Incorporating What We Practice


Q: In your opinion, how does what we work on when practicing make it’s way into our playing? I’ve been thinking about the best ways to incorporate what I shed into my “vocabulary.”

A: There are as many ways to incorporate what we practice into our actual musical vocabulary as there are ways to absorb abstract life concepts into our perception of the world. Everything we learn becomes a part of us in some small way and helps to mold our overall perspective, be it in music or life.

I use my time in the shed as a way to force myself into less familiar territory, push myself technically, theoretically, physically… Essentially, for me, it’s a safe space to explore those things which I cannot yet do.

I don’t worry specifically about how to use the information but rather trust that, as I assimilate the information it will become a part of my musical lexicon.

Of course, there are things that I will specifically work to incorporate, like licks I transcribe or discover on my own, harmonic concepts I wish to adopt (diminished lines over dominant chords, for example), chord voicing, etc…

For these things, the only way that I’ve found to make them a part of my playing is to repeat them over and over again, in a variety of musical contexts. Take them a part, put them back together again, try and adopt a line and alter it to fit different chord types, for example. You can take a minor lick and play it over the relative major key, for example. Little things like that get me thinking about the notes I am playing and the context in which I play them.

I generally don’t worry about trying to shoehorn anything into my playing on the gig that night unless it’s a very low-key, have a fun gig with friends. Then, maybe, I’ll over-work a concept that I’ve been exploring in the shed and try to incorporate it into my playing that night.

I use my time in the shed to try and think of things that I can not do well and simply just work them in as many different ways as I can. On my gigs, I don’t try and do anything but play music well. Once I understand a concept and how it applies to a musical context, I won’t be able to help it from entering into my musical vocabulary but, I generally don’t try to force anything.

At those times when I have forced lines and concepts into my live music situations, it sounds…well, forced. That is not what I’m going for when I’m on stage. I try very hard to be an active listener while I’m playing and to react naturally and musically to everything that is happening in the moment.

My advice is to spend your time in the shed to prioritize those things that need attention in your playing, push yourself in new and challenging ways and then, when you get to the gig, forget all of it and make music.

There are likely many different perspectives on this (it’s an ever-evolving mindset, I’d imagine, so my perspective very well may change as I develop). I’d love for you to all chime in and give me your two cents. I’m speaking in broad terms here and, of course, there are times when you very much should try to assimilate what you work on at home into your playing on the gig (working on developing new lines through II-V’s? Sure, experiment on the gig a bit) but I’m curious as to your reaction to my broader statement that the shed is for working out and the stage is for music making. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, sometimes it’s best just to relax and focus on the music, not the licks and tricks when on stage.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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