Email, social media notifications, alarms, auto-alerts, instant messages, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it? Over the last two decades, the internet has afforded us access to a phenomenal amount of information and connectivity, but it’s also created a set of conditions that can be very psychologically taxing. For many of us, both our working and personal lives play out in increasingly frantic, overstimulated landscapes; and it can be a real struggle to keep up.
In response to this, as smartphones, tablets and computers have become increasingly central to modern life, recent years have been marked in part by the rise of meditation, mindfulness and self-care apps such as Calm and Headspace. Free to download, they’re digital balms designed to soothe us, and by the process of guiding us through mindfulness and meditation practices, help us create healthier relationships with these tools.
As clinical psychology research has shown, in even just a few minutes a day, the benefits of mindfulness travel into our everyday lives: improved physical health, mental health, happiness and overall well-being. With repetition, five minutes of practice can extend into half an hour, and the longer you spend in a mindful state, the better you’ll feel. At Melodics, we often think about a simple but powerful idea that illustrates this all very well;
greatness isn’t born; it’s grown, and we believe playing can be a form of mindfulness.
Have you ever been so completely and utterly immersed in a task that nothing else mattered, and the time flew away on you? If you’ve been there, it’s a state you probably wanted to return to. Some people get there through video games, sports or art. Other people get there through music and Melodics can be a pathway to that zone. Sit down, relax, start practicing, and let yourself enter the calm. Eventually, these actions become an outcome as you switch off from the outside world and immersion sets in.
Melodics artist Indi, a contemporary experimental musician and composer, currently based in Berlin, but originally from New Zealand, can see the relationship as well.
“The practice of music, to me, is the ultimate mental and emotional nourishment,” Indi says.
“When everything else in the world is in a constant state of emergency, there is nothing more freeing than focusing on a single melody, rhythm or piece for hours at a time. Taking time to do this acts as a form of self-care and meditation. The practice of music seems like an ancient, innate compulsion that everyone feels – it is just learning how to open up those valves of expression again.”
Melodics artist Leonard Charles, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, programmer and producer from New Zealand, can also see the connection between music practice, mindfulness and meditation as well, but with a proviso. “It’s really important to learn to study your instrument in a relaxed mood,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a stressful environment. So, firstly, to get benefits from the relaxing nature of playing music, you need to approach playing your instrument in a relaxed manner.”
Leonard Charles’ thoughts underscore the realities often expressed by mindfulness and meditation advocates. These aren’t states you can instantly access; you have to build your way there through regular, consistent practice. It’s the same as working through Melodics lessons. Once you commit and get started, you’ll see results over time. With even just five minutes a day of practice, short streaks will become longer streaks, and a 50% score in a lesson will eventually become 100%.
Mindfulness is described as a practice for a reason, and much like Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, or the flow experience – a topic that we will dig into more shortly on the blog – the rewards that come with entering the zone will encourage you to invest the time required to return there. “If the instrument is played in this manner, calmly and with intent, then performance can become meditative,” Leonard Charles says.
“When the brain knows it is in a safe and comfortable environment, it will develop, and the benefits of this are sky high.”
“That song sounds so familiar, I’m trying to think what it reminds me of….”
Chances are it’s another song with the same chord progression. There are certain progressions that have been used over and over again in popular music. In this post, we will look at a few examples of the most common chord progressions and the corresponding lessons from the Common Chord Progressions course in Melodics for Keys.
What is a chord progression?
A chord progression is the sequence that chords are played in. Sometimes pop songs will use only one chord progression that repeats for the entire song. This can be as simple as three or four chords. The chords to many of the most popular songs of all time are no more complex than the examples in the Common Chord Progressions course.
Throughout the history of Pop music, a number of especially popular and common chord progressions have appeared, and even if you might not have realised it yet, you probably know dozens of songs that use the same sequence of chords.
Each of these progressions has a name written in Roman numerals. A brief explanation about what these mean is provided at the bottom of this post. This is not essential knowledge but rather included for those who are interested in reading further.
Listen to the preview from the Melodics lesson Celebration Time. Sound familiar? This chord progression has strong associations with positive, high energy music.
There are endless examples of this chord progression stretching right back into classical music, but its usage in Pop music is heavily rooted in Blues and Rock & Roll. Listen to this classic example: Wild Thing by The Troggs.
In the lesson Celebration Time, this progression is in the key of C, so the chords are:
Another immensely popular chord progression, but this time in a minor key. This automatically brings about associations with heavier or deeper themes. On that note, listen to Rolling in the Deep by Adele and compare it with the lesson Reflections.
The lesson Reflections is in the key of A minor, therefore the chords are:
A MinorG MajorF MajorG Major
Here are a few examples of the same chord progression in other eras and styles:
Perhaps the quintessential Pop music chord progression, this chord progression belongs to so many different sentiments, but at its core lies the same four chords. This famous video from comedy group Axis of Awesome addresses how broadly this progression is used:
In the lesson Always & Forever, we return to the key of C Major, meaning that the chords are:
C MajorG MajorA MinorF Major
By now you are probably noticing that the same chords are recurring in slightly different orders for each chord progression. If you try playing one chord over and over, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to express much. Yet the motion created when we arrange a few chords creates a whole range of possibilities.
