Two Techniques for Regulating Your Practice

More from the Brian O’Neill Interview. This post has the two of us discussing two techniques for controlling the use of practice time to maximize ROI.

The Technique of a Hundred Beans

WS: Here is a very good technique that my teacher showed me for helping to regulate one’s practice: Get two bowls, or cups, and, from the supermarket buy a bag of kidney beans or garbanzo beans or something. Garbanzos are good for this. Count out a hundred of them. Put them in one bowl. Transfer one bean from the source bowl to the target bowl after each repetition of the line.

Later, I introduced a refinement. You see, you take one lick and you repeat it exactly a hundred times. My refinement was that sometimes in those bags of garbanzo beans you get one that’s misshapen or miscolored or something. I put that one in there, and whenever I got that one, I improvised for the same length of time. So at some point, I’d get a little vacation, and it was always a pleasant surprise.

BTO: What’s the unit of time per garbanzo bean?

WS: It was one lick, whatever the lick was — you know, typically not more than a minute. A hundred minutes is a long time!

BTO: Oh, each repetition?

WS: Yeah, each repetition. Finish a repetition, transfer a bean — This is the way to really regulate repetition.

If you don’t repeat it, then you wind up thinking that you know it, but not really having it there when you need it. It’s gotta be like tying your shoes, you know? It has to be completely fixed in muscle memory.

Index Cards

One way of handling the question of “what should I practice today?” is to get some index cards. On each card you jot down the nature of a particular practice, along with a stipulated length of time — however long that particular practice is going to last.

“Expanding & contracting, going up six notes and going down, and then doing that from the tonic, third and fifth of the natural minor scale.” 10 minutes

“Four-note paltas in Raga Kafi, from Mandra Pa to Tar Ma.” 20 minutes.

“Major 7, Dom 7, Minor 7 and Min7 b5 arpeggios in all twelve keys, through the cycle of fifths.” 25 minutes.

“Sightreading from Captain O’Neill’s book of fiddle tunes.”10 minutes.

“This specific piece of complex bol-bant in ‘Piyu pal na laagi mori ankhiyaa’ (Raga Gaud Sarang).”15 minutes.

“Fast scales in 16th note triplets across a two octave range, sung & played on guitar. 20 minutes. Starting at metronome thus-and-such, going up to at least metronome thus-and-such.”

And, so, every time that you invent a new practice, you note down what it is. Then, after a little while, you wind up with a batch of cards; you have, perhaps, 15 or 20 cards.

Then, after you’ve done your basic warm-ups, you shuffle the cards, and whatever comes up, you do that. And then your practice for the day is however many cards you can fit in the unit of time that you have allotted to practice. And then, here’s the nice part: the next day, you don’t just start where you left off — you shuffle the cards again.

Which means that some of the time you wind up doing the same practice three days in a row. But over all, over the space of, say, two weeks, you wind up meeting everything in there, and experiencing it as a sort of total repertoire of stuff to do. Then you may observe, in the course of those practices, “Huh, it really seems like in this part of this thing [= practice, card], I’m really not making it.” Then you design a lick that embodies that particular [problematic] thing, and that’s when you do the technique-building, metronome-incrementing practice (described in “One Lick for Two Hours.” Then you go back to that same practice [on the index card] next week or something, and you’ll ace it!

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