Here are a few ideas for how to approach and think about learning an instrument well enough to play music with other people. If you are a younger player who has the time and energy to dedicate more serious study, I’d approach the conversation a little differently. Not to say that the basic ideas I’m suggesting here aren’t relevant, I would just put more emphasis on technical exercises and learning theory. The ideas outlined below aim more toward us somewhat worn out adult learners who need to economize our time and energy when it comes to practice. So let’s start with the one thing that you really can’t do with out.

The Bare Minimum Required .

If you are taking the time to read this, I’m guessing you are already there. In other words, you’ve met the bare minimum required to be able to learn how to play well enough to jam with other people. If you want to learn to jam, you have to have a real interest in learning to play music. It helps if this interest is to a degree one might call a passion or, even better, an obsession. Why? Because becoming a competent musician requires some work. Just like becoming a good golfer or staying in good shape or learning Spanish, if you don’t put in the time, it will never happen. That is the sad truth for us grown-ups. Between job and family duties, who has the time? Late starters like us need to approach music differently than kids or somebody who intends to seriously study music or do what it takes to make it a profession. We need to have a strategy and an attitude toward learning that keeps it accessible and fun.  

Strategies For Keeping It Fun and Staying Motivated

Focus on one thing at a time. 

The process can be frustrating and demoralizing if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere. If you focus on one goal at a time, you get to experience the feeling of mastery – getting better and growing as a musician. If you choose songs that are too challenging or lessons that are really technical, and playing becomes a drag, you’ll quit. And why shouldn’t you? Why keep doing something if it sucks? You need to keep the process interesting and fulfilling. Here are a couple of suggestions to help with that.  

Learn songs 

Dave B and Doug Dirt on a whale watching boat jam.

Exercises and lessons are great but to what end?  We want to jam, right? If you want to jam you have to know songs. So practice technique by practicing songs. Simple is good, three chords and not so many lyrics you can’t keep them memorized. (That’s why I love Jimmy Martin tunes ). Focus on one song at a time. Play that damn song over and over until it’s ingrained at the cellular level. Even if you don’t feel like you are much of a singer, do it. Make yourself sing it loud and proud. Own it ! The more comfortable and confident you are, the better it sounds. And that confidence will help you grow as a musician. Plus, here’s the really wonderful thing about learning a song. Songs have a beginning middle and end. When you learn a song, you feel like you are getting somewhere and that is essential to keeping the process fun. Finally, when you learn a song, you are building your repertoire for when that time comes and it’s your turn to lead the jam circle. You want to come to the jam armed with songs you have down pat. 

A little everyday goes a long way.   

Just like exercise, you need to do a little everyday to stay in shape. Playing an instrument is a physical endeavor. It requires mind body coordination. Guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, tuba, it doesn’t matter what you play, the process is the same. Repetition is key to learning, clean, smooth, fast, rhythmically strong playing. There are endless resources to help build technique. So much so that it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. It’s hard to know how and what to practice and if you pick the wrong exercise, it can feel impossible. So here’s my advice for figuring out a practice routine to help build technique and keep the process fun.

    1. Learn to pick a few good fiddle tunes.Why learn fiddle tunes? One, because playing fiddle tunes is fun and two, learning fiddle tunes is a fantastic way to practice. Fiddle tunes function like etudes in classical music. An etude, to quote Wikipedia,  is an “instrumental composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill”. When you get a fiddle tune ingrained in your fingers and head you begin to instinctively understand chord changes and note intervals as they relate to melody. You learn cool phrases and licks and classic patterns that show up over and over again in countless songs. I have a set series of fiddle tunes that try to  play everyday. If I only have a few minutes to practice, I run through that series of fiddle tunes. First slow and precise and then faster. If I have more time, I play the tune, then play around with improvising around the melody and the chords. If you are a guitar player and you are feeling like you just don’t want to work that hard and you aren’t really interested in learning to pick out solos, you still should practice playing the chords and getting the rhythm down for classic fiddle tunes. Just like learning the melodies, learning the chord changes teaches you classic progressions and turn arounds that are important to know.
    2. Learn to pick out the melody of the song. Remember that song you worked so hard to get down? You now have the melody ingrained in your head so it should be pretty easy to find those notes on your instrument. Play that melody over and over. Once you get it down, try playing around with that melody. Add some notes to it, figure out how to make it sound a little bluesy or rhythmically cool by hammering on or pulling off. Hey, look at you! You are now working out your break. This is what the process of improvising is all about. You are taking the melody and reworking it to make things interesting. Even the fastest, hottest most sophisticated solo, whether it’s Mark O’Connor, Tony Rice or Miles Davis, starts with the melody and moves out from there. So practice picking by finding and playing melodies.
    3. A few notes goes a long way. A one note solo is great as long as it is the right note. It is amazing what you can do with just three or four notes. Try finding four notes in the melody of the song and arrange and rearrange those into different patterns or “licks”. Play around with the rhythm too. Use easily fingered notes: open strings, first and second finger. Keep it comfortable and easy. Anything goes as long as you like the sound you’re getting. If you land on something you really like, remember it and store it in your bag of tricks.

Keep It Simple 

I could keep going and tell you to learn triads and scale patterns and modes all the other stuff which you’ve probably run across online and in books and lessons but my experience is that too much information can just be overwhelming and discouraging if you are are not ready for it. If some aspect of theory is interesting to you and you want to chase it down, fantastic but don’t feel like you need to understand theory and know how to read music in order to become a competent player. The last thing you want to do is have the process of playing be unfulfilling and demoralizing. Use the precious time you have to focus on the basics and stuff you find fun to play.

How To Practice

One man’s car is another man’s practice studio

The more you do it, the better you get. It’s that simple. I’m one of those guys who really loves to practice. It’s a meditation for me. The problem is time. When one is practicing one is generally not spending quality time with others. You know, like wives and children for example. If I find myself alone and free, I can play for hours. ( It is possible to play too much. You can hurt yourself with repetitive motion injuries so be careful )  It’s great to get those long, uninterrupted sessions of practice but you shouldn’t just rely on getting the perfect time and place to make it happen. A little discipline goes a long way. Set up a schedule like you would going to the gym. Even just 15 minutes everyday dedicated to working on your current project, whatever that might be, like attacking a fiddle tune or practicing that song you’ve chosen to work on. “Just do it”.  And what if you can’t ” just do it” ?

Learn By Listening 

If you find yourself having to take off on a business trip without an instrument or your schedule is such that you can’t even get that 15 minutes in, practice by listening. Put a song you want to learn on your phone and listen to it while driving/traveling. I find it really cool to hum a fiddle tune or quietly sing to myself  while looking out a plane window. If I tune the song close to the key of the droning jet engines it gets trippy. Listen carefully to great players and pay attention to their approach to rhythm, how they back up singers, cool breaks they may do in a song. Play when you can play and when you can’t learn by listening.   

David Bernard

Author David Bernard

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