It could be said that this progression has strong associations with sentimentality, and here are a few examples that reflect that. See if you can think of others.
When dealing with themes that are more intense, melancholic or brooding, a classic technique is to use a chord progression that ‘rises’ into a minor chord. This gives a feeling of resolution, but the resolution is serious and intense.
The lesson here is riffing on a classic example of this progression, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush.
In the lesson, we are in the key of A Minor again. The chords are:
F MajorG MajorA Minor(A Minor)
There are numerous other examples of this chord progression, sometimes with the last chord substituted for another VI or VII chord. Here are some other examples:
This chord progression is essentially the mirror of chord progression 2 (Reflections), with the crucial difference being that it is in a minor key. This means that although it has a ‘happy’ moment when it reaches the third chord, it continues to resolve back to a more melancholic home chord.
A classic example of this chord progression is the song Zombie by the Cranberries, in which the chord progression repeats without variation underneath the whole song.
In the lesson Familiar Faces, we are in the key of A Minor, so the chords are:
A MinorF MajorC MajorG Major
Another classic example of this chord progression can be found in the chorus of the song Hello by Adele.
The final chord progression in this course is a little different to the others. It is not often used as a chord progression to underpin an entire song, but rather as a short section to end or resolve others.
This chord progression and its many variants are a significant feature in Jazz and are heavily utilised in the music of the Beatles. Listen to the first four chords of the song Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and compare it to the lesson.
You might have noticed that the name of the chord progression is much more confusing than the others too. Worry not! Further information on this can be found at the end of this post.
In Treading on Heels, we are in the key of C Minor and use these chords.
C MinorC Minor/BC Minor/BbC Minor/A
Notice that every chord is actually a variant of C Minor, only the note written after the ‘/’ is changing.
Here are a few more examples, some using slightly different variations, and usually only in certain sections of the song. Challenge your ears and see if you can figure out where this progression appears in each song.
Loss Ageless – St Vincent
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
I See Monsters – Ryan Adams
Further information regarding the use of Roman numerals
The numerals correspond to the root note of the chord in relation to the key. For example, in the key of C, we would have:
If the numeral is upper case (I) it is a major chord, if it’s lower case (i) then it is minor. So the chords for C Major are:
C MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG MajorA MinorB Mino
Applying this system to the key of A Minor, we have:
A MinorB MinorC MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG Majo
Notice that the chords are identical in C Major and A Minor but appear in a different order and have different numerals. This is because these two keys use the exact same notes but have a different home chord. They are known as relative keys.
The reason we name the progressions as with roman numerals is because even if a song was in G Major, it could be using the exact same chord progression as a key in C Major. Here is an example:
In C:C MajorF MajorG MajorF Major
In G:G MajorC MajorD MajorC Major
This means that if we know the numeral names, we could play the same chord progression in any key, and you’ll find that many of the songs in this post aren’t just in C Major or A Minor, yet the sound of the progression is the same.
In regard to the last lesson, we have some chords that use a ‘/’. In theory, this is simple; if a chord has a ‘/’ in it, the numeral on the left is the chord played and the numeral on the right is the root note played underneath it. We call these slash chords or compound chords. When the notes played underneath do not come from the key of the song, we can alter the numeral with a sharp (#) or flat (b) symbol.
So if we have:
A MinorA Minor/GA Minor/F
Then adding an extra passing note before the G would give us:
A MinorA Minor/G#A Minor/GA Minor/F
ii/#VIIi/VIIi/VI If you are interested in learning more about music theory, a good place to start is the Melodics Music Theory course, and you can also read on here: link
In an interview with Dean Brown, he broke down his fundamentals of musicianship to three key points.
While these aspects overlap by nature and are blurry by definition, let’s look at some basic exercises and ideas to help build each of these cornerstones.
For clarity’s sake, we’ll say ears refers to both being able to learn music increasingly quickly and accurately by ear, and maybe even more importantly, the ability to listen and respond to others while playing.
Lexicon refers to your vocabularies, plural. Rhythmic vocabulary, melodic vocabulary, harmonic vocabulary, and maybe most importantly song vocabulary. For a working musician, especially playing jazz or doing covers, this might mean knowing how to play a lot of songs. I am more generally referring to familiarity with songs though. Being familiar with a lot of songs means that you have listened to a lot of music. This is obviously pretty crucial if you want to be a good musician. These days, personally, having familiarity with tunes is what makes them hard or easy to learn and to remember. There are tunes I’ve played before, maybe more than once which I would struggle to tell you any changes to. Because I never really got familiar with the song, I just read the chords or the part. It’s also what make strange parts or structures in songs no longer strange. It’s also easy to see how the osmosis of a lot of music will inform what you play.
Technique is the most self-explanatory. Technical proficiency. Can you play this fast passage? Can you play these complicated chord changes in time? Can you play in time Full stop? If we get a bit deeper, can you match the tone of this song (ears figures in here too, and perhaps also lexicon in recognising different effects or eq settings)? Can you match the FEEL of a groove? Can you perform under pressure or on big stages? While I do not believe there is any particular hierarchy with these 3 fundamental elements, technique is probably the easiest and fastest to recognise in a player.
