Friday, June 18, 2010

Practicing Away From Your Instrument

Most of the time when we talk about practicing, it's usually just about sitting down with our instrument and going through some exercises. We go through some technical exercises, some scales, go through some tunes and maybe get in some improv or writing. If we're really diligent and on the ball, we'll get in some ear training and theory. Of course doing all of these things without our instrument there seems just like a waste of time. In fact, it's the opposite.

Virtuosos Do It

Famous composers, performers and virtuosos have all been know to do it; they regularly practice away from their instrument.
Virtuosos have been known to practice their entire performance while traveling or in a hotel room. They picture themselves sitting at the piano. They see all of the keys and their hands. They see and hear every note that they're going to play. It's like they're there in the practice hall but it's all happening in their mind. It's not only performers who do this. Dancers and all sorts of physical performers regularly go through their entire routine without ever leaving their chair.

Fantasy vs Reality

There's a famous experiment where a group of ordinary people are tested on their ability to shoot free throws. There are three groups of people, all inexperienced at the game of basketball. They are all tested at the beginning of the experiment to see how many free throws they can get. They are then separated into 3 groups. Group A is set up to practice shooting hoops for a half an hour everyday. Group B is not allowed to practice at all. And, Group C is instructed to 'imagine' shooting hoops for half an hour everyday.  The results were surprising. Group A scored the same or worst. Group B scored slightly better than their initial score. Most surprising was the fact that Group C had the greatest increase of shots scored . Remember this group had only practiced the exercise in their mind. They, like Group A, hadn't touched a basketball for over a month.

No Difference to Me

The fact is, when it comes to scenarios like this, the brain doesn't differentiate fantasy from reality. Imagining shooting baskets and actually doing the exercise has the same effect on our brain. The best part of doing the visualizations as opposed to the actual exercises is that in our brain, is we can execute the exercise perfectly. We can slow it down, speed it up, play the hardest parts with no effort at all. Best of all, to your mind, it's like you're really doing it. The same neural pathways and memory functions are being used. Much like reiterating your last chemistry lesson in your head, these mental exercises reinforce what you've already learned. It's one of the best ways to review and get the material completely ingrained in your mind.

The Practice Session

Obviously one of the best applications of this technique would be running through an upcoming performance, but there are other great uses. If a scale or some new chords have just been introduced, playing through them in your head is a great way to remember them. If you're having trouble with a difficult part, it's useful to go over it without your instrument. It may shorten the time it takes to learn it, eliminating the problem of practicing your mistakes. If you're learning new a new solo, being able to 'hear' and 'see' the solo in your head, makes it a lot easier to play it the next time you head to rehearsals. It's great for memorizing scales, chords, chord progressions, theory and of course, entire songs and performances. The applications really are unlimited.


One thing that may not be obvious is writing songs away from your instrument. After all the instrument is integral isn't it? In fact, you may find some interesting things happening when you start writing songs without any instrumentation. First of all it makes you focus entirely on the melody and lyrics. There is no harmony initially, there is only the melody. Instead of trying to find a melody to another framework, you focus entirely on the melody, making it as memorable as you can. You may find that after a while you may hear the harmonies and chords in your head. If fact, you may envision the entire arrangement before even touching an instrument. Initially you may want to start with something simple and work from there. I'm even suggesting that you start with no accompaniment at all, not even a beat. I mention the beat because it's so important in our music and there is a whole way of working where you write melodies and songs with only beats, and work on the chords and accompaniment later. It's important to note here that I'm talking about a bare beat and nothing with implied harmonies.

Not An Option

If you really want to make the most of your practice sessions, if you want to improve on your instrument and get better in a shorter time, this is something you have to do, The results can be amazing. Suddenly, things that were 'alright' and 'sort of there' are much more concrete. You'll find yourself getting a lot better between practice sessions. You may be able to practice a lot more and make use of time that would otherwise be wasted. Start simple. Try playing through your scales in your head. Then try your chords. Try and 'see' everything you would in your practice session; your hands, your instrument, the music in front of you, and the sound of your instrument. The more detail, the better. Try and hear as much as you see. If you're not used to visualizing, it may be tough to start. Find some material on doing visualizations and use those techniques in your sessions. Who knows, you're greatest performance, your greatest song, may be one visualization away.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Celebrating Elfriede Fischinger on her 100th Birthday: A Benefit Exhibition and Reception

