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    Jonathan Harnum

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What Every Musician Needs: Mo’ Rhythm (there’s an app for that)

As Duke Ellington taught us, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Rhythm is the most fundamental of musical elements. It’s the glue that holds everything together. A clue to how powerful rhythm is can be heard when a “wrong” note played with a funky rhythm: it still sounds good.

There is a new tool that can help you acquire better rhythm for yourself in a fun and easy way: Mo Rhythm Africa, from San Diego percussionist and teacher Monette Marino. More on the app below, after the video.

In The Practice of Practice, there’s a chapter on acquiring rhythm skills using a conga or other percussion instruments, like djembe, one of the coolest sounding drums on the planet. The djembe is a drum invented and used originally in the Mali region of West Africa, but has been adopted all over the planet. One of the world-class musicians who shared their practice experience for the book was djembefola master Sidiki Dembele (he’s the player in white in this example).

You don’t have to be a world class expert to get something from the djembe. Marino’s app, Mo Rhythm Africa will help you acquire the traditional rhythms on djembe (and also on dunun, another drum used in this tradition). If you’re new to this kind of music, each traditional rhythm (there are 10 in the app) has instructional videos that go along with them, and they’re only 99 cents for around 5 videos. Here’s a quick diagram, but you can learn more at Monette Marino’s site.

Monette Marino's "Mo-Rhythm Africa. Click to get it from her site.

Monette Marino’s “Mo-Rhythm Africa. Click to get it from her site.

If you don’t have a drum, I’d recommend a WULA drum. I have one and it’s gorgeous and gets amazing sound, even from a relative beginner like myself. Even better than that, WULA’s philosophy and practice is to support the artists in Guinea who make these drums.

One of the Most Powerful Tools for Your Practice


The amazing Dr. Carol Dweck explains how your belief about intelligence profoundly impacts your motivation to learn, the depth of your learning, and your persistence in the face of failure. In music, Dr. Bret Smith discovered similar findings. Lots more in Chapter 6 of The Practice of Practice (free shipping in the US). 

Want a free color, high-rez poster to hang in your practice room to remind you of this important (crucial) mindset? Here it is. Hope you enjoy the video.


Take a Free Songwriting Course. Open Now! (10-14-14)

A song or poem written by Daniel Johnston.

A song or poem written by Daniel Johnston.

Just a quick heads-up about a free songwriting course over at Coursera, taught by Pat Pattison, from Berklee College of Music.

One of the things I learned while writing The Practice of Practice is that “practice” takes many forms, and Erin McKeown taught me that one of them is the act of songwriting. Songwriting one of the primary ways she used to hone her skill on various instruments (mostly guitar) and as a songwriter. McKeown used a 4-track recorder to write her songs.

I’ve been digging the lo-fi sound of Tune Yard’s first album, Bird-Brains. Merrill Garbis is the creative force behind the band, and that album sounds like she used the same process. She just did a fun interview on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn and talks about her process a bit.

The great thing is that, using a 4-track recorder, you get immediate feedback on what you’ve just recorded, and you scrutinize it for quality. Does it fit what you’re after? No? Then do it again. And maybe again, and again, and again. Not only is this a superb way to get better, at the end of the process you have a song to show for it. That’s motivational.

If the song is good, you can send it out into the world, and if it’s good enough (and you’ve got a little luck), it might just send some money back to you. But the real benefit is in the process. Try it!

4-track recorders.


Back-To-School Specials On All Formats:

The Practice of PracticeBasic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music, by Jonathan HarnumSound the Trumpet: How to Blow Your Own Horn


The Fractal Nature of Goals and Music Practice

Animated Sierpinsky Fractal

Animated Sierpinsky Fractal

Setting goals is one of the most powerful things you can do to get better at music or anything else. Some people write them down, some just have a vague idea of what they are, but we all have goals for nearly everything we do. Goals are covered in more detail in The Practice of Practice, but here’s a quick run-down.

