What to Practice (For Musicians, Writers, Audio Engineers, Entrepreneurs)

This month, we’ve looked at the “why” and “how” of deliberate practice. It’s the only kind of activity that’s been shown, over decades of research, to make you dramatically better at the things you care most about doing.

Deliberate practice is different than on-the-job experience, and in many ways, it can be even more effective. It’s also different than the studying and mindless practice that most people are familiar with.

If you need any more convincing, we recommend this week’s lead story, “How to Become the Best at What You Do in Music, Sound, Writing (Or Anything Else).” If you are already convinced that you need more deliberate practice in your life, but are unsure of where to start, here are a few recommendations on What to Practice.

In order to avoid stepping outside of our area of expertise, we’ll stick to a few of the fields in which I’ve had some professional success of my own, and where I’ve seen what has (and hasn’t) worked for others. Namely: Audio, Writing, and Music.

I have no pretense of being the best in the world in any of these fields, but after about a decade of work, I can say with some real confidence where your energies might best be placed. Although the examples will be specific, these principles and kinds of exercises can be adapted to any endeavor.

Once we’ve looked at some of the most powerful tactics in these areas, we’ll investigate some tried and true strategies for gaining expertise in the business-side of any field. First, here’s a look at improving your skills in:

Audio and Sound

In audio, too few engineers spend enough time on deliberate ear training. One of the main problems is that many people don’t know where to start or how to study.

I believe that anyone can learn to differentiate frequencies, attack and release settings, delay and reverb times with an acceptable degree of precision. That’s more than most people ever achieve, and the sooner you start working on these skills, the better.

As with any other skill, what’s likely to hold you back here is a lack of interest or application – not aptitude. There’s a lot you can learn through osmosis and simply “doing.” However, if that was all it took to be great, then everyone with 10 years of experience would be equally adept in the field. That’s rarely the case.

EQ, Compression and Effects

If you want to learn to identify frequencies on an equalizer, start by playing with parametric EQs on a wide variety of material. Look for constant excuses to try one out, even if you don’t need it in the end. Be unafraid to turn the knobs all the way around. Test your sensitivity by seeing how minute of a change in EQ you can hear. Try doing it with visual feedback through a frequency analyzer. After that, try it completely blind.

This kind of freeform practice is essential, but it’s only the start. At a certain point, you’re going to want to start giving yourself concrete challenges and goals in order to improve. That is a concept that lies at the heart of deliberate practice.

If you work at a live venue, show up early and spend entirely too much time ringing out the monitors. Make them feedback under controlled conditions, quickly notching frequencies until you find the right ones to cut. Give yourself goals: How many times can you go from feedback to no feedback in 5 minutes? How high can you get the mic on stage in dB of gain through the monitors? Within days, you’ll have a huge edge. Within months, you will appear clairvoyant to others.

If you work in a studio environment, you could have a friend EQ a track without telling you or showing you what he’s done. Then, try to match his EQ settings without looking. Once you get good at matching your friend’s curve, try doing the same with a different model of equalizer. Then, try to go in the other direction, getting the EQ’d track back to how it originally sounded.

One of the keys of deliberate practice is to make sure you don’t get too far ahead of yourself. You might start with a known amount of boost or cut, and just try to figure out what frequency you have to select – or vice versa. Once you’ve mastered one step, you can start adding more variables and more bands of EQ.

To get extra precise about your results, try a “null test,” to confirm just how close you got. But remember: There’s often several ways to wind up with the same EQ curve in the end. When dealing with complex EQ curves and multiple bands, focus on the sound of your result – not which way the knobs are pointing. When in doubt about your results, null tests and frequency analyzers can lend extra perspective to an exercise like this one.

If there’s no one nearby to try these exercises with, you could find a learning partner anywhere in the world and send each other files remotely. You can also apply this method to to any other type of effect. Have your friend apply a compressor, reverb or delay to a track and then do your best to match it, using that very same tool. Then, try to match the effect using a completely different tool of the same type!

Independent Critical Listening

You can also practice your critical listening skills in private with a variety of tools.

