Mark Haston writes about his Practice routine, staying motivated and how to use online collaboration and modern technology to improve your own practice sessions.
Practice, no doubt, has to happen.
It’s a truism that practice makes you better.
Whether your interest is sport, juggling or Playing an instrument, it’s not a surprise that the best practitioners have taken the time and made the effort to assemble exercises and repeat them until they become the best they can be.
A comparatively few exceptional individuals have the talent and ability to excel with an annoyingly small amount of repetition but, for the majority of us, we have to practice. It’s the commitment to repetition that makes the difference between good-enough (and that’s fine if that’s where you want to be) and great.
It's easy to talk about the necessity and benefits of practice. But, I would like to focus on the questions of how I actually keep motivated to do it, and which tool I have discovered to be useful to both motivate me on days where I don't really feel like sitting down with my Guitar, and to help me avoid the potential pitfalls of practicing by oneself.
It’s the commitment to repetition that makes the difference between good-enough and great.
Face 'em: The Things that Drain my Motivation
Most times it comes naturally to me to tune up the guitar and to begin working steadily through the practice material.
The problem comes when I’m not really in the mood and the thought of practice makes it seems more like a chore than pleasure. I know that learning the guitar takes motivation and self-confidence. But on some days it can seem that I am not making any progress so motivation and confidence dips. Instead of raising a natural desire to practice harder, my perceived lack of progress rather pushes me away from picking up the guitar.
It seems to me to be a natural phenomenon that I tend to like new things, and to get bored with things the more often they occur. The more often I have to repeat practice a piece of music; I know the less appealing it will eventually become to me.
The Reality of Practicing Alone
The last aspect I'd like to add might well be summarized as “lack of discipline”, but after thinking about it a little longer, I noticed one factor that makes staying motivated more or less difficult is: I simply need to do it on my own. While most sports may be trained in groups, the repetitive part to practicing an instrument needs to happen while I'm by myself.
Playing in a band certainly provides a motivation to practice, but the real and repetitive solo practice work will still have to happen whether I’m playing in a band or not. Let's be honest – there is a limit to the number of times you can say “hold on a second, I need to get that straight first” or ask “could we redo that passage (a 14th time) so I can work this out?” in a band context.
The Pitfalls of Practicing Alone
When practicing alone, and having fun while at it, there can only be one source of feedback - me. Even with my highest degree of self-criticism I may simply not be aware of any errors I am making. From hard experience I know this can result in me becoming proficient in something that has flaws. Not a good outcome because when the flaws eventually become apparent (and they will) they’ll have to be unlearned when I re-do the practice (correctly this time).
I guess anyone who has committed to solo practicing for a while will be familiar with the following situation:
Where does feedback come from?
Your progress is smaller than expected, and quickly followed by an uneasy feeling of “all I have confirmed today is that I really suck on guitar”. Seeking a (hopefully less depressing) second opinion, I’ve tried using girlfriends and teachers as sounding boards while I practice - but the former don’t know what to listen for and the latter can become expensive. And that’s not even allowing for their availability. What has helped me not to lose hope in this situation and to remain motivated were often events outside of me, for example having a scheduled gig or rehearsal.
These types of events will always boost my motivation towards practicing, but then again, I still need something that keeps me motivated when nothing of that kind is happening.
After a job-related relocation I found myself outside any band activity, so I really lacked that external motivation. Since forming a new band in the new area turned out to be difficult, I went looking about for other things that might have a similar motivating effect and ended up discovering online collaborations – but let me share my general approach to staying motivated first.
My Current Recipe for Staying Motivated: Multiple and Changing Practice Fields
To avoid getting tired by repetition and losing focus on my objectives, I try to find a balance between practicing specific songs or techniques and playing around in a different, rather loosely defined field.
As an example: I may be learning to fingerpick a song and after a while I become jaded. To overcome this I might divert myself by jamming to (say) a bossa-nova song and challenge myself to improvise around a little. Besides giving me a needed alternative from my concentrated fingerpicking and sheet reading, this move gives me the chance to ease up, do a little ear-training when figuring out the bossas' changes and make some spontaneous progress in improvisation, or at least have some fun trying out something new.
