Practicing away from your instrument
3 ways to keep progressing while you're on the road
As students prepare to go on breaks and vacations, music teachers everywhere are inundated with the same devastating statement from students, “I won’t be able to practice because I won’t have my instrument with me.” We hang our heads in defeat as there is obviously no possible way to keep engaged with music without physically interacting with our instrument. Flummoxed and dejected, we usher our students off to their vacation mumbling something about, “have a great time at the beach, we’ll keep at it when you’re back” - if only there was a way.
I’m here today to tell you my musical compatriots - there IS a way! In fact there are several, and in this article I’ll detail three of the most impactful ways to keep studying music even apart from your beloved instrument - this includes vocalists if you’re sick and not in singing shape, or lose your voice in an unfortunate run in with a sea-witch.
Before we begin - a lot of people’s minds go to things like travel guitars or mini keyboards or gimmicky air-drumming sticks when they think about on the road practice, and while those things can be slick and fun, I’m not going to talk about anything that requires extra gear in this article. Definitely use that stuff if you like it and have fun with it, but these are all techniques you can do with just a smartphone, paper and pen.
Practice with critical listening
The first thing teachers will tell students to do when on breaks from practice is to listen to the songs, which is definitely good advice, but as a student you want to put this type of listening into a different intensity level of listening than normal background listening. Passive background listening is fine and absolutely never hurts, but the intentional act of Critical Listening is actually going to be powerful practice. Depending on what you’re looking to learn from a track, there are myriad elements to focus on, but for general song-learning, I use several questions to guide my attention - we’ll look briefly at each one.
where am i in the song form, and what comes next?
Building a mental map of the song form is one of the most important things that we can do while we listen. The whole way through the song you should be saying to yourself - I’m currently hearing the verse, next is the pre chorus - I’m in the second chorus, up next is the bridge. Keeping track of that is exactly the same skill that we use in rehearsals and doing this trains ourselves to internalize the song form.
is anything irregular happening? how can i conceptualize it?
When something odd happens in a song and we’re passive listening, we may appreciate it but just let it go by. When we’re practicing active listening those are the sections that we run back and listen to again and again until we know what’s really happening there. Is there a meter change, is it a tempo change, do they add and extra beat or bar, do they key change, is it a funky borrowed chord they’re throwing in? Anything that’s out of the ordinary is going to take much more practice and when we’re reunited with our instrument having these parts conceptualized is really going to speed up our progress on these parts.
what is the most important part of the song right now?
Listening for what the most dominant part of the song is in each part will inform a lot in the rehearsal for when you need to be pulling back your part or pushing it up in the mix. Maybe in the intro the drum beat is the most important, then vocals take over for the verse, then guitars come in for a guitar solo so they’re the dominant voice there. Focusing on this through a whole song gives you a mental map of how you should be working to shift the attention of the audience in each section. If the vocal is the most important part throughout, then focus on what the other instruments are doing to support that idea. There are a lot of spin-off ideas down this vein about songwriting and arranging emphasis, but this is a great starting point to start informing your playing in each section.
There is a ton of interesting research about the roles of physical practice and mental practice and how they interact. Some studies claim that mental and physical practice are equally important, some say that you can do one without the other and have similar results, but most research agrees that combining physical practice with mental practice yields the best results. Critical Listening is time for mental practice. Imagine yourself playing through the song with the recording, do you know where everything falls even without your muscle memory kicking in?
If you don’t already have charts written out for your songs, a backseat on a roadtrip or an airplane seat is the perfect spot to bust out a notebook and get to charting! If you haven’t written a chart before, think of it as a one or two page crash course for a song. It doesn’t need every single detail, but it should have the basic chord progression organized by phrases for each part of the song and the song structure. You can be as detailed as you want though - if you want to write in little bits of tab or give yourself notes to remember where fills or whatever are, go for it! These are for you to consolidate your thoughts on a song and have a hard copy that’s easy to review if you haven’t played a song for a while and need a quick refresher.
Start charting while listening to the song and use whatever resources you need. Using tabs, playthroughs, sheet music alongside your own ear is a great exercise in checking different interpretations of a song against each other. As always with resources on the internet - always be skeptical. If it sounds wrong, there’s a decent chance that it is.
Charting when done right doesn’t just produce a good practice resource, but the act itself will greatly aid your own ability to remember a song and help you to explain how you’re interpreting a song to your band mates. Don’t worry about your chart being perfect - there aren’t codified rules for how to write a chart, just start trying it and find what works for you.
check in on music theory
If you're not working on any specific songs, brushing up on theory is my go-to for practice sans-instrument. A lot of times when you have your instrument it's easy to just want to play songs, or jam, or noodle aimlessly for hours (guilty) and music theory can be neglexted. So when we're forced out of our normal routine, it's a good time to work on your theory skills.
If you're still working on the basics, there are some fantastic resources out there for, my favorite being musictheory.net. They offer a ton of free lessons online that are really well done and easy to comprehend, and they're organized ina nice way so that you can just jump in at the first topic that sounds unfamiliar to you.
If you have the basics covered and you’re looking to get into something weirder, I love to surf around the music-nerd corner of YouTube and see what inspires me, then use that as a jumping off point for my own research and further reading. Some of my favorite YouTube nerds are Adam Neely, Ben Levin, Rick Beato, and (in a slightly different format) Polyphonic. You will absolutely find something to be inspired and really dig into while watching those guys. I frequently will be starving to get back to an instrument and try out some of the concepts they’re talking about after watching some of their stuff. As always - don’t get trapped on YouTube just watching video after video, once you find something that interests you, dig in. Pick one concept to go deep on rather than just getting a shallow look at a bunch of topics. Do some googling, read some articles, imagine how these new concepts apply to your instrument. No matter how accomplished you are at theory there is something new to think about, or at least a new way to think about a concept you may have already been introduced to.
So, my transient friends, if you want to stay pushing yourself musically on your various trips try some of these methods out and see how they work. Shout out to Chip for recommending this topic to write on, and as always feel free to reach out with questions or comments!