ready to go past playing prescribed parts?

July 23, 2020

Exclusive Masterclass: How to Practice for Outcomes

Watch/Read/Do this Exclusive Masterclass

It’s just one of the free resources you get as a thank you for being a member of my mailing list.

Are you unsure what or how to practice to get the outcomes you want? 

Watch the interactive video below to discover how you can save time and energy in your practice– accomplishing your musical goals faster and easier instead of practicing the same ways and getting the same mixed results.

It's not just for "consumption". You're invited to DO this.

Copy/paste and answer the questions below to get clarity, uncover opportunities for your growth, and let go of things that are not serving you. Feel free to follow along with the video.

Follow these steps:

Set goals that align with your desired Outcomes; Then determine the skills or proficiencies you need to practice to best achieve these goals and outcomes.

Choose specific projects and then determine:

  1. What can you do with the skills you currently have to make this project succeed, vs
  2. The minimum in skills or new understanding you need to add to make your project success (groove, harmony, improvisation,  how to construct a bass line in a bluegrass tune, how to accompany in a duo playing swing, etc..)

Consolidate practice time to focus on specific project goals and outcomes. Let go of everything else.

Instead of practicing sound production, shifting, intonation, bow control, scale studies, etudes, and solo Bach or 100 fiddle tunes….

Practice a set of tunes, for specific instrumentation and settings.

  1. What projects appeal to you or align with your current opportunities? (be specific- whats the instrumentation, setting, what roles will you need to play (accompanist, soloist, arranger, writer, et al)
  2.  Are there ways to succeed with the skills you have now, by modifying your expectations or taking fewer risks? For example, instead of improvising over the two most difficult chords in the song, you could lay out on those chords. Instead of playing all on the G string, you could play in first position….
  3.  What skills are most critical for you to improve or develop for the project? What unanswered questions do you have that hold you back from doing the job confidently?
  4. Why is accomplishing this important to you? (Money? Enjoyment? So you get called back for more gigs? Connection? Self-satisfaction? other?)

Vagueness is a common problem:  Musicians often think, “I want to become a better improviser” or “I want to learn harmony”, or “I want to learn new styles of music”.

Each of these answers is only good to the degree to which it is specific. So if you know what style(s) you want to play, or what skills you want to develop, in a specific song or situation, write them down.

The single best way to improve as a musician is to record yourself and listen back.

Once you set objectives, record yourself, listen back, and keep a checklist. Listening back with your checklist, you can measure according to the things on the checklist that matter to you, whether rhythm intonation, sound, phrasing, etc…

When you listen back to your playing and refer to a checklist, you will find that you can improve your standard of playing by Eliminating Unforced Errors. This is far easier than Adding Proficiencies.

Print the goals and keep them in a place where you can see them.

Here are some examples:

PROJECTS: (feel free to adapt these to teaching if you are a teacher)

teach a specific skill or sequence to a student or classroom of students

Compose a piece of music (in a specific form, style, or instrumentation):

  • with your violin
  • with pencil and paper
  • at the piano
  • using software
  • some other way

Arrange a piece of music for a specific ensemble or instrumentation

  • to play with loop pedal
  • to play in duo, trio, or quartet
  • using lead sheet charts or
  • through-composed

Learn One Piece- Many people gain focus by choosing one piece, song, or tune (or a set of tunes). If this appeals to you, think about a song you would like to learn, and all the parts of it you can learn:

  • The bass line
  • The accompaniment part
  • The melody

Tunes can be broken down into Harmonic forms, and Rhythmic forms. I recommend making a list of the types of harmonic forms and rhythmic forms (grooves), you would like to learn. Here are examples:

Harmonic Forms:

  • 32 bar major
  • 32 bar minor
  • Blues
  • Modal
  • Rhythm Changes

Rhythmic Forms:

  • Swing Feel- (ballad, medium swing, waltz, fast swing)
  • Bluegrass/Irish, Old Time, and other folk grooves
  • Funk
  • Latin- (tango, bossa, samba, afro cuban 6/8,)
  • Pop, Rock, EDM, R and B, Shuffle, Boogaloo

A practice set of tunes for a jazz player could include a mix of blues, rhythm changes, 32 bar minor and major tunes, bearing in mind the rhythmic forms of ballad, medium swing, and fast swing. A jazz player may also wish to include a bossa and a funk tune into their practice to round it out.

A practice set for a folk fiddler could involve a waltz, medium tempo, and fast tempo song in a mix of major and minor.

A practice set for someone working on pop or EDM could involve a mix of slow/fast and major and minor tunes.

