The Method or: What The Hell Am I Doing?

Part The First

I am not a natural player.

There, I said it.

Sometimes technique can be a struggle for me, especially when I'm trying to play difficult material. Historically, I've had a fairly big technique, but it takes me a while to learn things, and in really tough spots under pressure, my fingers have tended to act on their own accord  (hello, F#, I've literally never played you there before in my life). The thing about really high level players is, they don't miss like that, especially great violinists and pianists who are my instrumental examples (I have to quantify it as "instrumental" because my real heroes are singers). So how can I try to bridge the gap from "good" to "great"? How do I take my technique to a higher and more musical level? Technique, after all, is just a tool to a musical end, but I want to have the sharpest tools in my shed. When I think of that, I think of a line Ani DiFranco wrote: "every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right". I want to be objective, patient, and somewhat ruthless in my pursuit of my art. How do I do that? I'll get to that presently.

Here's another weakness: I have the attention span of a particularly daft puppy. Any shiny thing might attract my attention, and does. Consequently, I have to create rigid rules and structures for myself, lest I find myself spending three hours accomplishing an awful lot of activity with absolutely nothing to show for it (except for maybe a slightly messier room). I think a lot about something Igor Stravinsky is supposed to have said, "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self".

When I started to think about how to create a framework for a "workout" for myself, I found myself intellectually inspired by great athletes and their routines. I think a lot about Ray Allen in particular, perhaps the greatest clutch 3-point shooter of all time. Now retired, Allen would religiously show up on court very early before each game and go through the exact same routine. Here is a part of it:

I notice a couple of things. One is how many shots he misses. I find it fascinating to watch him dial it in. The other is how Allen gives absolutely zero fucks about anything happening around him. He's just going to do his thing. He does his routine, he takes care of business, and when the game is on the line, all of that repetitive repetition pays off. Gymnasts and ice skaters do this too, practicing incessantly so that they can rely on themselves when they're in competition (and they STILL fall! How hard must that stuff be? Nearly impossible - some music is similar). Here's today's best shooter, Steph Curry, doing his own particular warmup:

At some point I made the determination that I could benefit from a set daily routine - one that could focus on solidifying and broadening my technique using a rigorous structure. Actually I can pinpoint the moment where I figured out I was not working hard enough. I was sitting in as a fly on the wall during a recording session for pianist Garrick Ohlsson. What I heard shocked me. Take after take, Ohlsson just rolled through EVERYTHING in a few massive Liszt Bach transcriptions. He didn't miss. I walked away thinking, "I am definitely not good enough".

So I put together a routine. I call it The Method. Actually I don't call it anything. I just had to make up a name for this blog. But let's call it The Method. Those capital letters really set it off, don't you think? The Method is a three-part warmup: Long tones and warmups; scale work; and Kroepsch. Kroespch is a two-volume book with multiple exercises in each key (two full pages per key, oy!). I go in a specific order, the same order every day. I spend five days on each key area, moving the tempo from moderately fast (140 for scales, 120 for other exercises) to legit fast (160 and 140, respectively) over the course of the five days. Doing it this way allows me the time to really remind myself and grow into the feel of every key, as well as reaffirm evenness and a musical phrase throughout all technical work. It's a lot of repetition, and it can be a real challenge to keep this routine going though all 24 key areas and back again, but I can chart a sharp upturn in my chops since I started doing this work, and I am a far more comfortable and accomplished player on every level than I was before. You have to really try not to leave any reps behind. That will bleed into your repertory practice as well.

Over the next few days, I'm going to go into pretty good detail on all three parts of The Method, discussing these three parts:

Longtones and warmups

Scale work


You can catch me doing this live daily at out YouTube channel, You can also check out this vid, where I go through The Method in G# minor, which us non-freaks can consider a fairly gnarly key.