Triangles within triangles within triangles: a Sierpinsky triangle

A Sierpinsky Triangle

Goals are like the cool animated GIF of a Sierpinsky fractal above: there are goals within goals within goals. It’s goals all the way down. The usual advice is to break goals down into long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals, but you can and should dive deeper, and consider smaller goals. Writing down long-term goals is a good practice, one you should revisit at least once a year. Mid-term goals are also good to have. For me those are from one year to a couple months away; short-term goals are usually within a month or 6 weeks. All of these goals are great, but the further away they are, the more abstract they become. The shorter-term goals become more and more concrete, there is actually something to do.

Goals that require immediate action are the most powerful. I call them immediate-goals, micro-goals, and nano-goals. Immediate goals are your goals for one practice session. Micro goals are your goals for a passage or a small section you’re trying to learn. A nano goal is one repetition.

The power of goals is their ability to focus your efforts with laser precision. If you can only spare 20 minutes of practice a day or less, spending some time on goals at every level of the fractal is a powerful tool. Writing them out will help, especially at first if you’re not used to thinking this way, but it’s not necessary. In fact, once you’ve gotten used to thinking about goals like this, skip writing out your goals, and spend the extra time on playing.


Motivation to Practice: Go With the Flow

English: Alberto Guerrero (standing) with Glen...

English: Alberto Guerrero (standing) with Glenn Gould, circa 1945.

There’s a lot to like about the video of pianist Glenn Gould below. I’ve highlighted three things that happen in the video (see clips below).

As the great Robert Krulwich (of Radiolab and NPR) pointed out in a recent post, Gould appears to be deep in a Flow state, practicing Bach’s Partita #2.

For me, achieving Flow is one of the biggest motivators to continuing to practice, because it’s a transcendent experience and feels wonderful. Part 2 (of 6) in The Practice of Practice covers helpful aspects of motivation, including Flow, in greater detail. Some players, like drummer Allison Miller, told me that sometimes they’ll go into a practice session with no other goal beyond getting into that Flow state, or a meditative state.

Here’s what Mr. Krulwich said, and as to the last clause, I couldn’t agree more :

How one gets there — that’s still a mystery. Practice is important. Tenacity matters. Talent helps. When you find your “flow,” your brain changes. Dopamine and noradrenaline kick in, GABA neurons get suppressed; sex, hunger, thirst matter less, you are free to play more deeply with stream-of-conscious associations; you are chemically released and can now roam far and wide. Yes, you have no idea where you are or how this is happening; but that it’s happening must be one of the most wonderful experiences ever.

Another gem from this video is at 1:36 (cued up below), when Gould shouts, “Na!” at a mistake. You can see him bear down, sing more precisely, and practice that little flubbed passage again. It’s a golden practice moment, and a bit hard to catch, because it’s an error that only an expert in this music can hear.

Gould was infamous for being difficult to record because he usually vocalized when playing. It’s another trait most master musicians (no matter their instrument) do when playing: Oscar Peterson is another pianist who vocalizes comes immediately to mind.Singing is one of many mental practice strategies that pros in all genres of music use, covered in Part 6 of The Practice of Practice, chapter 31: Going Mental. Check Gould out at 1:59 when he actually gets up from the piano to sing a tricky bit of the Bach.

Finally, there is another important aspect of practice that’s often overlooked: the role of a teacher. Alberto Guerrero was one of Gould’s teachers (picured above), and it was Guerrero who taught Gould a simple practice technique, called “finger tapping,” that another of his students explains below. Learning on your own is great, and everybody does it, but a teacher can shave years of practice off with just a few tips. The different kinds of teachers for different stages of ability are covered in Chapter 14: Hot for Teacher, in The Practice of Practice.


Back-To-School Specials On All Formats:

The Practice of PracticeBasic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music, by Jonathan HarnumSoundTheTrumpet2_Cover



Want to Practice Better? Forget About “Natural” Ability.

One of the most important chapters in The Practice of Practicechapter 6–has nothing to do with practice directly, it has to do with what you think about musical talent. Is musical ability “natural,” a gift of genetics? Is it something you’re born with? Something you either have or you don’t? Or is musical talent earned through exposure and effort? Your answer will have a profound impact on your practice: your motivation to practice, how you approach practice, whether you persist in the face of challenges, and how deeply you learn when you do practice.

