In Search of the Zone

Too many focus issues I think!?

Frustrating sometimes

It can be so frustrating sometimes trying to improve ones ability to make music. I have often found myself feeling like no progress is being made after so many years of trying. This despite being able to actually play many pieces of music of my own and others compositions on the keyboard, guitar and drums, while singing too!

Why would I feel this way after decades of musical pursuit? The feeling is, ‘I could be better’, if I just practice a bit more maybe it will produce the result I am in search of.

Evidence to the contrary …

My guitar from my formative years learning to play

Evidence of a life devoted to practice here. A well worn fret board of the only guitar I had for the longest time. I do have proof that practice works, but there are plateaus it seems where not much progress is being made. New musical pieces original and from others prove to be a challenge to perfect. And developing technique that can be called upon in an instant with out much mental effort requires significant mental effort to get to that point.

From time to time in this dogged pursuit of musical ideals and recently amidst my study of studying, as in how to study to make progress, I found an ability I didn’t think would be possible given my skill set. But within an almost zen like presence I was able to achieve the realization it could be done.

Amidst the cacophony going about in my brain I managed to find a still space to actually study, to practice in such away as to make an advancement maybe not immediately as in developing virtuoso technique but in the mind set it might take to get there.

Much of the cacophony going about in my thought processes was about being able to do that which I was already doing. Playing the keyboard. But I wanted more. Another song to pursue, to jam with another musician, to record my effort for posterity, or a post anyway. All these thoughts confounding my effort to make progress to the next level.

Obviously that was a problem, not being in the right frame of mind to achieve next level technique. Til one morning I attempted something I thought impossible for me but managed to do anyway. I immediately endeavored to notice what had happened to make this possible and found it was a quiet and still mind not desirous of anything but a particular aspect of playing.

The revelation that I could be of such a mind, was and is confounding because the only thing I really can remember besides the sense of stillness and focus was that I was at the keyboard to play. I have been wondering ever since, how do I get back there to that mental state? All I can do is sit and play and try not to let the cacophony of mental distraction whittle away my resolve to pursue musical ideals despite my abilities or lack thereof to realize them.

it cAN BE DONE

Playing Scales and the Russian Method

The skill that I am referring to has to do with piano style keyboards and my limited understanding of something called the Russian method of playing scales. Basically there is a way to play scales where the fingers are playing the notes of the scales simultaneously but opposite of each other like a mirror image. This is some what easy for certain scales that use all the fingers in a certain fashion.

For example a D minor scale is played: (1=thumb, 2=index, 3=middle, 4=ring, 5=pinky)

D Natural Minor keyboard fingering

Usually played right to left and or left to right.

As I understand it the Russian method uses the same fingering and direction as above until at a certain octave of the root or tonic pitch, one that I choose at random, at which point the hands then play away from each other, in a mirror image of fingering the scale.
Start in the middle one octave apart. Of course one can traverse another octave if desired.

D minor Scale with alternative direction
This is how the Russians do it!

In this pattern the same fingers of the hand are playing at the same time as they move away from and back towards each other.
It is as if and is in fact playing from the center of the scale indicated above and outward!
You will notice the scale is not in unison same pitch different octave, but still sounds somewhat harmonious as it still uses the same notes in the scale.

And yet its not quite that simple

Easy enough when the fingering pattern aligns thusly but with certain scales this is not the case. For example F major D minors significant counterpart. The fingering does not align as easily to this method as one might hope. This was the challenge I was referring to earlier about lacking the ability to make those specific fingering combinations and could not even imagine putting in the work to try and do so. But one morning my head space was such that it just happened. While I am still not fluid and its not second nature as I would wish it is good to know it is possible to get there.

F major fingering concisely displayed indicating Russian method and straight forward style

What made this possible of course was the consistent desire to make it so despite many attempts at not quite getting the results I wanted in other many other musical pursuits. I am finding that the desire for second nature or muscle memory playing really does stem from some very basic principals and concepts regularly engaged with and applied.

Here are the scales in musical notation by way of garage band!

Musical Notation of D minor and F Major with inversion pattern

I will post a short video of the practice I am describing shortly.

insight innovation?

This isn’t to suggest my practice regimen is by any means the ideal that anyone could use to achieve musical excellence but mostly it is offered as encouragement to continue to develop and entertain one self above and beyond the oft passive activities that might otherwise corrode and inhibit ones ability to achieve alternative potentialities.