Fun? Yes, that’s important, it's what will bring me back to practicing the picking again next time I grab that guitar. The psychological benefit of having such a rather loose second leg in my daily practice routine is that there really is no fixed expectation on what I have to achieve, therefore no pressure on me.
I can take it easy and goof around to styles I'm absolutely unfamiliar with, or try to figure out how to support a song. As long as I look at it in a jam-session-like mind frame, such side “jams” are great fun and challenge my creativity. That may not directly improve my prior practice objective (the fingerpicking), but it will definitely make me want to pick up the guitar tomorrow.
Recording my Playing to Notice Things to Improve Right Away & On My Own
To help me pick up on my mistakes I often make a recording of my practice sessions. On playback this gives me the opportunity to critically listen to my performance, note any flaws and discover the things which somehow worked. Early use of this technique has helped me avoid going too far down the road of learning the wrong thing - an experience that can be very demoralizing. Thus, I'm keen to reassure myself that my own impression of having mastered something can be validated by the recording.
I try to keep the efforts attached to the additional task of recording my “jams” as low as possible. Starting out, all I used was my phone to capture the sound, by now I have advanced to recording on my laptop, using a simple two channel USB interface.
When listening in later, I sometimes feel like going back and doing a second take on something, but since my prior aim is to have fun and make sure not to take a wrong turn, I seldom do that. I sometimes listen to those quick recordings in the car when on my way to work, and they keep pointing me towards my timing issues in the most merciless way. Again, the key to keeping this procedure a fun experience is not expecting too much. If I had the intention to create perfect and well-mixed recordings during every practice session, that might turn out to be yet another source of disappointment and technical difficulty, keeping me from playing guitar.
Working with Backing Tracks & Discovering New Challenges
I like to keep the second half of my practice time as fresh as possible, so at some point I started to venture for tracks to jam along to. Some players I know recommended searching YouTube for practice tracks so I took a look. I found this idea attractive because the idea of playing along with other musicians inspires me (even though I’ll be alone when I play) and I’m keen to vary the familiar solo practice circuit.
I was quite overwhelmed by the amount material available to serve as guitar practice backing tracks. Some of the material is really awesome, but to be honest, I noticed some drawbacks to using YouTube as a source for jam-tracks: I do get sidetracked. I quit the YouTube experiment after noticing I was tending to just watch clips instead of practicing my guitar. I found myself watching some awesome players instead of playing myself, or discovering completely non-guitar related videos that caught my attention.
Yes, you may point at my lack of discipline once again, but my bottom line was: Video platforms didn't really help me stay focused on my playing.
When playing along to tracks, I do crank up the volume of the playback quite a bit to be sure I will clearly notice the changes. The situation is similar to the average band get-together. You will need to adjust your own volume to the rest of the band and try to find a good balance where you hear enough of yourself to notice your own mistakes, and enough of the band to be able to interact with them. This takes a little adjusting, and depending on the track of choice, I noticed that hearing myself gets a lot more difficult if the track is already “crowded” musically. I ended up deliberately looking for tracks without guitar in them and without vocals, which made it easier to hear myself.
In the end what really turned me away from using YouTube was their advertisements, which quite often caught me by surprise. Imagine sitting there, playing a track to jam to from your speakers at an easy to jam to volume (that's quite loud for me) and up comes an advertisement with a much louder volume.
I found that experience extremely unpleasant, while I was trying hard to open my ears to anticipate the music, these seemingly extra-loud ads felt really intrusive.
The whole experience of browsing for a good track, skipping advertisements and eventually wanting to restart a track to have a second go had me fiddling with my computer every few minutes, so at some point I concluded that this format just doesn't really work for me.
Other websites I checked presented a wide mix of midi-programmed jam tracks (which obviously makes creating “no guitar”-versions quite easy). I found these to be worthwhile, but the sound and excitement of real instruments somehow always gets my attention somewhat more. A while ago I finally came across an online service that feels like the ideal match for my practice approach, and even adds some incentives to play which none of the others I looked into had offered.
