hours Per Week, So This Is Useless To Me
Wrong. Here are three real-world examples of leaky buckets that people routinely try to fix by increasing the flow:
Not knowing the names of the notes on your guitar. This is the biggest set of holes in the average guitarist’s bucket. Sure, it’s possible to be a great-sounding guitarist that only reads TAB.
But not spending the (let’s say) ten-hours-spread-over-three-weeks to learn the note names means you’ll spend exponentially more time trying to figure out keys, how chords are built, harmony, notation, chord progressions, and every single bit of music theory, from the extremely-basic-and-useful stuff to the crazy complex crap.
Not knowing how to read & write rhythms. A big misconception about reading music is that it’s a yes/no binary thing. Wrong––it’s a continuum, with illiteracy on one end and great sight reading on the other.
Being a great sight reader may or may not be useful for the average guitarist, but being musically illiterate is most definitely harmful for ALL guitarists.
The next most-useful aspect of music literacy (after knowing the names of the notes on your instrument) is rhythmic notation. The ability to translate between slashes-on-paper and sounds-in-time is a freakishly useful skill. It improves your sense of time, and gives you a way to quickly communicate ideas to other musicians. Which brings me to…
Running a rehearsal without charts. If the sum total of your musical literacy is [knowing the notes + how to build chords + rhythmic notation], that means you can read charts. And reading charts is the easiest way to cut hours and hours of wasted time out of your rehearsals.
B-Game musicians spend an alarming amount of time have cringe-worthy conversations like this:
“Can we do that part again?”
“You, know, where I change the bassline…”
“Oh. I was concentrating on my part and wasn’t paying much attention to your part.”
“I go from playing this [plays] to this [plays].”
“You mean where it goes boom – bam?”
“Um, I think so. You play the thing that goes wabba-wabba-wabba…”
“This part? [plays]”
“No, the thing that comes after that…”
“This part? [plays]”
“Um, no. Is there a thing that you do in between those parts?”
“Well, let’s just do it from the beginning and I’ll stop us when we get to that part.”
AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! Can you imagine a carpenter asking an apprentice for “that wacking thing and some of those pointy jobbers that are about yea big” instead of saying, “hand me that framing hammer and those 16D nails”? Me neither.
A-Game musicians do this instead:
“Guys, let’s watch the dynamics coming back into the third verse from the bridge.”
“Ok, here it is again, from measure 54. One, Two, Three, Four [all play]”
Wouldn’t you rather be with the A-Gamers in that second rehearsal?
Things have names. Learn them. Use them. We’re not toddlers.
To Sum Up
Even though I identified and worked diligently on my highest priority, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted because my bucket was leaking faster than I was filling it.
Too often in our modern world we assume that the answer to any given problem is to add something. But subtraction (or Via Negativa as Taleb calls it) is far more powerful.
Plug the holes in your bucket and you will go further, faster, with less effort.