This stems from Carol Dweck’s work on how your ideas about the nature of intelligence affects how you learn. Here’s a superb summary of her work by Trevor Ragan. Dweck’s studies have been replicated and expanded since 1986 when Dr. Dweck first began her investigations. She has a wonderful book out that covers the topic in great detail, called Mindsets.

Music education researcher Bret Smith has found similar repercussions for musicians who hold fixed (innate ability), or fluid (talent is grown) ideas about musical ability. The kicker is that it doesn’t really matter whether musical talent is genetic or not, it’s your ideas about its nature that shape how you practice. Want to learn more about this topic, and 45 other chapters of great material? Pick up a copy of The Practice of Practice. Learn more about the book here.

Goals as Fractals and Guerrilla Practice

Hans Jørgen Jensen

Hans Jørgen Jensen

Hans Jørgen Jensen is an affable cello teacher from whose studio have come cello players who win in international cello competitions and garner spots in top orchestras around the world. He’s a wonderful teacher and an interesting, busy man. There were many gems to admire when he spoke with me about practice, but the one that sticks in my mind, the one that was powerful enough to make it a chapter in The Practice of Practice was the power of goals. Another chapter covers what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice: snatching a tiny fragment of practice when you can, either once a day or, ideally, throughout the day. Both are covered briefly below.

Setting goals “just right” is one of the most powerful and motivating techniques expert practicers use to get the most out of the practice session, even if you only have two minutes of practice time a day . When I asked Hans Jensen my favorite interview question, if there was one thing he would teach his younger self about practice, he said, “I would try to make my goals more specific: short-term, long-term, and having a big vision of where you’re heading with it.” He teaches his students to set clearly defined, concrete goals. He said, “If there is no dream, and if there is no vision; that’s what we need for having motivation.”

We know about long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Except for short-term goals, larger goals are abstract: it’s a challenge to know exactly what to do to achieve them. I envision goals as a fractal, specifically, a Sierpinski fractal, named after the Polish mathematician who discovered it in 1915. You can see below that even the tiniest goal is a part of the larger goal in which it’s embedded, which in turn is part of a larger goal, etc. Here’s the graphic from The Practice of Practice:


The trick for your single practice session is to break down goals even smaller than short-term goals. Immediate goals are what you want to accomplish for the time you have, whether it’s 5 minutes or 2 hours. Micro goals are one specific task you’d like to accomplish, say learning a tough phrase. Nano-goals are a single repetition, the goal of which is to play the repetition flawlessly.

Shrinking goals to the smallest size helps to make concrete exactly what you’ve got to do to improve in that one moment. Approaching practice like this will help you improve even if you only practice 2 minutes a day. One of Hans Jensen’s students was a graduate student strapped for time and she could spare only 2 minutes a day. His student was learning the Popper cello etude #38 (cellist Joshua Roman in the vid isn’t Jensen’s student). Hans said, “It’s a hard etude. It goes fast! I think she worked on it six weeks. At first, for the first two weeks, she only practiced one minute a day. Then we changed to two minutes. It’s really hard! One of the hardest.” Setting tiny, reachable goals was the technique that allowed her to learn the etude.

Kolossen i Frihamnen

Kolossen i Frihamnen (Photo credit: Eva the Weaver)

Goals combined with what I’ve called Guerrilla Practice are a one-two punch. I used to think that I needed at least an hour or two to practice, otherwise it wasn’t worth it. Hans said he used to think that, too, but he told me, very emphatically, “That’s totally wrong.” Hans said he had another student who got better lots faster than other players. When Hans asked him what he was doing to get so much better so much faster, he said he used short moments of down time to practice, mostly during group rehearsal warm-up time. Ten or fifteen minutes here and there really adds up.

To learn more about goals and many other helpful practice approaches, get a copy of The Practice of Practice. Buy a paperback copy and get the Kindle edition for free! If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow a Kindle edition for free.

For more on Hans Jensen’s teaching, check out the wonderful documentary on Vimeo, Taste the Stringposted by Richard Van Kleek. All kinds of great stuff in there about learning to play, teaching, and life.

We’re all busy, but I know I can spare at least two minutes a day for an intense burst of practice. I bet you can, too.







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