Discovering "Online Jamming" on Wikiloops.com
When searching for suitable practice material on the internet I discovered wikiloops.com a website that combines all of the following:
- A good range of practice material in various musical genres
- A search engine designed to spot tracks missing guitar and allowing the browsing of tracks by parameters like the musical key
- No interruptions by audio commercials
- A convenient, auto-repeating player which can be controlled via keyboard or mouse so I can keep jamming to a track of choice without the need to manually restart the player
When stumbling onto wikiloops.com for the first time, I rather expected yet another offering of midi loops and was surprised to notice the site is mostly about real instruments, recorded by people like myself with the intention to let others jam along. Because wikiloops is aimed at all types of instruments (including voice) and musicians, it serves as a sort of exchange board between them, so giving me access to tracks without guitar, and other musicians to tracks missing drums or whatever instrument they are playing.
With the “filter by line-up” option, anyone can browse the track database by selecting which instruments should be present on the track. My preferred choices turned out to be tracks with either drums and bass (challenging me to follow the bassline harmony, yet easy to listen thru) or simply pure drums to serve as an inspiring sort of metronome, while giving me total tonal freedom.
When browsing wikiloops for tracks, I was quite disappointed to notice that none of my searches for known tracks or bands returned the desired results, until I realized that they have deliberately implemented a “no covers” policy on wikiloops.com.
I still feel it’s a shame the site doesn’t allow covers as that would be super-useful but that’s the legal position, unfortunately.
Daily Use Example
Let's take a step back and get back to my daily practice. In my initial example, I mentioned switching to playing a bossa-nova, so let me show you how I use wikiloops in that context.
All I need to do to get started with the “jamming” part of my daily guitar session is open wikiloops, head for the search page, filter by “BossaNova” and pick a line-up like “Drums & Bass”.
I usually start out with the first track that comes up. One click on the search results listing will take me to the tracks page, where the audio will start playing immediately without requiring a second click.
It only takes a few seconds of listening for me to make up my mind to either take the challenge and start playing along, or to browse on to another track. Assuming I liked the first track, it only took me a few clicks to get from practicing my sheet music to starting the jamming part of my routine.
Similar to other sites, wikiloops also offers a list of “alternative results” in the right column once you've navigated to a tracks page, quite similar to the way YouTube displays their related videos.
The great thing about this feature is that it will display alternative tracks which match your most recent search. Thus, in my example, it would offer me nothing but alternative BossaNova jam tracks with drums and bass. Even if I don't feel like jamming to the first track I get to hear, moving on to another only takes one click, while I'm not being side-tracked in the way I experienced using other sites.
It took just a little bit longer for me to discover the additional functions of Wikiloops which have now become a key motivation for grabbing my guitar. Earlier I mentioned discovering unexpected incentives to play, so let me share how that has worked for me after digging deeper into Wikiloops.
Getting Inspired by Listening to Other Musicians
When browsing tracks on Wikiloops, the “no covers” policy has an immediate consequence: You will not be familiar with any track you come across.
Some tracks may be so genre-typical in their structure (think of the standard blues things, which are easy to get into) that playing along will seem easy, while other tracks really had me wondering what style of guitar playing would fit well. While I was all focused on tracks missing guitar, I noticed at some point that quite a lot of those tracks had a small indicator titled “available remixes”, offering various instruments, including guitar.
When hazarding to click on one of those, I discovered this is the way to access a version of the same drum and bass track plus another musician's guitar addition, giving me a general idea of what I could try to play.
Some tracks even offer multiple guitar player's remixes, so when in need of inspiration, I can compare these, and then return to the guitar-less track to have a go myself. These kinds of demonstration really give me an incentive to get down to practicing.
The Community's Effect: A Boost in Motivation
As I got familiar with the website, it dawned on me that all of these tracks were recorded by musicians who are part of some sort of community “inside” Wikiloops. I was looking at the track descriptions and the comment section offered on any track (which on Wikiloops is labelled as the “compliment” section) and I noticed the track contributors commenting on their recording and playing efforts, while the listeners responses varied between open admiration, encouraging comments and helpful hints on what to improve next time.
