You should know about Django Reinhardt. If you don’t, the documentary Three-Fingered Lightning is the best place to start.
Anyway, all of last week, at Django In June, an intensive guitar camp inspired by Django’s music, I was immersed in practice in all its various guises and all but 30 minutes of it was in group practice. When I say various guises, I mean thinking about music, mental practice, talking about music, and listening to great performances like the one below. All the various guises of practice are covered in lots more detail in The Practice of Practice (a new deal on Amazon allows you to get the paperback at ~20% off and the Kindle edition for free!). But what I’d like to mention is practice time spent with an instrument in the hands, actively making sound with others. We normally think of practice as sitting in a room alone, but practice is much, much more than that, and group practice is a lot more fun, too.
So, during Django-in-June, I practiced with lots of people: in each of the 2 daily classes (rhythm and lead), on the lawn in the shade with my buddy out for the camp from Chicago, but mostly my practice was group jams in which I played rhythm guitar and improvised on trumpet. I’d learned all the tunes, but calling the same dozen or so tunes gets old quickly when you’re playing several hours a day, so there were tons of other songs I stumbled my way through. There were a couple hundred musicians there of widely varying ability and knowledge: violin, mandolin, accordion, clarinet, my lonely trumpet, and a plethora of guitars, both petit bouche and grande bouche, in the Gypsy style.
At the end of the 6 days, my brain was full-to-overflowing, I’d seen some superb musicians making music right in front of me–hello mirror neuron system (it’s in the book)–and my ability to sight read a chord progression (something I can already do fairly well) shot up what felt like an order of magnitude, well beyond anything I’ve experienced practicing alone.
Here are a few suggestions from The Practice of Practice to keep in mind when you’re practicing with somebody else. They’re either questions you can ask directly, if it’s appropriate (often it’s not), or questions to keep in mind as you’re listening to those you’re practicing with.
- How do you practice _________? (scales, improvising over ii-V-I, chords, or whatever interests you)
- What are you working on?
- Here’s what I’m working on. Any thoughts?
- I’m having trouble with ___________. How do you deal with that?
- How do you work on tone?
- How do you work on speed?
- How do you work on expression?
- How do you place your mics and tweak your amps to get the best sound?
- What kind of (insert gear here) do you use, and why? (Could be anything from picks, to amps, to valve oil, to reeds, etc.)
- Can you show me a favorite song or lick?
This first video below is from Django In June, two of the headliners, Sebastien Giniaux and Olivier Kikteff. The second is a fun cover of Will Smith’s theme from Fresh Prince of Bel Air on drums. While both of these are more like performances than practice, that’s another myth I’d like to bust: performance is a kind of practice. As is the rehearsal that was required for performances of this caliber. At any rate, you can tell these guys are having a good time.
If this seems like too much to think about or remember, no worries, just play and pay close attention and try to come away with at least one new idea or approach that you can use. That’s the best thing you can do. Folk musicians and jazz musicians already know this. Music is communication without words, and it takes two to tango. Play with others!