Record a piece of music:

  • playing over backing tracks
  • using a loop pedal
  • using a multi-tracking app like Acapella or recording software like garage band, logic..
  • playing totally unaccompanied
  • live with someone else

Perform live

  • at an open mic
  • in a jam session, worship band, drum circle,
  • solo, unaccompanied or with loops or backing tracks, or with a specific ensemble
  • at a cafe, on the street, at a library, hospital, concert hall, house concert,  for friends, family
  • with an ensemble that you form (duo, trio, etc..)

SKILLS- learn to be able to

  • read a chord chart
  • keep your place in the form of a song (or memorize the chords in a song)
  • simulate a bass line (in a specific style or groove)
  • accompany (in a specific style or groove)
  • voice-lead a chord progression
  • improvise freely (without a harmonic anchor)
  • create variations on melodies
  • improve accuracy or consistency of rhythm(in a specific  groove)

For accountability and feedback, to refine this, there are a few ways to get my support. 

Write down your goals. Print them and keep them where you can see them ( subject to revision).

Bring these to our lesson, group classes, through asynchronous personal communication thread.

  1. Join my upcoming coaching cycle here: http://bit.ly/Weekly_Group_Class
  1. Can’t make the upcoming course? Set up a one-time free lesson w me (new students only) by subscribing here: https://christianhowes.com/csa/

Not sure or just have a question? Text me today to set up a call 614-332-8689

Two pillars of Practice: Learning vs Creating

Applied harmony includes things like tonal improvisation, arranging, accompaniment, composition, etc while creative improvisation focuses on your Pure creative process (often in free or non-tonal contexts).

Many string players assume that applied harmony and improvisation must be taught and practiced together, simultaneously as one topic. I disagree. In fact, this is at the heart of the problem.

In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, author Daniel Kahneman addresses what he refers to as a dichotomy between two systems of thought- fast and slow. The two interact in complex ways to drive our everyday behavior, but are nonetheless distinct systems.

Fast thinking is unconscious, instinctual and often emotional- like ducking a tree branch.

Slow thinking requires conscious effort, and is more methodical. It’s what we do when we’re learning something new- like learning an unfamiliar dance.

In a similar way, although performing musicians often use both applied harmony and creative improvisation in their performances, I believe that they can and should be thought of as separate systems in our pedagogical approach to the string classroom.

Applied harmony is most analogous to slow thinking- most of us need time, analysis, and practice to do it.

Creative improvisation is more like fast thinking. Anyone can do it.

When you practice for creative outcomes, break your practice into these two pillars:

  • Creative Process- Improvise or compose using only material you are extremely comfortable with. Maintain technique within this context of creativity. Gradually gain confidence by strengthening your creative “muscle”, beginning with improvising over SImple Forms.
  • Learning/Internalizing process. This is a slow process of memorization that benefits from taking small amounts of material (Not working over a whole song, playing at fast tempos, or practicing 5 scale types in one day).

The types of material to memorize/learn are chord voice-leading, song forms, scale voice leading, and rhythmic language.

See my detailed presentation on this subject here:

How to Teach Improvisation and Harmony to Classical String Players (Part 1 of 3)

That’s It!!!!!

To follow through on this class, get accountability and personal feedback.

There are a few ways to get my support.

  • Write down your goals. Print them and keep them where you can see them.
  • Bring them to me in a private or group lesson or share them via message threads.
  • If you want to try all this out in a musical environment where you’ll be encouraged instead of criticized,
  • If you want to have the time of your life connecting with musicians from around the world,
  • If you want to rub shoulders with the very best teachers, and…
  • If you want to surprise everyone you know by killing it when you finish,

Join my upcoming Creative Strings Workshop by clicking here

Can’t make the upcoming course? Set up a one-time free lesson w me (new students only) by subscribing here: https://christianhowes.com/csa/

If you need help with something, schedule a call via the link at the top of this website.










How to know when and what to play.

How to avoid “writers block” (the feeling of having no idea where to start).

How to avoid getting “in a rut” ( stuck repeating the same few ideas)

How to make the other musicians you work with feel comfortable and call you back

Collaborating in diverse musical settings is a great way to expand on classical training, but this begs the question:

How can you make these collaborations succeed, especially in unfamiliar or new musical situations?

To help you understand how to play confidently in new styles of music, I put together an 11-point checklist (plus some guidelines for how to make a good impression).

First of all, let me dispel the popular misconception that improvising is all about doing whatever you want. There are times and places for that, but when you’re called upon to play a role in an ensemble, you need to be mindful of many parameters, the first of which is to do no harm.

All music benefits from fundamentals such as the unity of ensemble, sound, balance, etc., and improvisation doesn’t change what makes music good and bad.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, placing restraints upon yourself is one of the best things you can do to promote your own creativity.

Your role in a band may involve becoming an improvising soloist, but it also requires you to think like an arranger, composing your part in a song.

Your part can range from textural colors to rhythmic accentuations to harmony pads to a featured solo. You can use ideas in the 11-point checklist below in just about any song for any band in any style.

