Photo by Feliciano Guimarães
Q: I am finding it difficult to combine not practicing what I know and practicing for perfection. I practice fretless almost exclusively, and good intonation is a constant pursuit, including with something as conceptually simple as a major triad arpeggio. Add speed and the desire to play smoothly with controlled dynamics, and one can spend endless hours working on things supposedly already known. How do you feel about working a lot on getting things to sound good as opposed to adding new material and perhaps more advanced concepts?
A: I would say that only you are in the best position to gauge what you work on and for how long. I also think that as long as you aren’t cheating yourself by only playing things that you can play well, then you will be doing “the work,” no matter the material.
If you are primarily focused on intonation, phrasing, and feel, then you can really work on just about anything and incorporate that into your shedding. If you only stick to arpeggios, scales and scalar patterns at different tempos, then you may be missing out just a bit. There’s no reason that you can’t focus on playing smoothly, in tune and with dynamics and still push yourself in other areas. In fact, if you are like me, it’s almost impossible not to practice playing musically and with good intonation when you practice more challenging material.
Pushing certain things into the background of our minds can also help to develop our subconscious muscle memory. For example, I like to work on rhythmic concepts, then harmonic concepts and THEN combine them. Once I combine them, I’m forcing myself to focus on one thing, while the other becomes more about mental muscle memory. This often shines a light on my weaknesses. Another way of saying that is: If I can play “X” rhythm and “Y” harmonic device separately, but can’t do one or the other once I try to combine them, then it puts a spotlight on that thing that isn’t fully developed yet. I can’t strictly focus on more than one thing at a time, so I have to rely on repetition and muscle memory to take care of “X” while I think about “Y”.
The fretless intonation and tonal quality and shape of your phrasing and dynamics will be a life-long evolution. I wouldn’t focus too hard on that one thing but rather work that thing into everything that you do. Kai Eckhardt has spoken quite a bit about his fretless playing really taking off once he treated the fretless sound as a vocal inflection and stopped hyper-obsessing about every intonated moment. He simply engages with his intonation and musical inflection as he plays or sheds anything else.
I would continue to challenge yourself with the material that you practice while keeping 100% engaged and mindful with your phrasing, intonation, and dynamics. i.e., always shed new stuff and ALWAYS play musically!