Problem Solving For Musicians 101
In the following article on Logic Pro Expert, Groove3 trainer Eli Krantzberg takes a look at problem solving for musicians, and suggests some guidelines to follow to ultimately overcome these obstacles.
Problem Solving For Musicians
Problems arise in life. They often seem insurmountable when they happen. And counter to every instinct we feel at the time (shame, shock, fear, sadness, etc), taking a calm, measured approach to analyzing the problem, and trying various solutions in a methodical way usually turns out to be the best course of action. Below is a tried and true formula designed to overcome these hurdles when we are faced with them.
- Define the problem.
- Analyze the problem.
- Identify potential solutions.
- Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one.
- Implement the best solution.
- Monitor implementation.
The beauty of this little recipe is that it can be applied to almost any aspect of life, music, and audio production. In my last post on effective instrument practicing tips, I said that I would offer suggestions to get past technical hurdles on our instrument when they present themselves. Let’s apply the above principles.
Define the Problem
What exactly is the problem you are having? Is it difficulty with fingering or sticking? Is it an inability to play something in time, or to keep it in tune? Is the phrasing or meter difficult to feel and play accurately? Is something too difficult to read, or to hear, or to memorize?
Analyze the Problem
I’ll give you some examples: I am having trouble playing figures with groupings of two sixteenth notes and keeping them even. I am having problems playing accents accurately where sixteenth notes fall on odd divisions. I am having trouble keeping some notes of the F# scale in tune when they fall on the fourth string. I am having trouble sub dividing quarter note triplets while still feeling the pulse. I can’t memorize the second verse to the song I am working on. I keep messing up the bar at the end of the second line on the page. I can’t read ledger lines. I have trouble with the fingering of the solo I am learning on the fifth bar of the chorus. I can’t quite make out what he is playing in the ninth bar as I am trying to learn his solo by ear.
Identify Potential Solutions
Here are some starting points. Go online and research the specific problem you are facing and see what solutions come up from other players. There’s bound to be some unique perspectives and insights you might not come up with on your own. Call a buddy who plays the same instrument and see if he/she has any suggestions. Take a couple of lessons with an experienced teacher. Chances are he/she has had dozens of students with the same problem, and likely can offer several exercises to work past it.
Some examples of potential solutions: slow down the tempo, isolate the specific problem area, and practice it in isolation over and over until you get it. Play steady sixteenth notes accenting the various combinations in order to internalize the feel of the subdividing. Program it up in Logic Pro if you are having trouble feeling it. Practice exercises just using the fourth string, if that is the hardest to keep in tune. Set the click to quarter notes and program up quarter note triplets in Logic and play along with it to get the feel of the polyrhythm.
Memorize just the first line of the second verse and play it through until there several times. Then add on one more line and play it through until that point. Keep adding one line at a time. Or maybe just work on the second verse alone over and over. Find a simple reading exercise that start with just one or two ledger lines and work on that for a couple of days. Make up patterns that use awkward fingerings; practice them slowly and gradually increase the speed. Having trouble hearing a specific section of a solo? Why not put it in Logic Pro and use Varispeed to slow it down. So what if the quality sucks, you can at least hear the notes at a slower tempo.
Test the Potential Solutions
To select the most effective one, test the potential solutions you come up with for a while and see if they are helping. Are you making progress, getting things gradually more in time, or in tune, or making less mistakes?
Implement the Best Solutions
Once you have figured out what solution works best, implement it! Practice it over and over. There’s hardly any type of technique problem that can’t be solved by breaking it down to the core monads, or building blocks, of the situation at hand. If it’s a serious problem, you may have to go back several steps in order to correct things, but that’s okay. A solution is there if you want to take it. For example if you find some particular technique too difficult to execute, you may need to go back and practice scales. There is almost always a solution that, if practiced diligently enough, will solve the problem.
As you move on, see if the same problems persist. If they do, maybe you didn’t identify the problem properly, or maybe you didn’t find the best solution, or maybe you just didn’t practice the solution enough yet to really internalize it before moving on. If you notice an improvement in your playing, congratulations! You get to pass Go and move up to the next level!