Category Archives: Practice Ideas

How to Strum Songs Without Hesitations

Strumming songs with big pauses between chord changes is a really common problem for beginners, and it sounds really amateurish! There’s nothing worse than someone singing or playing through a song, then pausing for 5 seconds to try to make that dreaded tricky chord change! The root of the problem is usually that the muscles have not been trained to make the correct movements for the chord change easily and effortlessly.

There are a number of techniques you can use to overcome this problem:

Play through the whole song no tempo

Make sure you can do the changes slowly in order, and get a feel for which chords changes are causing problems.

Drill the problem chord changes

Start slowly (no tempo), focusing on quality rather than speed. Do not underestimate the power of this, done right! Often for me, as a more experienced player, this stage alone is all that’s needed. Then try increasing speed. Gradually! Once you can do the change slowly with accuracy, use “one minute changes” to see how many chord changes you can make in a minute. Record your score.

Drilling chord changes is really important as it builds muscle memory, so you don’t have to think about your chord changes any more (there’s a sense of your fingers just doing the chord changes themselves).

Strum Once Per Bar

Now we are starting to think about staying in time. Try playing along to the recording, just one strum per bar or chord. If you’re struggling, slow it down! Try playing along to a metronome or slowed down version of the song (e.g. using amazing slow downer). If you can’t do one strum per bar you will struggle with a full complex strum pattern! Make sure you do it at a speed you are comfortable with.

Strum twice per bar

Try increasing the number of strums to twice per bar. Again, if you’re struggling slow things down. If it’s really comfortable, sometimes you can skip this stage.

Strum once per beat

This is the crux point. You need to be able to strum every beat (4 times for most pop songs) and make the chord changes without pausing. If you can’t do this then there’s no way you can do the whole strum pattern. It’s essential that you don’t pause your strum for the chord changes! Better to slow down the song than to embed in the hesitations. If you practise hesitations, no matter how slow, you’ll get really good at… hesitating between chords!

Practice the strum independently

The strum needs to be effortless before trying to combine it with chord changes, particularly if you are new to playing, and still need to concentrate on your chord changes. You only have limited attention – choose one hand at a time until things are automatic!

Try chords with the strum pattern

This is the tricky bit – putting the chords together with the strum. Don’t pause! Slow down, and make sure you can keep your tempo/strumming really even.

If you need to, just take two chords and go back and forth to get used to changing with the strum pattern.

Go back and fix problem areas

This is crucial. Practice has to be dynamic! You need to mix up different approaches. Try playing through the song, see what holds up, what needs fixing. Work on the problem chord changes; take just two chords – try no tempo chord changes back and forth, “one minute changes”, try 4 strums on each without pausing, try with the full strum pattern (alternating between the two chords). Then try it in context (just that section of the song). Then try the whole song again and see if it holds up. If anything needs fixing, go back into more focused practise on that particular musical phrase to fix it.

Just Play
Forget all this and have fun! Come back to the detailed practice another time. Just focus on keeping the rhythm flowing – accept that there’ll be a few chord mistakes along the way!

Other tips:

Slow down!
Better to go slow with quality to start with. Speed will come with time.

Focus on ease, relaxation and effortlessness
The more tense you are the harder to make your fingers work. Notice where you’re holding tension and just let it ease.

Practice makes permanent
So don’t embed the hesitations or mistakes!

Don’t be a perfectionist
Aim for quality, but accept that there’ll be a few buzzy chords along the way – keep working on them, but don’t let the odd imperfection impinge on your steady rhythmic flow!

Keep strumming!
No matter what is going on with the chord changes, keep that rhythm going!

Break it down
Don’t just play through the whole song each time. Take small sections or musical phrases to work on. You can play through the whole thing again later.

Just play
Play through the whole song sometimes! You have to keep things dynamic and fun! Mix it up!

Go easy on yourself
Have fun! These things take time! Don’t expect the moon on stick – some things take time 🙂

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How to Actually Retain the Music!

So, you want to master that piece of music, that phrase, that lick, that scale idea, that solo? You want to learn it deeply, so it becomes entrenched in your memory for years to come, effortless to recall?

Well, just keep practising the same thing again and again until you nail it, right? That’s what traditional teaching ideas would tell you. But while there is something to be said for repeating something again and again to get it into your muscle memory (especially accurate repetition), long term memory is actually much more nuanced than that.

So say Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel in their new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

They argue that learning in such a narrowly focused way yields only short term results. In order to retain information for the long term we have to keep coming back to it, approaching it in new and different ways. Here are some of their key ideas:

Spaced Practice

Spacing out your practice of a particular skill will consolidate the skill much more effectively than trying to get it down in a single practice session. The increased effort of retrieving the information from your memory each time you come back to it strengthens it. This certainly rings true for me – it makes sense that the effects of “cramming” for a music exam or performance won’t necessarily stick. A song I’ve played over a period of years, on the other hand, is entrenched in my memory.

Interleaved Practice

The idea here is that mixing up the order of subjects or skills is much more effective than mastering one before you move onto the next. So rather than moving through skills 1 to 7 progressively, you might jump from skill 1 to skill 4, to skill 3, back to skill 1, then skill 7, etc. I can see how this might have long term benefits – it certainly seems that you can get to a point with repeating the same thing over and over where progress seems to slow. This approach feels somehow more organic.

Varied Practice

The authors claim that varying your practice, rather than just drilling one skill, gives you a wider “movement vocabulary”, which enables you to transfer your learning to different contexts. So, to give a musical example, you might try different variations on a lick rather than just rote learning one lick. Or try going back and forth through different sections of a scale rather than playing it up and down the same way each time.

I’m definitely going to explore these ideas both in teaching and in my own practice. If you want to read more about the theories and experiments in the book this Salon article does a good job of summarising the ideas (Gladwell bashing aside!):

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