Though it might sound like it, I am not complaining. No after writing this and realizing playing scales backward and forward from the middle is really not that much more difficult to learn than the forward and backward again method I started with! It just seemed difficult because I hadn’t thought about it as really just the same but different!

merci

Not in the mood to practice?

productivity and attention

So its a fairly well known concept that to be good at something you have to do it a lot. This is not always easy to do. Focus often suffers for a number of reasons.

  • Tiredness
  • Motivation
  • Complexity
  • Fear

These are the few that I came up with as I am tired, not unmotivated but challenged by the complexity of blogging and fearful of putting it out there. Well the blog has been here quite awhile and I am now earnestly making a go of it. Fear has been supplanted by momentum as I just started a you tube channel, ‘guitarbeau’s youtube channel’ posted a music video for a contest submission, and directed viewers to this site so… I have motivation to make it worth the trip, as well as some momentum which some have argued is more important than motivation.

Just get started and what follows is a result in the direction one is going. Obviously results may vary depending on the amount of interest and attention given to the effort, but it will stimulate focus by ‘just doing it’ or ‘do or do not, ‘there is no try’ if you prefer to get your act going via quotes from pseudo otherworldly guru’s! There is in fact a ‘try’ just like there is a, ‘taste it you might like it?’ So as this is about practicing a musical instrument when unmotivated or unfocused read on.

Try it with your eyes closed

So I maintain a schedule for practice or try to, it is sometimes difficult to get with my self imposed program. But learning music is a must do for me, as is improving my ability on the guitar and keyboard. In a previous post I mentioned and referenced an article that made some fine suggestions for improving the ability to learn, As the subheading here suggests I found another way to make that happen as well as find a new way to obtain focus on the effort of musical education and improvement.

Its not that difficult

I was struggling to get going one morning so I thought I’d feel my way around the keyboard and see how much muscle memory had become apart of my skill set. Turns out, it was quite a bit. Not that I am flying through the scales at break neck speed, even with my eyes open. But I can find the way with my fingers and ears better than anticipated or that I thought I’d remember.

but wait there’s more

Not only did I impress myself with this version of practice but discovered a component to scale sequences that I had not encountered before. Going through the cycle of fifths and corresponding harmonic and melodic minors related to each I discovered the relative minor scale of the major can lead to the next scale degree in the cycle of fifths.

Briefly and as it relates to the keyboard

Starting with the C major scale and then playing the relative A minor scales, harmonic and melodic, the G major, the fifth from the C, of course is found left of the A (minor), making it easier to find “in the dark” so to speak. G major then is related to E minor or vice versa left of which is the D which is the fifth from the G, got it? And so it went until I reached the scales that for me still require a visual reference from which finger to begin so back to my chart I go to get um, my footing!?

In summation

So the crux of the matter is, focus can be started many ways, and while practicing with your eyes closed might seem daunting to try at first, it can yield beneficial results when done with the intention to improve our musical proficiency. As can just about any endeavor. Just get doing it, or not.

Scales are…

Scales are a necessary component of learning to play a musical instrument. They can be challenging to maintain in a practice regimen because they remain constant and over time can become boring to play.

I read recently that a way to improve your ability to learn a new skill rapidly is to practice it ever so slightly differently. This it is said, can provoke the brain to internalize the information more readily and make it easier to access.

I wondered how this could be applied to scales. As mentioned they are somewhat static in their execution even though they are fingered differently when played in different keys and/or on different strings. They are still seemingly a straight forward and/or backwards exercise, as is also an option.

Then I realized there are alternatives to playing scales and that by using the above suggestion, to vary ones approach to the exercise slightly, can make it more easily understood and internalized and become an integral and useful part of ones musical vocabulary.

I have inadvertently found myself taking this approach one step further, as I struggle to commit new scales to memory. I alternate the note order again slightly. Moving forward 1 step or key and then back, and then forward again this time to the note 2 steps above the previous one and then back 1 step, being careful to use the fingers my scale chart says to use to play the scale in a straight forward way. Some may know this to be a difficult maneuver because of the need to cross certain fingers over or under as one makes their way through the scale.

Perhaps a more readily understandable description of this alternate scale practice method would be to simply play each of the notes in the scale 2 or more times before advancing to the next note. This can also be applied with the follow the leader approach mentioned earlier. This has proven useful in improving my ability. As has practicing regularly, which cannot be over stated.

Video Examples

Here are some video examples of these exercises as they may not be entirely understood just by way of my explanation, as a video supplants a 1000 words!?

Follow the Leader Left leading right hand 2 octaves above and 1/8th note after C Major
Alternate Way to Play a Scale

I hope anyone reading this will find something of use in my efforts to encourage. Please leave a comment if you wish.