This is a continuation of last week’s blog.

Good Habit #6: Purposely Overcoming Trouble Spots

“Trouble spots” are where something always goes wrong in the same part of the tune. Many musicians ignore trouble spots, thinking they’ll just go away eventually (sort of like avoiding going to the dentist for tooth pain). Usually they just get worse. The best way to handle them is to purposely do what it takes to correct them. Let’s look at some of the specific trouble spots you might encounter in your practice:

1. Tempo or Rhythm is Not Even: Smooth rhythms and even tempos usually come with practice, but if you’ve put in the time and still haven’t achieved good results, here are some things to consider:

a. You might not believe this, but a metronome is your friend. If you hate metronomes, it’s probably because you haven’t been instructed in their true benefits and how to use them well. A metronome does not have to make your music sound stilted. In fact, they help achieve a smooth and flowing sound  –  when used well.

Since it isn’t easy to keep a steady tempo or play a perfect rhythm while concentrating at the same time on learning other aspects of playing, the metronome frees us to think about those other things (such as playing the right notes!) while providing the beat for us. Using a metronome will entrain the beat into your playing so it becomes automatic and habitual.

Hint: don’t flap your elbows or bob your head in time with the metronome. That’s counterproductive. Keep your movements smooth and natural.

If you’re an experienced player, you may find that some pieces you play well tend to get sloppy over time. When that happens, using the metronome during practice will clean those pieces up quickly. (I always use one when preparing for concerts, because as far as I’m concerned, just “good enough” isn’t good enough.)

A metronome can be set to any tempo. No matter the desired tempo for the piece, it’s best to start with a slow beat and get that perfected, then work up by steps to the desired tempo; this can take several weeks or more. Don’t shortcut to a faster tempo.

The most common complaint I hear is, “my metronome slows down and speeds up”. No  –  that’s YOU. Yes, it happens everyone. That’s what a metronome fixes!

By the way, be sure to get a metronome that clicks rather than beeps. A click is more audible. I like mechanical metronomes; they’re less expensive, louder, and easier to use.   

b. You may not be counting your note values accurately or consistently. There can be any number of reasons for this, but amazingly, the most common is a lack of complete understanding of time signature. In teaching experienced musicians, when I’ve asked them to define the meaning of a specific time signature, a majority can’t tell me! I’ve even encountered musicians who thought it was a tempo setting! If you don’t understand fully how to define a time signature and/or how to count each one confidently, it’s simply not possible to have any command of timing or to make a melody make sense. (If you’d like a Skype lesson on time signatures and counting, contact me at )

c. On the other hand, you may be concentrating too hard on your counting (the opposite from the above situation). Once you’ve learned a piece well, you can stop counting. If you don’t, your music is likely to lack expression. The count and the rhythm must be consistent but should become automatic.

2. Tripping Fingers

Most stringed instrument players are familiar with the feeling of having their fingers trip over each other. Although this is normal when you’re new to your instrument, it can happen to anyone at any skill level but, hopefully, less often as the years go by. There are two main reasons for tripping fingers: poor planning of finger placements and movements, and poor planning of eye movement. Let’s consider the fingers first:

What exactly is fingering? It’s what order your fingers are used in, when they are placed and/or when they pluck. Planning precisely how your fingers will execute every passage of a piece of music is essential for the sake of accuracy, confidence and finesse (improvisation is another matter). Using the exact same fingering every time you play the piece assures kinesthetic memory. When there’s a trouble spot, either you haven’t planned your fingering, or you have but it needs correction. Rather than just letting those trouble spots go by, check the fingering and re-work it if needed.

Planning your eye movements may seem like overkill, but in fact it makes a huge difference. An obvious example of good use of the eyes is when you have a jump of several strings (harp), keys (piano) or frets (guitar, banjo, mando, etc.) coming up; if you look at where you are going next, instead of where you are now, you can much more easily get there. Watching your fingers do their work is usually not productive unless you’re a beginner. Looking where they will go next is a much better use of your eyes.

3. Hesitations

Hesitations are usually the result of not being sure where you’re going next. Taking that extra moment, no matter how bried, to place a chord or start a passage detracts greatly from the music. Once you know a piece well, if you’re still hesitating in certain places, it’s probably an eye-movement problem. Read the last paragraph of #2, above.

4. Forgetting

Forgetting where you are in a piece, or what the next note, chord, lyric or phrase is, is a problem that aging folks such as myself are becoming more and more familiar with. I sometimes decide to forego dignity and use simple reminder notes that I place on the floor or attach to my instrument (I don’t use a music stand, as it blocks visual and psychological access to my audience, and I don’t use notation for the same reason).

But usually forgetting is due to not having a solid concept of pattern, rather than old age. In most music there are patterns that are visual, audible, and kinesthetic. If we ignore any of those ways of remembering our music, we handicap ourselves. Developing patterns of eye movement was discussed above. Remembering music’s audible patterns is a simple matter of hearing it in your head (NOT of seeing notation your head!), knowing it well enough that you can hum it to yourself, and knowing how the phrases are “shaped”. Remembering kinesthetic patterns is a matter of consistent fingering (discussed above) and/or arm movements that are practiced until they’re set in muscle memory.

Next week: more potential trouble spots and how to overcome them