One method is to use an ABX tester to work on how fine of a difference you can hear. Load up two clips into your tester and try to figure out which is flat and which one has a half dB of EQ at 1kHz. Which file is full resolution, and which one is the 128 kbps MP3? Both of these are listening skills you can learn, even if many audio workers are unable to discern these subtle differences.

ABX tests can confirm with certainty that you’re consciously able to hear a difference between two sources. But straight ABing can be a great option for all kinds of solo practice: Which sound clip has a chamber reverb and which one is a plate? Which one has the fast attack and which one is slow?

Although these are things you’re likely to learn through on-the-job osmosis given enough time, a little bit of deliberate practice can put you several steps ahead at the outset. You can also learn to hear things that most people never do: Which clip has even harmonic distortion, and which one is odd?

Again, setting achievable goals is key. If you’re having trouble, start with a bigger differences that you can hear more readily and work your way down. Set a time limit to your practice, because after a certain point, you will start to get diminishing returns.

Recording and Mixing

Just because there’s no client in the studio on any given day, doesn’t mean you can’t practice your mic’ing technique. Experiment with overhead patterns or mic placement on an amp – even if you suck at drums or the guitar. Devour reading materials on techniques, as well as demonstration videos and audio clips. Limit your time on internet forums, and try to spend as much of your practice with materials developed by reputable publishers and engineers whose tastes are relevant to the work that you do.

You can also experiment when a client is in the studio. Do what you would normally do, and throw up an extra pair of overheads or an extra mic on the bottom of a tom, just to compare the outcomes later, on your own time. In addition to your normal approach, see if you can get a great drum sound with just one mic. You might be surprised at how good it sounds in context, or just where you end up placing that mic.

When you’re just learning, why not try putting two mics on every instrument, even if you commit to monitoring and using just one? Later, on your own time, compare how things might have sounded with a different approach.

When it comes to mixing, one of the keys to learning is to commit to your mix and step away from it. You often hear your own choices far more clearly when you’re listening critically away from the desk. Take a walk, a drive, or simply go to another room to listen. Make notes, and bring them back to your mixing room. This is a practice you’d be wise to never outgrow.

Don’t stop there. Try a few alternate versions of the same mix. In each version, make a different instrument take a central role, even if you don’t think it’s the right approach. Discover just how loud you can get away with making a vocal – and just how quiet. Listen to other mixes with the same instrumentation as yours and try to match their proportions. The goal here isn’t necessarily to get the winning mix. It’s to learn to be bold, to take risks, and to hear how many different directions the same song can take.

Critically listening to work you love in your mixing room and taking as many notes as you can is also crucial. Choose to work on a specific aspect of your craft, say making kick and bass sit together, getting a memorable snare or vocal sound. Collect great examples of music you love and listen to them back-to-back in your mix room. What do these examples have in common? How are they different?

Mastering

Similarly, if you want to be great at mastering, you could try matching the sonic profile of several different great-sounding masters before deciding on one (Or taking the track in a completely different direction).

For instance, there’s not a day in the mastering studio where I don’t try as I might to do better than Greg Calbi (one of my favorite M.E.s next to Joe Lambert, Bob Ludwig and Scott Hull.)

Over the course of a big project, I’ll usually AB my work with his at least once or twice. I’ve even had the opportunity to work with some of the same bands Calbi has and have decided there’s no excuse that I couldn’t try to do at least as good of a job. (Of course, whether or not I succeed is up to my clients’ taste as much as it’s up to my own. Fortunately for them, if they ever think I fell 5% or 10% short, I am still less than 50% the price, so at least there’s that.)

Mastering is also one of those fields where people expect you to have a fine-grained sense of hearing, so ABX exercises become especially important. But technical listening is only half the equation. Become ravenously omnivorous for music. Listen to music from across genres (on a great system) every day.

It’s also crucial to know just what the hell you’re talking about, and develop an accurate and precise understanding of how audio really works – more so than in any other discipline within audio. You will want to spend time studying the tools, the formats, and perhaps most importantly, the underlying principles of physics, electricity, digital audio, and human perception. You should be able to talk with as much sense to a programmer or an electrical engineer as a sweaty rock band.

It is part of your job to be an effective translator. A liaison between fields.

