How The Pros Practice

During the mixdown of Ivory Knight’s Unconscience CD, I had the opportunity to work with guitar god Jeff Waters, the founder of the legendary Canadian metal band Annihilator. After one evening talking to him about music, it would be no exaggeration to say that I had learned more about the art of recording than I had in all my twenty years of playing music – and that includes four years of University studies! I’ll admit that in Ottawa, we are sheltered from the outside world, so we don’t get much influence from established industry pros, except through their albums. I had often wondered how top professionals approached their craft, and what made them different from all the hopefuls who can’t quite get it together. Well, I finally got my chance to learn and now I’m going to share with you some of the things I learned in the hopes that you can avoid some of the common pitfalls that threaten the careers of aspiring musicians.

There are a number of differences between professional and amateur musicians but if I had to single out one above all others, it would be that the pros play with a much higher level of consistency. When you watch live performances, you’ll notice that the players seldom make mistakes and they play all their parts very solidly, no matter how technically difficult the part. I used to think that there was such a thing as “good enough”, especially when dealing with difficult passages. Not so in the pro world. In the big leagues:

No matter how easy or hard a part is to play, you must be able to play it perfectly.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s whole note chords or 32nd note arpeggios. Also keep in mind that any recording project has a fixed budget, which means that you have a set amount of time in which to put down your tracks. If you’re struggling with playing your parts, in order to keep the project on budget, a producer will likely bring in a session player. Let me repeat that with more emphasis, in case it didn’t quite sink in the first time:

If you cannot record your parts withing a reasonable amount of time, the producer will likely bring in a session player!

In my amateur naiveté, I used to joke to my bandmates that I’d like to see them try to find someone who could lay down my rhythm parts in any reasonable amount of time! After talking to Jeff, I am convinced that they could and would replace me if I were to give them a reason to. That’s when it really hit me that:

As a professional musician, you must be able to play consistently well under pressure.

Playing music is a lot more fun than working in an office, but let there be no misunderstanding, with potentially large sums of money at stake, you are expected to do a job and do it well. Now I don’t mean to imply that you have to be some kind of virtuoso. Far from it. To be successful in the studio, a musician simply requires a strong sense for what a song needs and be able to capture those ideas on “tape” in a timely fashion. Live, consistency is one of the key components for giving each audience a good show for their hard earned money.

Practice Principles

As you might have guessed, to attain this level of proficiency, it takes a very specific approach to practicing – one that is surprisingly quite foreign to most players!

Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but few people realize how much impact the quality of their practice sessions will have on their career. Most people focus too much on unimportant things and way too little on the really important stuff! For example, one of the biggest mistakes that amateurs make, myself included, is to equate chops with skill. Most amateurs try to hide their lack of solidity by throwing in a lot of licks and embellishments in their playing. Once in the studio, they quickly discover that music industry professionals are not fooled for one second by frivolous flashy parts. To them, sloppily executed licks just look ridiculous and merely detract from the song that they want to capture. Get in the habit of practicing to achieve solidity and consistency in every recording you do and leave the licks for when you can play your parts in your sleep.

Pros practice exercises and techniques as much as songs

I used to spend the vast majority of my time going over songs. Now, most of my practice time is allocated towards playing scales, chord progressions, and a variety of exercises aimed at improving my picking, fingering, fluidity, consistency, and timing. The idea behind this is that the better your technique is, the easier it is to put down songs solidly. At a recent drum clinic, drummer extraordinaire Mike Mangini remarked, “Music is not just art, but a skill as well. There are many talented musicians, but only a few skilled ones.” He went on to say that one of the key traits that separate him from most musicians is the discipline to practice mundane and basic techniques over and over again until they are perfect.

Practice everything to a metronome

Some people, including many, many drummers, feel that they can somehow avoid metronomes believing that they instinctively possess pretty good timing already. One of two things tends to happen to these people if their band is lucky enough to get signed. They either get replaced before the deal goes through or, if they are integral to the band because of creative input or image, they are relegated to watching the recording from the sidelines. The producer will know who practices to a click and who doesn’t, and he or she will very likely bring in someone else, because it’s too late to catch up at that point. This is especially true for drummers, since it’s extremely difficult to punch in drums.

General Tips for Practicing and Working with the Metronome

I asked my band’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, John Devadasan Perinbam, for his thoughts on this subject. Here’s what he had to say:

1. I’d advise people to start with the metronome on SLOW! Every book I have read on drums and piano mentions this! That will help work the muscles that need it…and yield much better control.

2. George L. Stone recommends in his acclaimed book Stick Control to repeat each pattern twenty times without stopping before moving onto the next pattern. This forces the player to be conscious of counting the pattern, not just ripping through each pattern.

