Learn to play like yourself

Irish Session in DurangoTo those who don’t listen to Irish music all that often, listening to a set of tunes may sound like one long song that goes on forever, kind of like what techno sounds like to me. If you listen long enough though, you begin to recognize the unique style of each musician.

If you’ve ever heard Martin Hayes play the Old Bush, you know he doesn’t play that reel quite like anyone else. Once you’ve listened to his version, you’d recognize it again just by the way he slows it down, elongates his notes and plays it with expression instead of at full speed in straight 4/4.

Miles Davis said “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” I’m pretty sure Martin Hayes has been playing for a long time which is why his expression of the music is so unique. Me, on the other hand…I got some miles to go.

Since I learn all my tunes by ear, I usually glom on to my favorite version of a tune and learn from whoever is playing it in that way. Sometimes this includes incorporating their ornamentation into my interpretation making me sound like an amateur version of whatever artist I’m listening to.

My dream is to one day be playing and have someone recognize my unique sound. But that takes time and lots of practice.

For me, without having a teacher of some sort, practicing is a daunting task. Not because I don’t like to, but more because I don’t really know what to do to make myself a better musician. So, I’ve been taking all sorts of lessons and workshops as of late and wanted to share with you some practice tips I’m learning so that you too can find your own unique sound.

On Practicing

  • Minimize distractions – This is your practice time. Find a spot with limited distractions. Shut off your phone, step away from Facebook and focus only on the task at hand. Give yourself a time limit and work it through without interruption.
  • Start out slowly – If you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast. Start out slowly and work through the details and nuances of the tune, then gradually increase your speed. You want to make sure you’re doing it correctly at first to train your brain and muscles to do it correctly at a faster pace.
  • Focus on the trouble spots – There is always one trouble spot in a tune you’re learning. Instead of practicing the parts of the tune you already know, focus on those trouble spots. Play them until you can play them as well as you can play the rest of the tune.
  • Spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to your music. This doesn’t mean physically practicing 50-60 hours per week. Between work, family and life, most of us don’t have that amount of time to devote to our music. However, this includes listening to  your music, going to see live music, taking lessons, humming the tunes, etc. Incorporate this music into your everyday life on all levels to completely immerse yourself.
  • Practice in your brain in vivid detail – I was recently learning a tune. I kept listening to it over and over in my car while driving to and from work. While I listened I envisioned where my fingers would be on the strings for each note. This helped me memorize the tunes so much more quickly and confidently. You can train your brain without physically practicing.

It takes a while to develop your own sound. Listening, practicing and having the discipline to work on your trouble spots can help bring you closer to creating your own sound. Be free to incorporate your own personality into your music and strive to use it as an expression of your voice. Only then will you sound like you.

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