Writing And Editing

I am not what I’d consider a masterful writer. If I were, I’d be writing passages more like this:

“After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone or on the lives of other people. This deep desire exists in everyone, from the boy who writes dirty words in a public toilet to the Buddha who etches his image in the race mind. Life is so unreal. I think that we seriously doubt that we exist and go about trying to prove that we do.”

But whatever my failings, I know that today alone, anywhere between 1,000 and 12,000 people are likely to read this article. So as little as I know about writing, I do know a little something about getting better at it than you once were.

Do you want to write well? Read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and then begin deliberately applying those lessons to every email and social media post you write. Then, read it again, and continue doing so about once a year until you die.

Practice more in a private journal or on a blog. (Not only is it a good professional skill, it’s good for your metal health.) Whenever you read someone else’s work, think of the principles laid out in Strunk & White. Apply them critically to the material that’s right in front of your face, even re-writing it in your mind as you go along.

Better yet, if you find an essay or scene you really like, note its key points and try rewriting it “on paper”. This is precisely how Ben Franklin developed the skills to become one of the eminent authors of his day.

With just 10 or 20 hours invested in any of these methods, you will become far better at writing than you already were, and probably better than a lot of other people, too. Even if you don’t become the next David Foster Wallace, those new skills are likely to help your career, no matter what you do for work.

When it comes to writing, the flowers of prose are far less important than the substance of your ideas, and the structure and clarity with which you present them. I don’t say this because my own subject can be somewhat technical. It’s good advice for any kind writing at all. Even the flowery stuff. As Kurt Vonnegut once put it:

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

This is among the most common advice you’ll hear great writers give. When you have a subject you care about, and which you have gotten to know with great intimacy, the words will come. That’s why this advice is second only to the axiom that once those words start flowing, you had better make an effort to “murder your darlings.”

In writing, as in almost any other creative exploit, the real art is in the editing. Stephen King once wrote. “Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft10%.” I’m only tempted to suggest he doesn’t cut enough.

Just how much should you strive to cut? The answer will always be “more than you already are.” When in doubt, I like to take guidance from another of Vonnegut’s quotes on writing:

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

1) Care enough to discover something deeply and spend your time delving even deeper into the subject, 2) Practice the mechanics of writing.

In Music

There might be more written about deliberate practice as it applies to classical music anything else. For musicians in other genres, the same basic premises might apply, but the ultimate goals could be very different.

Performance

One of the weakest links in many rock and pop bands is in the ability to lock into a groove. This is especially sad because it may just be the most essential skill in all of music.

Pulse is at the very foundation of everything that we do. If you happen get everything else wrong, each of your mistakes will still sound like it was made with forceful and deliberate intention, so long as you always manage to stay tethered to the beat.

Unless you’re already a true master, there is no question that your sense of tempo can be better than it is now. Practice to a metronome, often. Get it ingrained in your body and your brain. Lock in with it – not like it’s some obnoxiously square referee – but like it’s the damn heppest and most amazing member of your band.

Honestly, if you completely lack the ability to lock yourself in a room with a metronome and keep yourself genuinely entertained with 15 minutes of increasingly complex clapping exercises, then you have absolutely no business playing live music.

If you’ve never done it, now is not too late to start. And if you have done it, now is the time to get better.

First, try alternating between 1/8 notes and 1/16 notes – two bars of each. Easy. Now, alternate between 1/16 notes and triplets. Good. Now, leave out the middle triplet and the two middle 1/16 notes. Trickier? Now leave out every other triplet. Now switch between a quintuplet, a triplet, and a sixteenth feel.

If any of this is tricky, good. It means you can get better. If you’ve done some of these exercises before, and you tackle them with some ease, work on the resolution of your timing. Try it with single notes or simple melodic lines. Chances are that you can improve your resolution at a variety of tempos.

Once you get really good, you can start setting the metronome slower and slower until it only falls as a half note, on a downbeat, or at the start of every other bar. Once you’re really advanced, switch to a “mute” metronome that simply flashes a small light instead of making a sound at all.

This kind of exercise isn’t only good for individual musicians. It can apply to whole ensembles. Try these kinds of “switch the feel” exercises with your band. You might even write practice tunes that are geared specifically toward making you lock in together. A little discipline will be far better for you than aimless noodling. And when you do decide to aimlessly noodle, it’ll sound a helluva lot better.