While some musicians offer self-critical thoughts while sharing a track, others will openly admit to their remix being the result of a “one take” play-along-and-record run, which is shared with the community for the sheer fun of it.
The overall quality of tracks offered on Wikiloops does not reveal that at first (I guess they are sorting the tracks by download popularity), but some of the user-contributed tracks I came across obviously weren't recorded with more audio production skills than my own home recordings. I was tempted to upload a track of mine for some time as I had noticed that the community strongly encourages and appreciates “beginners” tracks and the creative effort that goes into them. This attitude convinced me I should join up and post a first recording of my jamming attempts on a Wikiloops track.
It was an exciting experience, and the mere idea of someone later on listening in on my playing instantly boosted my motivation to play. My willingness to do a few more takes to make sure I captured my best shot then jumped to a new level, while my ability to critically listen to my recordings greatly improved at the same time. This all happened before I uploaded my first track.
When I finally did, choosing a funk track with drums and bass and adding my tightest-possible take on funky guitar sweedling, you can imagine I was quite curious to see what (if anything) would happen next. I didn't lose any time on setting up my user profile but went straight ahead to uploading my remix, so when I first appeared on Wikiloops, I guess I happened to be the typical face-less newbie guitar player on the block.
Still, checking the tracks listener count, around 40 people listened to my first track that day, and those that commented left encouraging messages.
When the awesome french bassist who had contributed the bassline in my backing of choice left a “thumbs up” (equivalent to a “like” on Wikiloops) and commented on my remix with: “That's what I had been hoping for, good job!”, it felt like Christmas morning. Nobody offered me a record deal or elected me the hottest guitar player on Wikiloops, but the positive feedback coming from the fellow musicians really sparked my motivation to stick around and come back with a new track soon.
In my first three months using Wikiloops, I ended up posting a total of 28 self-recorded tracks, received a lot of friendly feedback and some helpful hints on how to improve my mixes, which got notably better between the first and the latest track uploads.
What has me coming back is the unique mixture of the following:
- Getting heard by people who know music
- The opportunity to break out of practicing by myself, and be in touch with musicians in similar situations
- The constant flow of previously unheard original music that I'm introduced to
- The freedom to become active whenever I want without any need to make appointments, and without any pressure to “deliver” anything
The real icing on the Wikiloops cake is to eventually receive your first remix notification, informing you someone out there has spent time recording a remix of one of your tracks. There is no telling if and when that will happen and neither do I have control over what kind of remix might appear, so I've learned to be open towards surprises when checking what people have done using my track as their backing.
Some tracks evolve into full songs as vocalists, keys and horns are added, some jam-tracks even end up with multiple sub-branches based on the same initial track, and others simply remain un-remixed.
I did own up to lacking discipline earlier so let me admit I do enjoy the lack of obligations and the kind of anarchic and creative freedom offered by Wikiloops, making it my current motivational tool of choice.
Technical Requirements for Online Collaboration
To record your guitar to engage in online collaborations you will need some home recording software which supports recording and mixing multiple audio recordings. Such multi-track recording software is commonly referred to by DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
An Internet search will find you a DAW that is free to download (for example Reaper, Pro Tools First or Studio One Prime)
To connect your guitar (or a microphone) to your computer, you will need a hardware device (USB audio interfaces are common) offering you the needed inputs and pre-amps to properly connect your guitar, and the outputs needed to connect headphones or monitors.
Last, you will need a good set of headphones or monitors (ideally both) which serve you well while playing along to a track, and also give you a clear picture of what your recording and mixing efforts sound like on a regular stereo system.
I am happy to have found something to look forward to while doing the mandatory practice, and having a growing archive of my online collaboration adventures is something nice to look back on, saving me from asking myself why I'm still playing guitar during the times when there is no band project in sight.
If you want to find out more about wikiloops then the place to start is the Home page which can be found at https://www.wikiloops.com
Under ‘search’ are links to the knowledge base and help articles and it’s all clearly explained.
If you would like to share your experience with so called online jamming sites or point us towards a similar online community, feel free to leave a comment below this article.
Notebook graphic via Freepik
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