Celebrating Elfriede Fischinger on her 100th Birthday

An Exhibition and Benefit Reception for CVM’s Fischinger Preservation and Conservation Project

Hosted by Center for Visual Music in collaboration with The Goethe-Institut Los Angeles and The Fischinger Trust

"Join us for a celebration of the life of Elfriede (1910-1999), widow of the avant-garde filmmaker and painter Oskar Fischinger. The evening features an Exhibition of selected photographs, artifacts and Paintings by Oskar Fischinger, a Wine Reception, and a Screening of Home Movies, Interviews and Videos of Elfriede. Highlights include Oskar’s first Stereo Painting (1949), The Lumigraph film (1970) by Elfriede, and unshot animation drawings by Oskar. Proceeds from the evening, which includes a silent auction, will benefit the work of Center for Visual Music, a nonprofit archive engaged in preserving and promoting the Fischinger films and legacy.

Elfriede Fischinger (1910-1999) devoted nearly her entire life to her husband Oskar Fischinger’s films, artwork and legacy. She began assisting on the films in his Berlin studio in the 1930s, and after they immigrated to Hollywood in 1936, helped support the family during lean times. Oskar worked briefly for Paramount, Disney (Fantasia), MGM and Orson Welles, but could never find sufficient support to produce many of the films he planned. After Oskar's death in 1967, Elfriede began collecting, cataloguing and preserving material related to the films and paintings, with assistance from Dr. William Moritz. She traveled widely lecturing with Oskar’s paintings and films at venues worldwide including the Montreal Expo of 1967, the Berlin Film Festival, The Museum of Modern Art (New York), Telluride, and the Venice Bienalle 1982, as well as major animation festivals like Ottawa and Zagreb. She received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Royal Academy of the Netherlands, the International Animation Society ASIFA, and Women in Film."
Source: press release

September 23, 2010, 7 pm
Goethe-Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd. #100, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tickets available at
Or through CVM directly via phone (MC or Visa).

Visit: and

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Top 10 Reasons NOT To Learn Music Theory

It's been said a million times that every musician should learn music theory. Here are ten reasons not to:

  1. Music theory is for classrooms and doesn't apply to working musicians.
  2. It's too hard to learn. You need a doctorate to understand this stuff.
  3. It takes too long. There's a better use of my time.
  4. It's a waste of time. Nobody really uses this stuff.
  5. It will make me a jazz musician.
  6. My playing  (performance on my instrument) won't be as good.
  7. I'm a songwriter. If I learn the theory behind it, my songs and songwriting is going to lose 'that magic'.
  8. I'm into rock/reggae/electronica/hip-hop musician. Music theory doesn't apply to my music.
  9. I'm into hardcore metal/do beats/sound design. Music theory will make my music lose its edge.
  10. Don't need it. There's software out there that will do all of the music theory for me.

Are You Kidding Me?

Of course I am, but these are excuses I hear all of the time. The wording may change slightly but the message is the same. Most people think music theory is a separate entity limited to classical and jazz musicians. If fact there is music theory in every genre of music. Theory is simply a way of explaining things that happen with regularity in music; any music.

You Know It

Whenever you learn something new on your instrument, that's music theory. When you learn a new song, that's music theory. If you've learned a solo and then use some of those techniques to make up your own solo, that's music theory. If you've taken some chords that you're familiar with and written your own song over them, that's music theory. The problem with most teaching systems is that the music theory isn't integrated right away. As soon as you learn some theory, it should be applied to your instrument immediately. Music theory needs to be used to be understood properly.

It's All In The Approach

There are many ways to approach music theory and learning. It's true that music theory is a huge subject. There are many facets to learn. It's important that you learn the parts that affect your style of music first. If you're just learning your instrument, the approach would be different if your were studying to become a composer. If you're writing pop songs as opposed to becoming a jazz musician, again, your approach would be different.

The Reality

In case you we were wondering, here are the real world answers to the excuses listed above.

