What are we really listening for when we practice? Is it simply a number of repetitions before we allow ourselves to go on to something else? Have you ever had a day when you pick up the guitar without knowing what you’re going to work on and just hope for the best?
We all need to connect with something when we have the guitar in our hands to give us something to focus on. That connection makes everything we do when we sit down with our instruments so much more enjoyable. There are four principle areas that we need to listen for and focus on to help us develop our overall playing and help us master every new piece we tackle. These are tone, projection, rhythm and expression.
Tone: Whether you play with nails, a pick, or anything else to get the string vibrating, tone is everything. We want a full, rich tone coming out of the guitar. Where are you plucking/picking the strings? We want to avoid a tone that’s unintentionally too bright or too dark (intentional use of various timbres is a different story). How much (and at what angle) are you displacing the string? How much energy we put into a string and the direction we set it vibrating are big factors in tone production.
Projection: How loud are you playing as your “normal” starting volume? Guitars are easy to play quietly, but we want them singing pretty loud! Completely related to tone, how much sound we get out of the instrument is determined by how much we push the strings. The more we displace the strings the louder the sound, don’t be afraid to give them a little more pluck if you’re playing is too soft!
Rhythm: This covers more than just accurate counting. Of course, we want to be sure all our long notes are long enough, and our faster notes are even and precise so always be counting! But another big component of rhythmic accuracy is tempo. What tempo is indicated in the piece (is it slow, fast, or somewhere in between?) and does your current tempo reflect that? Are you able to maintain rhythmic precision when the tempo picks up or do things get a little choppy? . . . more on practice approaches to remedy this in another post.
Expression: Arguably the most important aspect of our playing. Expression isn’t just some vague idea or something some people have and some people don’t. There are components of expression: dynamics, articulations, rubato, timbre, vibrato. Where and how much we employ these devices should be on our minds as soon as we start learning the first notes of a piece.
Now . . . what to do with these? It’s helpful to record yourself while you practice, whatever it is you might be playing at the moment. Listen back and rate each of the four areas on a scale of 1 to 10 (give yourself an honest assessment). Pick the area you feel needs the most attention and focus your practice there until you feel you’ve made a significant amount of progress. Then move to the next area that needs polishing. This isn’t an overnight kind of thing though, it will take time to improve each area. But now that you know what you’re listening for you can really dive in and enjoy your practice!