Interpersonal considerations are just as critical to you feeling confident playing with a band on stage, or recording in studio.

Without these strategies, when a classical musician gets asked to sit in with a band, they either freeze up or bulldoze ahead with reckless abandon.

I know all about this. I was mocked, discounted, laughed at…

I was told to “do a two-step and hit a cowbell” (not even allowed to play violin!).

Made to sit through jam sessions for hours without ever being invited up.

Faces made on the bandstand at me.

Threatened, Cussed out..

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

You won’t either.

Accepting this will save you stress, misunderstandings, and frustration. Because once you realize this, you’ll act differently around other musicians. The way you act, and the way you think about it, will make all the difference in gaining their respect and finding your lane.

It’s worth sitting on this point. I made the mistake of assuming that since I was an expert classical musician, I was an expert all-around musician. Therefore I sometimes came across as arrogant or condescending when working with musicians in other traditions.

The proper attitude to show is one of respect. And that doesn’t mean showing up as a walking apology.

When we show respect to other musicians, by acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know (about the music that they are experts at), we attract respect and appreciation, and this fosters a healthy spirit of collaboration. By letting other musicians teach us and ask for what they want, everyone wins, and the music is better for it.

We can come across as conceited or insensitive in musical situations because we’re insecure, we want to impress people, and we’re too clueless to realize that it’s wrong to apply everything we have done in classical music to another musical tradition.

We may pretend we know what’s going on, play a lot of fancy stuff to show off our chops, or fail to notice or ask how the other musicians are reacting to what we are doing.

It’s better to have quiet confidence, and yet be unabashedly deferential in allowing musicians to teach us and ask us for what they want in a particular situation. Musicians will always appreciate you when you give them permission to ask for what they want.

If I lean over to a side person or bandleader and ask, “is this ok, or would you prefer something else?”, it shows that I respect them and the music. It shows that I know that I’m an outsider coming into their world. It sets me up to be more impressive to them when they hear how quickly I can adapt once given clear instructions.  And it makes it easier for them to give me those instructions.

After some hard knocks, I learned to make it work with musicians in all kinds of settings.

Demonstrating this social grace is more important than practicing licks, because you’ve got to be able to find a way to get along with other musicians, and to begin to truly appreciate and understand what they do and how they think about music.

Here are some funny examples of situations that were way outside my comfort zone, and I had to find a way through them:

-One time my drummer for the night showed up with a water jug in a small town in China. That was his drum kit…

-Opening for Journey with a classic rock band at the Kansas State Fair.

-Helping save a string quartet collaboration in the recording studio with a hip hop group in Brooklyn that almost got derailed.

-Playing a 4-hour stadium concert w/ a band from India without rehearsal or sheet music while displayed on a monster tv screen

-Playing, producing, and arranging hundreds of recording sessions for producers, many of whom don’t know the difference between a crescendo and a croissant

First, I’ll give you the musical checklist, i.e., what to do or not do every minute when you’re collaborating with a band.

Then I’ll give you a list of specific interpersonal strategies that are just as important.

Implement these suggestions and you’ll be a hero to the audience and the musicians, and they’ll call you back again and again.

-11 Tips to Playing with a Band for Classical Musicians-

1)Know when to lay out – To lay out is to NOT play. This is literally the most important thing you need to do. Do not play all the time, unless you are asked to do so. It’s far better to have someone asking you to play more than feeling the passive-aggressive energy of someone who is trying to find a way to give you a hint to play less.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. A fiddle player might play 80% of the time in a Bluegrass band, for example.

You may feel uncomfortable laying out. When laying out, you can listen and look around at the band, sway or tap your foot to the music, close your eyes and listen, smile, appear deep in thought, or whatever you want, but I recommend you tune into the music. Over time you should get more comfortable with laying out.

Case in point, in my own jazz quartet (with drums, bass, and piano), I lay out at least 50% of the time.

Some songs may require you to play all the time, but others you may lay out 25%, 50%, or 75% of the time. You may want to think about this before you decide what to play on a particular song w a band. Map it out in advance so you know exactly when you will play or lay out.  For example, if I’m working with a singer songwriter or rock band, often I will play on an intro and then lay out on the first verse of a song, entering on the second verse;  or waiting to enter until after 2 verses and a chorus have gone by sometimes.

By simply having a clear intention and structure around when to play or lay out, this contributes to the long arc of the song, giving a lift to keep the energy of the song over multiple verses. And it makes people notice and appreciate when you actually play.

2) Master the fills— Short melodic ideas in the rests when the singer is not singing (or melody instrument is not playing melody). There are two common ways to organize fills. Either take a full verse with fills OR alternate phrases within the same verse w other people in the band who are filling such as a lead guitar, keyboard, or even the bassist.

