What’s your most recent musical breakthrough?

Here’s mine:

Composing my own Jam Tracks, or practice-targeted recordings to play along with.

It has to do how I’ve learned to structure practice time with my instrument.

Now this particular story starts with the banjo, but you can apply it to any instrument, and in a way, anything you’re trying to learn, or improve at.

My biggest goal for my banjo playing, is to refine my accuracy and speed. I really want to be able to technically push myself to play faster with ease. Specifically, I want to play efficiently at tempos upwards of 200 bpm.

So I got to thinking about how I could maximize my efforts…

Is there a way to automate myself into improving my rhythm and memorization?

Naturally, I turned to my good friend & colleague who’s a great producer, Chris Conly (me). I asked:

“Can you put together some practice tracks I could play along with at different speeds?”

The response I got was to the point:

“How many do you want?”

To which I (the banjo player) replied:

“How about a slow, medium & fast?”

(Producer):

“Ok, so what tempos would those be?”

(Banjo picker):

“Try 100 bpm, 150 bpm, and I’d love to be able to cleanly burn through Scruggs-style banjo tunes at 200+ bpm!”

(Producer):

“Done.”

(As you can see I not only wear many hats — but I also have complete conversations with myself.)

And with that, I (the producer) was in the studio making hit records! I had a great time layering together drum grooves & bass lines that outlined the chord changes. And the most important part of any performance: the count-in. You can’t forget the count-in!

In all, it took about an hour to build the track, bounce 6 different speeds to mp3s, and upload them to my Dropbox. Then it was finally time to get playing.

I dedicated an hour each morning to work with my new tracks. After playing along for a couple days, I noticed a dramatic difference in my slow playing. It was much cleaner, more efficient and relaxed. My timing was noticeably solid — right down the middle of the beat. No swing or lag. No rush or drag. Just super solid eighth notes!

But I realized the tempo leaps were too big, so I narrowed them down to jumps of 20 bpm at a time, which left me with 6 speeds: 100, 120, 140, 160, 180 & 200. It may seem like a lot of variation, but jumping 20 bpm is much less noticeable, and more gratifying, than 50. I found 140 bpm to be the best moderate tempo to aim for with any song.

From there I continued to hone the tracks to suit specific parts of the arrangements. I would add a drum break or fill to signify a section change was coming. I added a ride cymbal to the B sections so if I spaced out while playing along, I could find my place quickly. This helped me address my personal weakness keeping the form (AABB).

Each morning, before the day could get away from me, I would sit down with my cup of coffee, log in to my Dropbox, and fire up my practice tracks.

Practicing was the overall act of me dedicating time to hone my craft, but I was really just jamming with my track as if I were playing with a real, live bluegrass band. Now I was making some real progress. It’s one thing to sit down and consciously practice with a metronome. But it takes a whole other level of being in the musical moment to jam with an other player.

I also found that once I was “off-book” with a tune, and could play it 4 times in a row without stopping, it helped me flex another muscle in my brain: always knowing what’s next. Since music is a time-based medium, you’re never fully in the now, because the now is over. It just happened. Now you’re on to another now. It’s so important to be able to ride the wave of the musical moment and keep a clear head. It’s a bit like meditation with a banjo in your hands.

Once I had the arrangement built, and played along with each on loop 4 times, from slow to fast, I felt a lot better about my musicianship each day. But there was something lacking. Having to manually cue up each mp3 between takes got tedious — especially with finger picks on!

So found that if I uploaded the mp3s to SoundCloud, I could compile a playlist going from slow to fast, that would play right through without stopping. The silence at the end of each track, and the count-in at the beginning gave me enough time for a sip of coffee, and then I was off again. Faster!

My biggest breakthrough was finally being able to memorize complete banjo breaks by ear. Learning from tablature, I always learned songs linearly from the beginning. This left me hanging if I lost my place. I’d have to go back to the top every time. I knew the first 4 bars really well, but trailed off after that. This is quite common, and I see it with a lot of students. But after practicing by ear from memory, I could shift in and out of any part of the melody with ease, because I was relying on my ear to guide me, relative to the backing track. That’s a big leap when it comes to building confidence on an instrument.

Relaxing and letting your ear guide you is worth spending a lot of time on. Overcoming performance anxiety without a pint of liquid courage is the real focus here.

I developed that muscle as a musical instinct the moment I stepped on stage. Increased awareness to what’s going on around me, provides context to adjust to. This minimizes embarrassing mistakes, so they become executed with intention, and camouflaged to the untrained ear.

And that brings us here. I’m really stoked about this breakthrough for me, and I want to share it with you.

So my new workflow consists of a chart for each tune I’m shedding*, along with the mp3s, and together they make what I’m calling “Jam Track Bundles”. Each one contains all the resources you need to learn a new song or arrangement, as well as an automated system for practicing each day.

When students ask me “How much should I practice?”, my response has a lot to do with individual goals. But another added benefit of this Jam Track Bundle system, is you can see the total time you’ve just spent playing along at the end of the playlist.

Boom!

That time marker provides valuable instant gratification. It’s just delayed slightly by all that important practicing you just did.

CONCLUSION:

My recent breakthrough is a culmination of a lot of ideas I’ve had about how to best package the process of practicing an instrument. Sometimes experimenting with an old recipe can create something that seems brand new.

My goal is to add a new tune to my website each week. I’m happy to provide this service to current students free of charge, to help you progress between private lessons. I’ll provide a discount code so you can download all the resources for free. The SoundCloud player let’s anyone play along for free, but if you’d like to take the mp3s with you to use on any device, without an internet connection, I’l charge a small fee for each Jam Track Bundle, based on the amount of work I put into creating it.

I hope these are fun & helpful, and I’m very much open to feedback about your experiences working with them. Email me: lessons [at] chrisconly [dot] com

Now stop reading this, and go practice!


  • To “Woodshed” or to “Take It To The Shed” is a term coined my musicians meaning the practice room, or the shed out back, wherever you can isolate yourself to only deal with the musical matters at hand.
Chris Conly

About the author: Chris Conly is a musician & educator. He is a Maine native living in the borough of Brooklyn. Forever fascinated by nature, design, music & learning, Chris shares his passions with the world via his website, and with private students.