Here are 3 additional musical fundamentals to consider. Two of these were drilled into me when I was learning guitar, but they translate 100% to every instrument including the voice. Time and Tone. The further you look into it, the more symbiotic these concepts become. Your tone influences your time, your time makes your tone work. Any great player will have abundant levels of both. You could call your time feel technique, you could call your tonetechnique and ears. The Third one is Taste. This is the subjective part of music no-one can really decide for you but yourself. However, your lexicon is probably the most influential outside informer of this.
Obviously this is a simplified view. Music is bottomless and so are the concepts and approaches within it. It is important to remember that it’s the fundamentals which will make you a good player. You can play the most complicated stuff in the world, and without them, it’ll never sound right. With them, you can play the simplest nursery rhyme and it will be good music.
Throughout the past century of music, there has been a huge amount of change. Movements have come and gone, while technology has given people access to the immense diversity of music. When you step back and look at some of the biggest changes, minimalism stands out as one of the most impactful. Minimalism in western music, which sprouted in the mid-20th century, can be found today everywhere from electronic dance music to the orchestra.
Within Melodics, you might have come across the term ‘minimal’ or ‘minimalism’. Maybe you’ve heard these terms used when describing a dance track or a piece of art. Maybe this is totally new to you. Either way, it can be tricky pinpointing what people actually mean by this. Does a piece of music need to include minimal content, structure, or have a short duration, in order to be considered minimalist?Does minimalism make the music simple?
Let’s first acknowledge that minimalist music can have many different definitions. Among them is that minimalist music uses limited musical materials. I once had an acclaimed professor of music history at my college describe minimalism as music where ‘all the voices are immediately apparent.’ While most definitions like these aren’t necessarily wrong, they don’t get the full picture either. Music from oft labeled ‘minimalist’ composers, like John Adams or Steve Reich, is richly orchestrated, deep, and full of motion and change. On the other hand, when you’re spinning tracks by Plastikman you’ll hear just a synth and kick repeat the same couple notes for several minutes at a time. So if minimalism can range from the club to the orchestra, and from 50 instrumentalists to 2 – 3 synths, what else can we use to describe minimalism other than ‘limited musical material’?
One of the most important elements frequently left out when talking about minimalist music is the concept of process. Often times, it doesn’t matter how many voices are active. What’s more interesting is how they’re changing. In minimalism the excitement comes from the discovery of process. One voice can split into two or three. A synth’s tone can slowly evolve over the course of 10 minutes to a steady beat. Minimalism is best enjoyed when you discover the pattern, or the ‘rule’ behind how changes in the music are made.
Still feeling a little fuzzy on minimalism? Dive into our keys course on Minimal Music. You’ll have the opportunity to experience some of these ideas first hand.
For your listening pleasure, here’s some amazing examples of minimalist ideas in music:
Without a doubt, music gives back what you put into it. There is no substitute for time spent ‘shedding’ on your instrument. There is no shortcut to either technical proficiency or (more importantly), conviction and ‘a voice’ in your playing. It is a humbling and never-ending journey.
Practice is cumulative, and muscle memory is built through repetition over time. For this reason, I often tell beginner musicians that 5 minutes a day will be much more beneficial than two hours once a week. As your playing and understanding grow, your practice sessions may demand more time, or become more conceptual than mechanical. You might also find that the breakthroughs happen after an hour or so of banging your head against the wall. But this is down the track. For now, regular time on the instrument (or program as our modern landscape may have it), and building the habit of practice are what will get you the best results.
Everyone learns differently. One aspect of effectively practicing and internalising pieces of music, musical techniques, and musical vocabulary is developing an understanding of how you learn.
These concepts quickly become quite cerebral, so in the spirit of this piece (as I’ll soon explain), let’s focus on something immediately tangible.
How do you learn a passage of music you find technically difficult?
If I had a one-word answer, it might be ‘microscopically’.
The process explained below for guitar is used in all Melodics lessons. The pieces are deconstructed into steps, so you can gradually rebuild from the foundational elements up to the full parts. Remember, if anything feels too hard at any stage, repeat it, slow it down (use the tools in Practice Mode), and zoom in.
Let’s use Link Wray’s seminal tune ‘Rumble’ as an example (which a fledgling guitar player may find some aspects of challenging):
The first 8 bars of this 12 bar blues are pretty easy. To me (and for simplicity’s sake), the tune is a slow blues shuffle in 4/4. I think the sheet music has it as 12/8. You strum a Dsus2 on beats 3 and 4 before the downbeat, then strum an E ‘on the one’ and let it ring for a bar and a half. Then repeat. Then do the same thing but go to an A. Then the same returning to the E. Provided you know these chords, this will take about ten seconds to learn. If this is confusing at all, have a listen to the link and it will become clear.
In bars 9-12, there’s a B7 chord which is likely less familiar than the first 3, followed by a 2/4 bar (which feels natural enough it won’t catch you off guard), followed by a descending E minor pentatonic scale using the open strings. Again, use the recording for reference.