Here are tricks you can try when practicing to make your fills sound more convincing:

Try clapping the rhythm of your fills before adding notes to them. Non-specific rhythm is the death of many an ill-fated fill.

Listen to the words and respond musically based on what they mean to you.

Respond to the melody line of the singer. Play something like, or unlike,  the singer’s melody.

Respond to the other fills. Listen to the fills played by other members of the band and do something like or unlike that.

Outline a simple melodic shape using chord tones. (For more see the “Easy Tonal Improvisation” course on this page.)

3) Go for the chord tones, aka, PADS– A PAD is one of the easiest thing to do if you know the harmony or are able to hear the chord tones. The safest way to play a pad is to play voice-led chord tones following the harmonic rhythm (playing on the downbeat of each chord with the keyboard or rhythm guitar and bass).

If you don’t have the voice leading internalized between chord tones from different chords, the easiest way to deal with this is by creating a diagram that I call a Chord Stack. It contains all three notes in the triad stacked everywhere they occur in first position on your instrument. (This is covered in one of my most popular courses in Creative Strings Academy.)

Pads can gradually be embellished to include playing multiple chord tones and/or joining the chord tones with short melodic motions through passing tones.

4) Unison melodic figures-Copy the figure and play in unison- often there will be a “hook” or a melodic figure that other members of the band play. Sometimes it will be a centerpiece, and other times it may be more of an accompaniment figure. If it’s the centerpiece, chances are you can either double the line or harmonize the line. If it’s an accompaniment part played by the guitar or bass you may want to ask whether they would like you to double it (or play it a few times and observe the body language and face of the player you are doubling.)

5) Harmonize the figure- Instead of playing in unison with the melodic figure, play a harmony.

6) Rhythmic textures–  This is very context dependent. Never chop unless the drummer stops playing. Let the drummer handle the percussive aspects.

7) Double a vocal melody– Play the same notes that the vocalist sings, however, be cautious with this one. Make sure the vocalist likes it.

8) Harmonize vocal melody- Again, try it, see if the vocalist likes it or not. Be sensitive.

9) Play colors or effects using various extended techniques with or without augmentation of effects pedals. Harmonics, trills, slides. You can augment the effects using pedals like delay, flanger, wah-wah, distortion, etc. You could also combine some of those!

10) Double the guitar, bass or horns when asked to. This only happens on occasion.

11) Take a Solo- Generally check with the bandleader to be clear on when the solo is and how long it should be.

If you are going to play with a band, keep this list handy- chances are, you should be able to find the answers here.

-How to Communicate with Musicians from Different Musical Worlds-

One of the biggest issues you’ll face has to do with translating between the language of a classical musician vs the language other musicians speak.

Don’t expect a bandleader to speak your musical language. They may not hand you sheet music and say, “play detached bowings with a slight rubato in measure 32”…

They’ll make perfect sense to musicians who speak their language. You are the outsider. You can eventually learn their language, but in the meantime, find ways to create understanding and agreement with the right questions, references, and prompts,

Here’s my checklist to better navigate, anticipate, and avoid conflicts, to optimize the chances of musical success when collaborating with musicians who think and talk differently than your orchestra conductor

Questions to ask your bandmates:

Should I lay out in the first verse?

Can I play two different examples over this section of the song and you tell me which one you prefer?

Would you like me to play high (like this) or low (like this) ?

Would you like me to play dense (like this) or sparse (like this)? When you say “like this”, demonstrate your ideas.

Make it easy for them to say “yes” or “no”.

Do they like this or that? Do they want you to lay out or not in a specific section?

They can tell you “I like that one”.  Or they can say “Yes”.

That’s what understanding each other looks like, when everyone is on the same page.

The more you can discern what your musicians are looking for from you, the more you will be a hero.

Give them permission to tell you what they want.

Watch for visual cues from the band.

Prompt their feedback by saying things like, “How do you like the part I came up with for the bridge? Is it too busy? Would you like to hear it played down the register? “Is the chopping pattern I’m playing working or should I try a different type of groove during this section?  Can you play for me an example of something you’d like to hear?

So, or any situation, if you keep the checklist above handy, and if you follow the guidelines around communication, you will learn faster, build positive relationships, and gain confidence.

To follow through on this class, get accountability and personal feedback.

There are a few ways to get my support.

Write down your goals. Print them and keep them where you can see them.

Bring them to me in a private or group lesson or share them via message threads.

If you want to try all this out in a musical environment where you’ll be encouraged instead of criticized,

If you want to have the time of your life connecting with musicians from around the world,

If you want to rub shoulders with the very best teachers, and…

If you want to surprise everyone you know by killing it when you finish,

Join my upcoming Creative Strings Workshop by clicking here

Can’t make the upcoming course? Set up a one-time free lesson w me (new students only) by subscribing here: https://christianhowes.com/csa/

Not sure what to do? Schedule a call via the link at the top of this website.