A person could write a book on improving improv skills, ear training, sight reading or precision. In fact, many have. Get some. Try more exercises.

Songwriting, Composition and Arranging

If you’re more interested in composition and arrangement than performance, there are still some great bits of deliberate practice you could do.

One of the best exercises is to re-arrange simple melodies that you already know. This is the kind of thing that many people “know they should be doing”, but don’t for some reason. If you haven’t done it, now is the time to start. If you have, it’s time to pick it back up again.

Take any melody you like and try to write a new arrangement of it in four part harmony. Then, try it in three voices, or in just two. Try it with counter-rhythms in each of the parts and see what changes.

When you start doing this, I’d recommend observing the best practices of traditional voice leading until you feel you have them pretty well mastered, and they all start to sound pretty boring to you. (And that day may never come.) Then you can do whatever the hell you want. Rules are much more fun to break when they are begging for it. Breaking the “rules” just because you’re too lazy to learn them is endlessly lame. They’re really just helpful guidelines, anyway.

From here, there are other great composition and arrangement exercises. Write out chord changes to a melody you’ve never heard before. Take a melody you do know and make a new one out of it, using all of the same notes and durations, but in a completely different order. Study the form of your favorite songs.

All of this counts. Make small, achievable goals, and smash through them. After the end of many weeks, you’ll be amazed at what you’ve accomplished.

You also never know when a new song idea can spring out of an exercise. When you know you should be writing, but you’re just not “inspired,” get the hell to work and try an exercise. The muse springs from music much more readily than it does from silence.

Business

When it comes to running a business, there is no better tool for learning fast than the “case study” – An in-depth look at the challenges and decisions faced by other businesses similar to your own.

This kind of study lies at the core of any good MBA program. But instead of taking out $100,000 in student loans to learn from others’ success and failures you can take out books from the library.

(You could also read more of my articles here and on SonicScoop, including countless brief or in-depth case studies of successful independent artists and labels.)

For this kind of exercise to be of any value at all, you’ll want to make sure you have the fundamentals well within your grasp. I recommend developing a keen understanding of microeconomics.

If you never took college level micro-econ (or if you did and got anything less than an A+) it’s time to brush up. It will make the answers to your business-side quandaries so much more obvious and graspable, and you will begin to see the world through a truly different lens. If you’re self-motivated, you can take courses in microeconomics from prestige universities for free through websites like Coursera.

One of the other big ways to apply deliberate practice to your business is by testing different versions of a product launch on small groups or by ironing out the product you have to sell through beta offers. Whether you’re trying to sell any kind of physical product like CDs, Vinyl or T-shirts, the key is to set small sales goals that you can easily reach, and keep ramping up supply to meet increasing demand.

If you have no idea how many people might buy what you have to sell, either A) Find out (this is surprisingly possible, but well beyond the scope of this article) or B) Start very small and ramp up from there. In all but a small handful of cases, selling out is far better than having excess inventory.

Goals and Deadlines

The good thing about practice is that on a larger scale, it’s cumulative. The bad thing is that if you stop practicing, you will lose some of your ability, and you will have to waste time getting back to where you were. So to make practice ongoing, set goals and set deadlines.

One of the best ways to do this is to land some paying gigs that keep you working and inspire you to continuously improve.

If you’re having trouble with that, invent your own goals and deadlines. If it helps you to be accountable, make those deadlines public. You might commit to writing and recording one song each month. You might commit to writing one or two blog posts a week, always on the same day.These are easily achievable goals. If there’s a public audience – even a small one — waiting and rooting for each new update, you might feel more inclined not to let them down.

If you can show a real level of disciplined commitment to your own invented projects, you’ll be amazed at how soon others will begin to clamor to get you involved in theirs.

At the end of the day, isn’t that point of all this practice? To become so great, that others just can’t ignore you? Until you find yourself doing amazing things with some of the most amazing people you’ve ever met?

It is never too late for you to start working toward meeting, or even exceeding, the highest expectations you ever had for yourself. That journey begins with small, achievable steps, one after the other. And it stays that way until you reach your destination.

So get out there, practice hard, and even more importantly, practice smart.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Rants and Raves, September 2013, Techniques. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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