Most people starting out on guitar don’t find playing chords especially difficult, but changing between them in time is another story. My fairly amateur keys playing can attest to this being a cross-instrumental issue. Even if it seems counterintuitive now, most people will play a song from the start and trainwreck it at the same place over and over. And wonder why that part always goes wrong.
Let’s assume the first 8 bars of this song have become pretty solid after a bit of practice. But when you practice, you are you still playing the song from the beginning every time and falling off the rails in the same place every time. In this case, Bar 9. Surely it would make sense to isolate the challenging aspect, and focus your energy there if that is what is causing you problems? Here’s where we can start zooming in.
First things first, you need to get the B7 chord sounding good on its own. Zooming in further, I would make sure the left-hand fingers are in the correct position, then play the notes of this chord (arpeggiate it) one at a time with my right hand. If any of them are choked or aren’t speaking properly, something in the left-hand needs to adjust. Until they all sound cleanly, things can’t progress. Maybe working on just the B7 is the practice on this tune for today.
Once that chord is under control, the change to it from Dsus is next. I would zoom out slightly and focus on just looping the D to the B7 back and forth. First without time just to get the muscle memory happening, and then in the correct rhythm for the song. You can make these exercises musical. I would set a metronome to a similar tempo as the tune (or initially slower if necessary), and make a 2 bar loop. Part of the reason I chose this song as an example is that it is slow and simple. On something more uptempo or complex, I would always start practicing with a metronome well below the true tempo.
Once this feels good, zoom out again. Now might be a good time to play the tune from the start to bar 10, and put your new part in context.
Finally, we have our minor pentatonic run. Like many parts, this sounds cool so difficulty is assumed. It’s actually very simple. However, it will almost certainly trip you up if it isn’t looked at in isolation first. Zoom back in. Use the same process. Play just the descending E- pentatonic scale a few times. Do it in halves if you need to. Then introduce time. You can either keep the metronome in 4/4 and play them as a triplet feel, or move the metronome over to divisions of 3. Either way, start slow! I can’t emphasize enough that the slower and smaller you make parts, the easier they get, and the more solid your understanding and foundation of that music will be. With that in mind, maybe just getting that run under your fingers so it sounds badass and confident is today’s practice. Maybe you work on it just for 5 minutes.
Assuming this lick is sounding good, zoom out a bit. Using the same process, put the last 4 bars together. Once that feels good, include the Dsus2 chords which lead into bar 9. Once this is all grooving and locked in, I think you’re ready to play the whole tune and rock it.
From personal experience of learning to play things way beyond my skill level, I believe anyone can learn to play anything if they have the patience to break the pieces down into tangible amounts. Even the most intricate music can be attainable by zooming in and working on a few notes or a chord change at a time. It’s the patience to do so, and the focus involved which is the true skill.
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com
One reason music theory is so valuable is that it offers us a shared language. It gives us names for the notes we play and their relationships with one another.
Although music is a language in its own right, having names which represent these arrangements of notes and rhythms makes the communication and notation of ideas faster and clearer.
In this clip well worth watching, the great musician and educator Victor Wooten beautifully conveys his perspective on ‘music as a language’ (and other deep insights):
I learned theory comparatively late compared to a lot of my peers. I came to University with only a rudimentary understanding of some of the more familiar scales, underdeveloped ears, and was unable to read a note on any clef. How I got in I don’t know, but one of the most daunting barriers to making this stuff ‘click’ was understanding the world of music jargon and terminology. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by ‘root’, ‘tonic’, ‘mode’, ‘scale’, ‘minor 3rd’, ‘major 3rd’, ‘5th’, ‘V’, ‘Bb’, ‘A#’ etc etc. Often there are multiple names for the same thing. Like any language, you probably already have some understanding of what the thing is (in this case an aural familiarity), you just may not have heard it called by that name or given that label.
As a guitar player, I sidestepped theory for longer than I could have on other instruments such as keys. Typically, pianists learn to read as part of their early education, and identifying the notes is a little more straightforward visually. With these cornerstones, much of the subsequent theory falls in after this. However, in the modern world of the producer, it is very likely many using keys are finding themselves in a similar place to myself as a younger guitarist.
To some degree, building your own understanding of theory has a lot to do with decoding its jargon. My own process is not so far in the past that I can’t recall how frustrating it can be, and how easy it is to think ‘what’s the point?’. It takes time, but it is now without a doubt one of the skills in my proverbial toolbox which makes a career as a musician possible, and from that toolbox, one of the most commonly drawn upon.
Over the next few weeks, we will introduce theory in digestible portions to coincide with the practical elements of Melodics lessons. Like any kind of practice, it takes repetition, and as such I will end up covering the same ground multiple times.
The first things we’ll look at are:
What notes are we playing?
What chords are we playing?
What key do they belong to, and what is their position in this context?
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com
My best piece of advice for performing, is that the first time you play a piece in front of people, it shouldn’t matter.
The first time you perform a song in its entirety that you’ve been learning shouldn’t be for a high stakes performance such as for an exam or competition. That is too much pressure. The first time you play in your live electronic duo shouldn’t be to a packed room of 150 people who have all paid $20. Playing to 20 people who you know and will smile encouragingly when you blast them with a slightly too loud hi-hat is a better idea. The packed room can wait.