  1. The answer to this one is listed above. If you're playing an instrument, writing songs, performing, you're using music theory already.
  2. Music theory isn't hard to learn, but it does take time. It takes time to learn and most of all, it takes a long time to apply. I'm still reviewing things I learned in university.
  3. It does take time, But if you learn properly, you can start to use it immediately. In fact, you may be surprised how much you improve in a relatively short time.
  4. This is a corollary of the first 3. It seems to take too long without any good reason for doing it.; therefore, it's a complete waste of time.
  5. I get this a lot, especially from the rock guys. Invariably, when learning new skills, you will start to use those skills. Hence the music theory guy/girl start sounding like a jazz musician at band rehearsals. Contrary to popular belief, you can use theory when and where you want to.
  6. This is another band situation that I would come across. There was this saying among rock musicians that the music theory people were usually the worst players. This was mostly because of the fact that their time was spent in the classroom instead of the bandstand. While there is no substitution for live experience, music theory won't take away anything that isn't there. Both theory and technique must be worked on.
  7. This is another gem. Some songwriters feel that they get their ideas from divine intervention (or some facsimile) and learning the facts behind their creativity will make their music 'lose its magic'.
  8. There are scales and pentatonic theory for solos, chord chemistry and progressions for songs, forms in music, harmony and melody. All of these and more apply to all popular music. Once you begin to learn a musical style, you're learning the theory behind that style. 
  9. Some musicians feel that if they learn music theory, they're suddenly going to feel the need to interject major 7th chords into their music. Theory gives you the reasons behind the music. It doesn't make you use anything you don't want to use.
  10. Photoshop has this great function that turns any photo into a beautiful painting. There is a software program for almost anything...except creativity. No matter what software is available, musicians will always feel the need to take whatever is out there and twist it into their own creations. There is no one program that will take the ideas from your brain, and make it into a perfect finished creation. Even if there was, if you're anything like me, you'll probably want to twist it even further!!
Have fun!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First-Ever Vimeo® Festival & Awards

First-Ever Vimeo® Festival & Awards Celebrates Creative Online Video and Opens for Awards Submission

Vimeo®, an operating business of IAC , opened the submissions window today for the Vimeo Awards, which honors creative and original online videos and the people that create them.

Starting today, people around the world can submit their videos for consideration across nine judged categories. The judges will choose the Best Online Video from the top videos in each category, and that winner will receive a $25,000 grant to produce new work. Videos must have debuted online within the past two years to be considered. Vimeo will announce the winners during an awards ceremony at the close of its two-day festival on October 8-9 in New York City. Additionally, Vimeo will preview some of the finalists' work at a screening event in Amsterdam in September.

"The Vimeo Festival & Awards is an acknowledgement of--and showcase for-- the unprecedented level of creativity, skill and innovation coming from online video today," said Dae Mellencamp, Vimeo's General Manager. "We believe that the awards will not only honor the best work but, by pairing it with a festival, will also bring creative online communities together to learn from and be inspired by each other."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Measuring Your Music Talent

We go through life relatively quickly. It's easy to go through an entire day and not really remember what you've done. It's just as easy to accomplish quite a few things in a day and not realize it. It's the same with our musical progress. It's easy to just go day by day without figuring out exactly where we are, what we are doing, and what we'd like to accomplish.

We have a terrible sense of time. It's the same with a lot of areas of our life where we go with our gut feelings or some vague recollection. How many songs have you written? How many songs do you know? You may think that it may be a large number but until you sit down and actually calculate the exact number, you really don't know for sure.

Measuring Your Progress

How many scales do you know? How many songs do you know? Licks? Cliches? Chord progressions? You get the idea. I would venture to say that most musicians have no clue to most of these questions. The best thing to get an idea of where you are is to start writing things down. Start with a list of the basics. Chords, scales, songs written, songs learned, solos, etc. Make this list as comprehensive as possible. By making a list, you start to get an idea of where you are. Keep in mind though, that this isn't a list to try and put as many things on it as possible; it's just a guide. Knowing more scales doesn't make you a better player if you don't know how to use them. On close inspection, it becomes obvious what you've done. If you've thought that you've written a lot songs, but then see on your list that only a handful are actually completed, it may be a wake-up call. Initially, this list will be a work in progress. Don't worry about making a completed list right off the get go. Take some time and figure out where you are in each area. This will be our starting point.

What's The Point?

The point of all of this isn't to brag to your friends about knowing 1,000 chords. It's for you only. It's about seeing exactly where you are and what you need to do. The best use for me is a guide as to how many songs I know. I also use it to see how many songs I've written lately. It must be updated regularly but once a month should be enough. It's great as a review system too. A review should be done at least once a year, if not more. The review should include all of the things that you've been working on for the year. Reviewing is the best way of keeping the things you've learned in your head and on your fingertips.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Everything you learn, you want to remember and use. The best way we learn is through repetition. When you learn something new, the best way to remember it is to review it often. If you've gone to your lesson and learned some new skills, you should review what you've learned as soon as you get home. Try to put it into your own words. Go through the points that the teacher made and try to do the exercises on your instrument. This should be done the night of your lesson. Then, another review should be done the next day. Do the same things you did the night before. Spend some time going through the concepts in your mind. If you've done these two things, you're well on your way to retaining the lesson. Other reviews can be done but as long as the concepts where reviewed in the first place, the time between reviews can get longer.

