Fiddling With Micro-practice
In a nutshell, micro-practice is about putting things into nutshells.
Micro-practice is taking a big thing (such as a tune) and breaking it into small chunks that can be easily mastered. The link between these two chunks (a transition) is also a small chunk to be micro-practiced. Once you’ve got the two pieces and the transition, you’ve magically learned a bigger thing. The process continues until you can play an entire tune (or symphony).
IMPORTANT NOTE: If at any point a bigger chunk becomes a struggle, just return to micro-practice by breaking that difficult part down into smaller parts once more. Don’t be too proud to this!
If you approach tunes this way, you will succeed at memorizing them and playing them well. Let’s learn how to use a useful tool called the Practice Microscope. Sometimes we see a big picture and then sometimes we zoom in for fine detail.
First things first
Start by just listening to a tune. This is the lowest power of magnitude on the practice microscope, for it allows you to see the big picture.
Single note practice
Tunes can be broken down into smaller and smaller practice units. Let’s zoom in to the very highest power on our practice microscope and learn individual notes, playing each one until it sounds good.
Start learning a tune by making the very first note sound good. Stay with that note, playing it continuously, even if you think you are advanced enough to just start playing the first quarter of the A part. Then stay with the second note for awhile playing it continuously.
This is a magical practice which I still do. Making one tiny thing sound good sets the tone for the rest of your journey into the music.
Think of a single note as the most elemental thing you can practice, like an atom. If we look at Oh Susannah, the first note is D0.
If a single note is an atom, than a small collection of notes, what I call a “bit,” is equivalent to a molecule.
Bits are fragments of musical ideas in which you can start to hear the melody.
To make a bit, we just sequence all the individual notes we just practiced. For example, the first bit in Oh Susannah is D0-1-2-A0-0. Start to practice this.
IMPORTANT: if at any point you get stuck on something to difficult to do, stop playing the whole bit and focus on the problem spot. It may only be one or two notes. Maybe it’s hard to go from A0 to D2, or the reverse. So pause and practice that.
Practice each bit before putting them together. The second bit is A1-0-D2-0.
A collection of bits is a phrase. A phrase is something that starts to sound like a melody. If we continue with our scientific analogy, a phrase is like a cell in a living organism. It has many elements that work together.
The first phrase of Oh Susannah is D0-1-2-A0-0-1-0-D2-0.
A collection of phrases is what makes up parts. Parts are the limbs and organs of a tune. A part can be two or more phrases.
For example, the first quarter of Oh Susannah is made up of two phrases:
There’s no hard and fast rule as to what makes something a phrase and something else a part. There’s smaller and bigger phrases, smaller and bigger parts. However you go about practicing, you want to divide things into smaller units until you can easily do everything. In this way, you can’t fail to learn the tune and make it sound good because you systematically removed all the “hard parts.”
A part can be the first quarter of the melody to Oh Susannah, or the first half of the A part in Arkansas Traveller:
First phrase: D0-2-1-0-G2-2-1-1-D0
Second phrase: D1-1-2-2-0-2-1-0-G2-1
Again, the simplest way to look at this is as a breakdown: a part is just a collection of smaller things called phrases, a phrase is a collection of smaller things called bits and a bit is a collection of smaller things we call single notes.
If you observe that you struggle at a particular point, focus your practice microscope and simplify what you are doing. If you’re playing a phrase, simplify it to a smaller 4-note bit or perhaps even a single note.
It’s hard to fully observe your performance as you play. Recording yourself is a way to learn about your strengths and weaknesses so you can focus your practice. Learn more about that in this article: How to improve your fiddling through recording.
Here is a “practice road map” for you:
To sum up: master small chunks, then assemble into bigger chunks.
A more detailed approach
Here is a more meticulous plan of attack. Though there are a lot of steps, remember the basic process: master small chunks, then assemble into bigger chunks.
- Listen to the whole tune 1-3 times
- Listen to the first quarter 3-5 times
- First quarter
- Practice single notes
- Practice bits
- Assemble bits into phrases
- Second quarter (repeat steps a, b and c, as above).
- Assemble the first two quarters into the first half (if this difficult, return to practicing each individual quarter).
- Repeat this process until you’ve learned and practiced the whole tune.
I use this same approach when teaching in-person students. Practice each step with looping:
1st quarter loop of Oh Susannah: D0-1-2-A0-0-1-0-D2-0-1-2-2-1-0-1
Practice each step using a drone track:
If at any point you forget something you learned earlier (and you probably will), just stop and review that thing, even if it is just a three-note bit. This might also be necessary for working out problems and obstacles after you’ve memorized a tune.
If you use this strategy and are honest with yourself about what is difficult for you, you are sure to make it through the tune. And the more tunes you learn, the better you’ll understand the process of learning tunes, which will enable you to learn tunes more quickly.
Map it out
I made a worksheet for you to help you breakdown challenges into easier practice chunks. Give it a try and then let me know if it was helpful (or if it could be improved).
After forty years of fiddling, I’m still learning how to practice…
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