The actual setup
I had a Piano exam around the age of 11 that was going to be on a Grand Piano. Up until that stage I had only ever played on upright pianos, and my wise piano teacher knew that the position of where the music sits on a Grand piano is higher. This could have caused extra stress and nerves for the real exam. A few weeks before the exam, I spent a few hours playing on the actual Grand Piano I was going to be examined on and was able to adjust to the much higher music location. When I arrived for the real exam, it was one variation I didn’t need to worry about. I passed the exam.
Now this is looking at the context of a performance where it is relatively straightforward, where it is just a Piano player checking that they can see the music and touch the pedals. Or perhaps it is a trumpet player ensuring they’re warmed up, in tune and have put in valve oil. Basic operational checks, like a Guitarist ensuring their strings are not rusty and the loose input jack is fixed. When you add any technical aspects, such as guitar pedals or amp variables, your preparation for performance should look like your real deal performance. I’ve have had students who haven’t used a fuzz or wah pedal enough to be totally confident, and then it adds another layer of nerves when they use it in their performance. Practice your instrument with the same setup as you will perform. This includes those who plug controllers into laptops.
There was a national competition I attended and one of the band members used a laptop, USB audio card and a hardware sampler/controller. The band walked on stage but couldn’t get the sound to work on the laptop and they spent 10 minutes trying. The musician hadn’t used the USB audio card much, and so didn’t realise that when you close a laptop, it defaults to the internal soundcard (I jumped on stage and rectified the problem). This problem not only delayed the competition, but more importantly the musician was visibly upset when they went to play. Technical setups such as modular synths, laptops or anything with more than 2 or 3 electronic sound sources require a higher level of confidence in their use to reduce nerves. Being consistent in how and where things are plugged in is less important than 15 years ago as USB and Laptops are becoming less temperamental. However, focusing on reducing the variables and thus things that could go wrong onstage will lower stress and anxiety. Then you can just focus on your performance, not the gear. (Note: updating software the day before performance is not a good idea. What happens if a little tweak of a menu location happens and you can’t find that parameter?)
Knowing your part.
Do I get nervous? Not if I know what I’m doing.
After playing music for over 30 years, I still get nervous, but I now know why. It’s down to two reasons:
I haven’t practiced my part enough and so I am only 80% confident I’ll get it right.
It’s that 20% of doubt that creeps in and affects my playing. If I can play my part totally correct at least 20 times in a row, then I know I’ll be fine. This applies for me playing in a Symphony Orchestra, busking on the street with friends, or DJing that great mix.
I don’t know what’s happening around me. This is because I am not totally confident of what is happening on stage with the other members of my band. For example, knowing the exact cues that the drummer will give when she is finishing her solo for me to start mine. In one of my bands, I do quite a bit of the signalling to move to the different sections, solos and improvised sections. It took a solid year of practicing what those signals were, including what to do when the others can’t see my raised eyebrows in low-light gigs, or when I’m wearing a cap and sunglasses! Once we felt secure in communicating with each other, then we all felt less-nervous and anxiety levels dropped.
There is a fine line between a performance having that spontaneousness from feeding off the crowd and each other, and the song collapsing due to key transitions being missed because the band members just didn’t know what was happening.
Playing in front of people
So if you’ve taken care of the above points, then all you’ve got to do is play in front of people.
When I’m working with individuals or bands in preparation for a competition that is judged on a single live performance, I ensure that they’ve performed their full set, as close to how it will be in the end, at least three times. I advise the first time be to 3 or 4 trusted friends and their teacher. The second time is in a more public space, but still controlled and with an encouraging crowd (students younger than them are usually good audience fodder). The third performance should be a high-stakes performance, such as a lunchtime concert, or assembly slot, but without the judging aside from the crowd clapping after each song. The important thing with this last performance, is to try and recreate all aspects of the performance. This includes walking on stage, talking to the crowd, changing guitars, changing synth patches and using stage monitors or in-ear monitors. At my school, we bring in a similar P.A sound system that the final competition will have, to give the students that experience of subs kicking in, the overall volume, and also to hear what it sounds like to have foldbacks, and FOH bouncing back off a wall. They have lights in their eyes, smoke machines, and are at one end of a big hall.
I know that performing three times is not ideal, but it is a good place to start in reducing nerves, anxiety and a fear of performance.
And remember, don’t make the first proper performance actually matter.
Martin Emo DJs and plays in 2 ½ bands on the Trumpet, Surdo, and in a Live Electronic Duo. He is currently studying a Masters in E-Learning at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ and is the National Facilitator for Te Kete Ipurangi Te Hāpori o Ngā Toi (Musicnet), an Examination Contractor for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and a Music Technology mentor for EDnet and Midnight Music.
Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.
Research shows repeating mistakes by just playing through without addressing problems can be just as bad as learning it wrong in the first place.
It’s counterproductive. Instead, try slowing your practice down, getting the notes right and nailing the tricky sections. It may seem fun to bash through pieces until you finally get it right, but if you’re not careful this can reinforce the incorrect neural pathways in your brain.
