Rock Technique: Practicing for the Fun of It
Photo of Tom Coster and Vinnie Valentino: Kuba Bozanowski via Creative Commons 2.0
The word "practice" has connotations of boredom for many musicians, especially when the practice involves the more academic aspects of music, such as fingering exercises, scales, arpeggios, and so on. If you're serious about music, you may think of this kind of practice as a necessary evil. Giving your hands speed and dexterity, not to mention the strength needed to play a four-hour rock gig on acoustic piano, means devoting many hours to tedious practice.
The good news is that there are ways to make practicing a little more enjoyable. Before we get into this, let's talk about an exercise book that you may want to look into, if you haven’t already. There are many good books to choose from; the idea is to find one that suits your needs and interests. When checking through the various books, be aware of things like over-complicated exercises and printing that is small and difficult to read. An exercise book is not so much for developing reading skills as it is for building up your hands. A very basic but very fine exercise book is C.L. Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises [Schirmer], which is most often known simply as Hanon. This is an extremely easy book to find, and very inexpensive. Along with a wide variety of exercises to build up your chops, Hanon teaches you all the basic scales with their proper fingerings. Learning these scales will help you gain a greater knowledge of chords and chord structure as well as strengthening your technique. Last but not least, the books is easy to understand and read.
I can't stress strongly enough how important it is to use correct fingering when learning and playing these exercises. Once you have mastering these finger patterns you will find yourself naturally using proper fingering for your own lines and phrasing. But if you never learn good fingering habits, you'll have trouble with speed, hand relaxation, and clean playing. A potentially brilliant phrase can sound disastrous if played with clumsy fingering.
I've found that when listening to a group, you can pick out the players who have put in their time practicing the fundamentals, as opposed to those who haven't. The players who have practiced execute their lines effortlessly, while those who haven't play their phrases in a fragmented way, without emotion.
To begin with, learn the exercises in Hanon as written, paying close attention to the explanation given before each exercise. Make sure to use the correct fingering, lifting the fingers high and with precision, playing each note very distinctly. Always play an exercise from start to finish at the same tempo, preferably using a metronome to make sure you're keeping strict time. Don’t try to play any faster than you can do cleanly and precisely. Over the course of weeks, or months, gradually increase the tempo at a comfortable rate, until you reach the prescribed tempo.
Now let's get into how to make practicing fun! Once you've learned the fingering of the Hanon exercises, try playing them using different rhythms. This will work best if you have a rhythm machine to play along with, rather than a simple metronome. If you don't already own one, I suggest you look into purchasing one. Many of them are very affordable, and having one may make the difference between neglecting to practice and being inspired to. Used in this way, a rhythm machine could be one of the best investments you ever make toward becoming a strong player.
I have always believed that one of the most important skills a player should have is playing with a good feeling of time. In other words, swinging while you play, whether you're playing a ballad, the blues, jazz, rock, or whatever. This is what gives music the human element, which is so important when making a musical statement. The fact that most rhythm machines can be programmed will you allow you to get a wide variety of grooves and musical feels. Playing Hanon exercises to these grooves will not only make the exercises more enjoyable, it will also help teach you different ways to swing within the groove.
Ex. 1 shows the pattern of the first Hanon exercise. In Ex. 2, I have made a very simple alteration, changing the time signature to 4/4 and playing each note twice. This works well with a basic rock beat on the rhythm machine. The next example is a bit more complex, in that the rhythm is syncopated. Set the drum machine to a medium-tempo rock groove. I have shown several slight variations on the pattern. When you are first starting to work on this type of practice, you will probably find it easier to select one syncopation pattern and practice it clear through the exercise. Later on, you can mix various syncopations together, or spontaneously make up new ones as you go along.
The triplet rhythm of Ex. 4 would work with solo rock triplets. This will help you get acquainted with the slower rock feel that you might encounter in a ballad. The concept here is to set the drum machine so that you can play using a slightly laid-back feeling. Ex. 5 and Ex. 6 show more complex syncopations, which you might play with a funk groove. As you can see, I alter the pattern in various ways, simply because it sounds and feels good. As long as you stick to the basic concept of the exercise, you can invent your own variations like this.
Play each exercise in unison using the two hands an octave apart, as show in Hanon. Once you have this down, you can experiment by playing chords in the left hand and the exercise in the right (or vice-versa). One simple progression that will take you up through an octave of pattern repetitions is C-Dm7-Em7-Dm7-G7-Dm7-G7-C. While it doesn’t hurt to practice these exercises on a synthesizer, I would recommend using a piano of some sort, preferably an acoustic. Playing on a harder action will help you develop greater strength in your hands.
As always, the examples given here are just the tip of the iceberg. I've shown only the first of the Hanon exercises, but you can use similar rhythms on all of them. Try coming up with your own patterns, and don't be afraid to experiment. Work hard on this, and you will experience a great reward for your effort. Until next month, stay happy.