by Steve Eulberg
I hear this question all the time from students in my private studio, from my Jamplay.com guitar students and dulcimercrossing.com students.
The Five-Finger Practice Regimen is what I always suggest:
It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, it will sound better (and therefore encourage your practice) if it is in tune.
[Note for hammered dulcimer players: Tune ALL the strings on the instrument, not just the ones you use most!! A significant part of the hammered dulcimer sound is the resonance that comes from sympathetic vibration. If the strings you “aren’t playing” are not in tune, that sympathetic vibration will be less than optimal–or worse: out of tune! That will definitely discourage you from playing your dulcimer!.]
2. Warm up.
Play some familiar exercises or tunes on your instrument for a few moments to remind your hands and your brain that you are no longer working on the computer, or washing dishes, or driving kids to school or games.
3. Play the HARDEST piece you are working on.
This might go against your expectation, but let me tell you why I suggest this. Often we play the things we are familiar with until we run out of time or energy, and then the most challenging thing we are working on is forgotten and left until the next time and then the next time….until it is just, well, forgotten.
If we play the newest, hardest piece when our minds and hands are fresh, we can focus our energy on it when we are energized and have the greatest possibility for the most progress.
4. Play something familiar.
Then, when your most challenging piece has kicked you around a bit, it is time for a confidence builder. This is when you pull out a tune that you are more familiar with and more confident about playing. [Sometimes, this tune is the one that used to be the hardest piece, that you practiced in the finger before.]
5. Finally, play something that you’ve memorized.
Many of my students claim that they can’t memorize anything, or that they have an extra hard time accomplishing this. If you are practicing regularly, you are undergoing a re-wiring process between your brain and your hands. Tablature and musical notation are terrific tools, but they will never substitute for the repetition that your hands need in order to complete the memorization process.
If you’ve moved a “hard” piece to something “familiar”, it is not much further to get it to the “memorized” place. And then, it could become one of your warm-ups!