It’s important to take the time to master the details and then ramp up the speed. Practice Mode in Melodics is great for this, and you can use the Auto BPM feature to automatically increase the tempo as you get better. Repeating parts slowly to get the tough sections right will pay off over time.
Here are useful practice tips to get the most out of your Melodics time:
Create a quiet practice space, away from distractions.
This is the same thinking as not having a TV in your bedroom if you want to sleep better. Keeping your musical space set up specifically for practice can help reinforce the ritual and prepare you mentally for your session.
Begin with the end in mind.
Have a goal for your practice. What do you need to focus on today?
Practice smarter, not longer.
Map out your practice sessions just like a workout. Warm up with some easier lessons, or maybe go back and try perfect something you passed last week? You might then want to go and work on something specific like hand / finger independence or syncopation, before finally ending your session playing one of your favourite lessons.
Don’t always start at the beginning.
There’s nothing more frustrating than having to play through a piece you’ve nailed only to keep making a mistake halfway through. Rather than start at the beginning each time, work on that tricky part until you’ve nailed it – then try again.
Practice away from your instrument.
Visualisation can be really helpful to re-inforce what you’ve learned during practice. Just like in golf… Be the ball!
Let us know some of your favourite practice tips below!
How often have you heard someone say, “I don’t have a musical bone in my body”? The way you think about your own talent has a powerful impact on motivation and learning. Here’s why learning to adapt a growth mindset to practice can boost your progress hugely – and how Melodics can help.
As Jonathan Harnum states in his book, The Practice of Practice, “Talent is practice in disguise”. We often think of ourselves as having a well defined set of talents, based on our upbringing, our DNA, or some otherworldly gift – bestowed on us from the musical gods. The reality is that the way we think about this actually affects how we can learn new skills and our motivation to do so.
Research by Carol Dweck in 1986, discovered that there are two kinds of intelligence, a fixed belief in your own talents, and the belief that these can change and grow. When you think of your own skills and talents as limited, you’re instantly building a barrier to learning and you’ll tend to take on tasks in practice that you’re more easily able to achieve rather than try something harder, gaining new knowledge through practice. The effect on motivation from having a fixed mindset to learning is huge. It’s one of the reasons why so many people want to learn instruments but never end up trying, or start but don’t follow through.
Have a think about these statements, and how you can reframe them within a growth, rather than a fixed mindset.
I’m afraid to look stupid. I hate failing.
Try to think of failure as something to help you progress. It’s just a reminder to work harder, and to approach the same problem from a different angle. A little bit of practice each day is the way to get better. Remember the Melodics 5 minute daily practice goal.
Remember, you’re not demonstrating your skills to yourself, you’re learning. Praise your effort, not your results.
I only like to play what I can play.
Seek out challenges. Try a lesson at a higher grade, but slow it down using Practice Mode. Focus on getting it right, rather than playing at full tempo. This is deep practice and the best way to progress. Read more on that here.
Persistence in the face of failure is what separates musicians from everyone else. When you make a mistake, you should understand it and work out the best approach to fixing it.
Finally… Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s just music. Have fun!
For further reading on this topic, check out “The Practice of Practice” by Jonathan Harnum.
In early March Stro Elliot was kind enough to come into Melodics HQ while on tour down under. In just one afternoon Stro created a new Melodics lesson from scratch named ‘Eggs on Toast’ and even spared some time to do an interview with us. The conversation was full of amazing insights as Stro delved into his life as a musician and his unique approach to music production.
Tell us the story of how listening to Pete Rock growing up turned you into a finger drummer by accident?
When I started making and listening to beats I assumed that producers played all their drums at once. I thought this particularly when listening to how Pete Rock’s music sounded. He had such a loose feel, it sounded like a drummer was playing the drums even though I knew they were samples. So I’m listening to what he is doing and I’m assuming that he sat there and played through the whole track. Like a drummer would on a drum kit but on pads. So I taught myself how to play drums on pads. This is the way that many people see me play drums on pads now during my live shows. I later saw a video of him (Pete Rock) in the studio and watched him program drums one finger at a time, one sound at a time. I then realised how he really did it and was like ‘you have got to be kidding me’.
Fast forward to a show I had the honour of doing with him about a month or two ago. When I met him we did the set and he watched me perform and he said “yo that is really bugged out the way you play the drums with your fingers”. I then told him the story. He said “oh that is really crazy, but now you have this great tool that is in your favour and you can use”. So all in all it was a headache in the beginning but at the end of the day I guess it was all worth it.
That is pretty incredible how you went from listening to Pete Rock to performing with him. Who are some other heroes of yours, that you have had the honour of working with?
I was in a hip hop group called The Procussions and we had a chance to open for a lot of our heroes. A Tribe Called Quest being one of them as well as Redman, Methodman, De la Soul, The Roots. We almost checked off everyone in terms of people we wanted to open for. In the last year or two I have had the honour of getting to meet these people and have spent a considerable amount of time with them. Working with The Roots in the studio for a week and Electric Lady out in New York. Meeting the guys from De La Soul, Jazzy Jeff and a few others. It has been a real blessing to be able to collaborate and pick the brains of some of my heroes.