3. In my opinion the purpose of practice is to fine tune the muscle memory so that the muscles obey the brain with a minimum of conscious intervention – whether the practice is for music, sports, whatever…

4. WATCH FOR TENSION when you practice. Vocalists should practice in front of a mirror and observe posture, use one hand to feel the muscles under the jaw while practicing. If something feels like it is tensing, you’re probably not doing it right.

5. I’ve heard many people say that they don’t want to use a click track because they won’t “feel” the music the same way. That’s usually because they are not used to working with the click and they are “chasing” it rather than feeling the groove of the beat.

6. By the time you’re ready for the studio, you should be able to play the parts in your sleep. There should be nothing that challenges the limits of your playing ability. If there is, then the parts are too difficult.

6b. By the same token, when it comes to recording, a simple part, played solidly and consistently, is infinitely preferable to a challenging part that is “hit-or-miss”.

7. A point regarding discipline: always set goals that are attainable. The person that suddenly decides to allocate three hours a day for personal practice after twenty years of not practicing at all is likely the same person who is no longer practicing regularly after three or four months!

8. Learn another instrument, at least at a beginner level. At the very least, you’ll get a different perspective of the music, and you’ll be more understanding of your bandmate who regularly plays that instrument. Additionally as you become more proficient you’ll likely develop your muscles more evenly than if all your attention is focussed on one instrument.

9. Allow time for new techniques to sink in. It takes time for information to filter through the conscious mind and stored in “muscle-memory”. Patience.

Practicing everything to a metronome is a great habit to get into, and will put you leagues above most players, but there is more that you can do to make the most efficient use of your practice time. Most pros have very busy schedules. What with public appearances, business meetings, traveling, they have a lot less time for practicing than you might think! But that’s OK, because:

Pros know how to make the most of limited practice time.

Each time a professional musician sits down to practice, he/she knows what he/she is going to go over and for how long. Here is a sample practice session:

  • 15 minutes of hand stretches and strengthening exercises.
  • 1/2 hour of picking/timing exercises
  • 15 minutes of scales played at different tempos
  • 1 hour of rehearsing songs for evening’s band practice

Depending on what needs more work and what kind of guitar player you are (IE: rhythm or lead guitar), your practice agenda could differ substantially from the one above. I strongly recommend that you have a look at John Petrucci’s Rock Discipline instructional video for some useful guidelines. Just keep in mind that he represents the extreme far right of the pro player spectrum and is by no means “typical” in his degree of perfectionism. If you take it as the benchmark for what it takes to play at the highest level of technical proficiency, you can scale it back from there to determine how much is enough for you. For example, if you play rhythm guitar in a rock & roll style band, you would put most of your emphasis on strumming chords along with a click track and a lot less on pentatonic licks. What you would NOT do is reason that you want a loose feel, so you avoid using a click track! That’s what an amateur would say and it won’t serve you well in the studio.

Practicing for Tightness

Even playing along to a metronome every day is not enough to ensure that you are ready for recording. In case you haven’t yet enjoyed the thrill of recording, you’ll find that it is a lot different than playing in your living room. And the best way to prepare to do recording is to do some recording! I strongly recommend that you purchase a small portable digital studio for this purpose. You can snag one for a couple of hundred bucks and it could pay huge dividends for your career. Here’s how to use it. When ever you make up a part, put it down. Not only will that help you remember it, but it will also provide you with practical rehearsal for the real thing. Once you’re satisfied with the performance, go ahead and double it, and then even triple it! I like to record a part ten times and then pan individual parts hard left and right so that I can hear how closely they match up. Ideally, you should be able to do this with any of the ten takes and they should all sound good. In reality, you will probably find that several of the parts that you thought were bang on are in fact less than rock solid! Once you can play the part and double it virtually every time, you’re ready for the real recording. I can remember too many occasions going over a part a zillion times to capture that one magic take. Lucky for me, I was recording in a home studio. I could never have gotten away with that in a real one. At the very least, I would have received a strong tongue lashing from the engineer. In a big budget scenario, the producer would have probably banished me from the recording and replaced me until I was ready to get down to business. The lesson here is that:

Pros record all their parts several times before attempting the “real” recording.

There are exceptions to all the rules I’ve outlined above, but you will find that the best and most sought after players do follow all these practices. Don’t let yourself become one of those artists who refuse to regiment their practicing because that they fear it will homogenize their playing, because, rest assured, these fears are simply unfounded. It can only help your cause to become proficient at your chosen instrument. So give these practices a try, and get yourself on the right path before you’re told to! Until next time, happy practicing!