For example:
1. review as soon as you can after the lesson
2. review the lesson again the next day
3. review once again within the next couple  of days
4. you can wait about a week before going over the material again.
5. review once at the end of the month
6. from here on out, once every couple of months and the concepts are yours for life

Once you've created your list, your going to want to put it in your practice workbook and update it regularly. I've talked about the importance of having a practice workbook here before. You may also want to keep other kinds of workbooks in helping with your learning and creativity. If you're having trouble keeping one updated, stop there. Try not to worry too much about these things. You don't need more things getting in the way of practicing and creating. But if you have tons of ideas running through your head and don't know what to do with them, the workbooks are the best idea. If you have tons of ideas and know that if one arises, you can write it down and place it in your journal, your great ideas will never get lost.

The Journal

Creating a journal is nothing new to artists. DaVinci was famous for his workbooks and journals. There are many different types of journals. There are the open ended, what's going on in my brain today type journals. There the goals and aspirations type. And there are the aforementioned DaVinci notes and ideas journal. Most artists keep journals to varying degrees. These vary as much as the artists do. For musicians, the lyric journals are popular but there are also the music ideas journals. Beethoven was famous for writing down tons of ideas and themes in workbooks. He would come back to them on a regular basis and review them, edit them, or add more. The key here is that not only would he keep the journal, he would return to them often. If it's not getting used, it's a waste of time..

Your Practice Workbook

This is the most important part of the equation. It's important to have a daily journal of what you've done. It's easy to guess that you've done this or that. Or to think that you've done more (or less) than you have. But when you have the practice workbook sitting in front of you, with all of your lists, notes on what you've done you no longer have to guess. It's all right there in front of you. You can see what you've done specifically so no matter what you may have thought, it's there in black and white. It's important that your workbook stays up to date. Make notes whenever you can. It's about a little at a time. I don't want you to lose sleep over this or use it as another thing getting in the way of your practice. If you do it regularly, it should only take a second. Whenever you do something in your practice sessions, make a note in your workbook. At the end of the month, just before the end of one of your practice sessions, take a quick look back at the past couple of weeks and make a note of what you've accomplished. If there are things that you wanted to get done but didn't, make a note. Put a star beside it if it bothers you and you want to make sure that this gets done next month.

Computer Stuff

Most of my writing these days is done on the computer. It's so easy to start writing something or try new ideas. You can save your work and come back to it later. Of course the most important part of that statement is 'come back to it later'. This is one of the main reasons for the workbook. It's all too easy to lose track of what you've done and what needs to get done. If you've got a hundred songs on your computer and none of them are done, you need to stop and get some of them to completion. Again, we come back to the workbook. Make a list of all of the songs you have on your computer and then make notes on each. Which ones are close to completion? Make separate notes on each such as what needs to be changed and what is good. Of course the list can be on your computer but make sure  you put it in it's own folder. Make a folder just for your workbook notes. I'm suggesting a folder instead of just a note taking program because you'll want to include other things  in there. I like to make mp3's of all of the songs I'm working at so I don't have to open my DAW just to hear what they sound like. I also keep pdf's and things I've copied  from the internet in there.

This Is What I Know

If you've done everything that is listed here, you'll know exactly where you are. You can see that you have all of the pentatonics memorized but need to work on soloing in different keys. Your chord knowledge is going well but you need to work on chord progressions. You have 10 songs written but want to get more of that done. You haven't worked on your theory at all lately and want to learn more to apply it to your songwriting. You want to learn about film scoring but you know that you're just a beginner and need guidance in this area. Your not sure about how many songs you know and have to get that list together. It may not be an exact measurement of your musical talent but it really gives you a good idea of where you are.

The Data-Driven Musician

More and more it's becoming easier to measure our life. Where this is taking place in every other part of your life, it's now becoming part of your musical journey. There are better ways to learn and make sure you are accomplishing your dreams. By writing down what you've done and what you are doing, you know exactly where you are heading, where you've been and where you're going to end up.The best system is automatic and gets done with very little effort. Make a small effort everyday and you'll see exactly what you've done and where you want to go.