Has spending time with your heroes become a new normal for you?
I don’t know if it is normal. I tell my friends that I have known for years, that there are these moments when you are around people who you revere and you forget that they are super heroes. I have a couple friends at home, that I will spend time with. We’ll hang out, watch sports, go out to eat and it’s not until I’m in the studio with them or a show, that I remember that oh yeah this guy is Superman. I’ve been hanging around Clark Kent all day, but I forget that he can fly and can see through walls.
Do you think that learning to play live gives you a better understanding of how to make beats than sequencing?
I don’t know if it gives me more of an understanding than it does inspiration and ideas. The same way a live band will improvise a song they play a million times live, I will do the same when performing in a live set. You know I may have created some piece of music, but when I’m performing it, I might get a different idea. Like this would have been cool if I did this in the original recording. So it gives me ideas if I want to go back and change some things if I haven’t released the track, or provide ideas of things I can apply the the next time I make something with a similar feel. So whether it be a little fill in here or a little switch up there, I can now apply this to the track I’m making. That way I think it’s more about being inspired and motivated to expand on what I’ve already done.
So through playing live you are able to generate a catalogue of ideas in your mind faster that can be applied to future tracks?
How does finger drumming affect your workflow in the studio?
For me it definitely enables me to get the idea out faster. You don’t have to stop every four bars or every eight bars. You can kind of just do what I call have a ‘jam session with yourself’. I will play around and be like okay that’s a cool sequence or chord structure, lets add a bass line to it, then I will just have a jam to it (on the pads), until something feels right or good over that track. Otherwise it would take me longer as I would have to sit there with a kick, a snare, a hi hat and if I do not like it I would have to repeat that process. As opposed to being able to play to it, until something feels good.
When I watched you ‘jam with yourself’ I saw the Ableton Session had three minutes worth of MIDI from you playing drums. From there is it a matter of going through what you played and taking the best four to eight bars?
Yeah exactly that. I will find a section that fits. Sometimes it will not be exact but it will be close. Then it will a matter of me replaying it or physically drawing or shifting things around until it feels the way I want it to feel. Technology.
I read in a past interview that you know how to play piano, guitar, trumpet & drums. Is that true?
The first instrument I was actually taught to play was the trumpet. Which was in middle school. This was because it was less noisy than drums for my parents. However my parents probably regretted that as trumpet is not very quiet either. I played it for 4-5 years. My father being in the military meant we moved to Germany for a while. Due to moving around a lot I did not have all my papers at the school. So they had no record of the instruments I played previously. So when the teacher asked me what I played I said ‘drums’. I figured this would be my chance to finally play the drums. By the time he figured out that I played trumpet he gave me the choice between drums or trumpet. At first I chose trumpet but eventually went back to drumming after more of the other students left. After this my mother bought me a keyboard when I was 16. I was self taught with that instrument. I learned primarily through first learning a few chords and then learning by ear. I liked Jazz Fusion stuff and early soul, from their I would analyse the songs I liked and pick apart the chords that I wanted to play. The guitar I was given by Granddad at around the same time. I spent a summer with him in the Midwest and found his guitar in the basement, he never used it but said it was a gift from a friend. I kept picking away at it, but it only had three strings. So to this day, what I know on Guitar is very basic. But I feel like I can thumb around on the guitar enough to get the idea out if needed. As a kid that was what I was into, I just wanted to get my hands on anything that made noise. Anything music related.
What influenced your passion for music at a young age? Was it a certain moment or person?
There was just something about music. I come from a family that is not musical. No one in my family played anything or sang. There are members of my family who are tone deaf, and can’t dance. So I was definitely the odd ball that came out of nowhere. However my parents knew I liked music and continued to play music as I grew up. But it was probably not until I was much older that they realised how serious I was about it. I’ve always felt like, without getting too deep that there must be a God because there is no reason for me to have this strong a desire to make music without anyone in my family playing music. I’ve always found this interesting as most of the musicians I’ve met come from pretty musical backgrounds, either their parents played or had a group friends they came up with that played.
So you have a big interest in music, you are learning a lot of different instruments. What happens next?
Because I was such an introvert as a kid, my parents and family did not recognise my passion for music until a lot later. I didn’t share it with anyone. They knew I liked it and would ask them for instruments, however they didn’t initially realise it was something that I would want to turn into a career. It was not until high school that I got active about it and found other people to play with and started doing things in talent shows. Those opportunities came from people I met at school or summer jobs. We would get together and jam, which kind of set a trend for me to find people that were artistic or created music and try to create a vibe from that standpoint.
So how long was it until you went from playing music at high school to touring with The Procussions?
It did take a minute. It was about three years until I met the initial members of Procussions. We had met before that but it was more of a hobby. They knew I messed around but it was not something we started to take serious until about 98/99. We came up with the name and started doing shows together and that has snowballed into a career.
And you have been on that trajectory since?
