Emily Dolan Davies, Ways to Learn & Practise Without an Instrument

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

This is for anyone who isn’t able to practice their instrument, whether that be because of budgetary constraints, space constrains, or because your neighbors want to put you in constraints! I am extremely lucky to have somewhere to practice and hone my craft as best I can, but it’s not always been this way. For a period of about 4 years I had nowhere accessible to practice and very little money, but I still managed to progress with my playing and learn songs of artists who asked me to play with them. It was actually during this period I started playing with Bryan Ferry, and Tricky, so it definitely didn’t hold me back, and actually taught me some important lessons.

Here are my tips for learning an instrument without an instrument.

1 . Listen
Just sit and listen to records, listen to your favorite players, listen to world class players and try to pick out what it is about their playing that makes them so fantastic! I’m not talking idle listening whilst you’re checking Facebook or Twitter, I’m talking concentrated intense listening.

Also something I used to, and still do, is take a technically complicated track and slow it down to really hear what’s being played, how, and where it’s being placed.

2 . Chart
Another valuable thing that I do is chart the songs

Don’t get freaked by the term chart, because when I started, my level of writing music was basic at the least, so this is something that can be gradually built upon.

What I mean is just express on a piece of paper what you’re hearing… Ideally it will be musical notes so it’s easier to recall when you look back over it, but it could be shapes, words, colours or even patterns, just something to make you focus in more on whats happening.

When you do start using musical notes then you can repeatedly read over the music and imagine playing it, which brings me to my next tip…

3 . Visualisation
This for me was the act of sitting in my tiny rented room, with my headphones on, listening to a track, and not just visualising myself playing the song, but also on a stage or in a recording studio (sometimes with the original artist if I was in a playful mood) and it all flowing and going brilliantly!

This was a very important part of my non-instrument practicing for a couple of reasons:

Once I’d listened to the songs enough and ‘knew’ the parts, it made me able to see exactly how I needed to play something.  With the mixed stimuli of audio and visuals, I soon came to physically feel it too… Almost like in the Matrix when Neo is in the chair and having his brain programmed to fight… that’s kind of how I felt – mainly because I want to be cool like Neo! The way I see it,  it’s like preparing and programming your muscle memory in advance.

If it was something I was learning for a performance, it gave me a positive feeling towards how I was going to play the tracks, and the overall show or session.

This was the part that was important about visualizing everything surrounding me, playing on a stage, or in a studio, with other musicians, and the artist, or with a bunch of producers, co-producers, managers and A&R dudes watching you from behind some glass like you’re an exhibit at the zoo!  I would imagine them with a big grin, a cheesy thumbs up, or a face so contorted with disgust (the good kind), and joy from what they heard me playing.

These things maybe wouldn’t materialise in reality, but they sure did make me feel energized and ready for the task ahead! Positivity is key!

4 . Find Cheap Alternative Rehearsal Rooms
For me this was finding a rehearsal room that would let me come in during the day during the week for £5/hour (there were rumours that for a stint of time they charged £1/hour for drummers alone practicing… sounds like a pity thing… which is GREAT!) I made sure I knew exactly what I was going to practice and that there was no ‘dead time’ (see next point).   Another way would be to strike up a deal with your local rehearsal room to work for studio time.

If you have a mate with a garage or a space (and the neighbors aren’t that close, or they’re deaf, deaf is always a bonus) then maybe chuck them some cash or a few beers/green smoothies for a bit of time to get loud. Always be respectful and sensitive to this one though. The amount of times I hear people moaning about their friends taking the Mick and just using and abusing whenever they feel like it. Don’t overdo it, and respect that its their space.

5 . Utilise Dead Time
This one’s a great one! Anyone that plays music with other people know that there inevitably is going to be some ‘dead time’:  A rehearsal situation, where everyone takes an hour for lunch – bring your own packed lunch, which if you have no money, is common sense anyway.

A recording studio in between takes – this is something I’ve read Steve Gadd has always done, and is how the groove for ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ came about – how legendary is that?!

As you’re teaching someone else – in between students, not literally as you’re teaching them.  If you’re in school still, and they have musical instruments, do as me and Cherisse did when we were kids: We struck up a deal, where we could come into school to practice an hour before school, an hour at lunch, and an hour after school (or until they threw us out!)!

That was 3 hours a day for 7 years, without any practicing at home and driving our parents crazy! (We still did that too!) There will be plenty of other dead time opportunities, just be on the look out for them.



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