Absolutely that has been my whole life every since. I have never really had a Plan B for myself. Much to the worry of my mother. She is very happy and proud of what I am doing now but there was a period where her and my father did worry. No one wants to have the Bohemian kid that bounces from couch to couch and any doesn’t have any sure income and that whole scenario. But I think for myself knowing that I had no Plan B, forced me to find a way to make it work. This was the reason why I connected so much with another member of the group (The Procussions) Mr Jay, who is doing the same thing now and has many different outlets. I think we were the two people in the group that did not plan for anything else. This made me take things more serious and be grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.
Did you ever doubt?
Yeah. There was a time I had really huge hair, soul patch hanging from my chin. After the group disbanded initially I was down and out. I cut my hair and got a real 9 to 5 for a minute. I worked for GUESS Jeans in Los Angeles. It was more or less a customer service type role, I answered phones and helped people with their orders. However the odd thing was I got fired during my training. I was like “who gets fired during their training. I’m learning to do the job and how could you get fired for learning”. But afterwards I had a very interesting conversation with my brother, I remember ranting and raving “I can’t believe they fired me. Here I am trying to do the right thing, trying to get my life together, getting a legitimate job, cut my hair and this happens”. Interestingly my brother was actually really mad at me he said “I don’t feel like that is what you are put here for, this is not was your calling. Everyone else can get 9 to 5’s but you are made for something more than that. So whether that means you got to work harder on the music thing or create a different circle of people around you. There needs to be something more you can do.” It turns out he was right.
Did you switch up your approach after this?
I did. It happened slowly. But the way I did it was treat my passion for music as a 9-5 job if you will. Making sure there was a certain level of productivity everyday, whether it turned into something or not. I went through the motions of making music and hitting certain targets. In relation to finding the right people, that happened more organically. I decided to go out in LA more, meeting more musicians and participating in different circles. The Procussions would eventually start working again and put out another album, but even in with that happening I would continue to be a working musician and connect with other like minded people as much as possible. They say a lot of the time in the industry that ‘who you know’ is more valuable than how talented you are, and I would say that has served me well. I’ve got a lot of opportunities based on my relationships with people and that is something I continue to do. I feel like I continue to create these opportunities to meet people who are influential but also just good people. So we can hang out outside of music as well.
What would you say to someone who has been inspired by your videos, bought a controller and are just starting?
I would be honest and tell him that the biggest thing in music for me was being a really big listener. I was nerdy in the essence I would read every line and note, I would watch people. Now days that is a lot easier than it was back in the day. There are a lot more resources with Youtube at people’s disposal to do this. So I would probably start there. Watch the people who are doing what it is that inspires you. But it is important to start from the standpoint of listening. Because as much as I would be honoured that someone would like to make music like me, it is also much more important that people develop their own style and sound. Just as I was influenced by someone and took it to a different place, I would hope this person starting out would do the same.
Today you made your first Melodics lesson. I was privileged enough to watch you make it from scratch. Can you tell us about the lesson and give some pointers on how to play the lesson?
Well it was good that I was given guidance on the tempo. Because I often feel I would struggle to be a teacher. I tend to start at Level 5 without releasing I need to teach Level 1-4 first. Initially I was like I would make something in odd meter time and just go nuts. But being given the number of 100 BPM was helpful as it gave me a vibe to start. While working through it chord wise I knew I wanted to make something that was simple to follow, but still felt good and that allowed me to be open with the drums and the way they are played. I knew going into it that if I made something a bit too muddled up, a lot can be lost in translation about what is going on with the drums and the rest of the music. With that said the overall process centered around making something in my own style that was simple but still interesting for people to play.
Could you give a brief description of the way that you layout your drums on the pads?
Well it is interesting in this particular lesson you get to see where I came from and where I am at now. In the live video you will see I have a lot tighter set up, with everything bunched together. Which came from the fact that I used to use the MPD pads from Akai that only had 16 pads. The pads were much bigger so it did not feel as tight. So with the initial part of the video the pads are arranged in this much tighter set. You know you have the kick right next to the snare, hi hat next to the snare, a clap above that and maybe what I call a snare ghost note under the snare. Now what I have found is that I have been able to open up my set up. On my live kit, you will see that I have the hi-hats on the outside of the pads. The kicks and snares are all below that as well as the toms and the cymbals and all the other bells and whistles on top. It kind of mimics the way I play the drum kit, you know having things in a open flow, even though it is me using two limbs instead of four. I like being comfortable and having a flow of feeling like I can go anywhere from the hi hat standpoint. So my set up being hi hats on the outside, kicks and snares below allows me to sort of have a natural flow with my two fingers.
Do your finger drumming skills help with other instruments when you are producing tracks in the studio?
I had an instance about a week ago. Where I was helping a friend of mine by laying down some guitar. I noticed that I did feel a little bit looser, than the previous times I had played on guitar. I remember there were a couple licks, where I was like that’s surprising, I couldn’t do that before. So maybe unconsciously there could be a benefit to me utilising my fingers more through playing with the pads. This could be potentially opening up the way I play keys as well as guitar. So there may be a connection there.
What does the rest of 2017 have install for you?
I hope there’s more music ahead in terms of creating it and playing it live. As of now that seems to be the case. I have always liked travelling and there’s already plans for more shows stateside and potentially overseas, so I am really excited to be doing that. Hopefully I will be releasing a new project by the end of 2017 as well which would be cool.
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