All posts by Justin Schroder

The Practice Routine: A ReBoot

One of my students on TrueFire asked about how to improve his Practice Routine. There are many things we do wrong with our practice time, so I thought my answer to him would be fitting here for other musicians as well.

Here is a portion of his note to me:

“Now that the semester has started, I am thinking I need to get focused on my playing in a more serious way. I would like to keep working on the tunes and improv. I also think that it would be cool to develop an effective practice routine. I do a lot of sub (Substitute Guitarist.) gigs where I have to play some fairly technical stuff, so I have to keep my chops together. My technique practice ends up taking up several hours and puts me in a rush to get my musical work in. I try to cover bending, picking, legato, and hybrid picking every day to maintain my chops. My practice tends to be a ton of exercises for each topic, which may be wasting a bunch of time. I think it would be cool for us to start from scratch and come up with a more effective and time conscious routine, where we cover the topics we need to, but more quickly and focused. As we work on new stuff, we can add it to the routine. Does any of this make sense? ”

Here is my response:

I pulled some phrases from your last communication which I think are most relevant to the subject of your Practice Routine.

They are:

“…Focused on my playing…”
“…More serious way…”
“…Working on tunes and improv…”
“…Effective Practice Routine…”
“…Sub gigs…”
“…Fairly technical stuff…”
“…Keep my chops together…”
“…Technique practice takes several hours…”
“…In a rush to get my musical work in…”
“…Every day to maintain my chops…”
“…Ton of exercises for each topic…”
“…Wasting a bunch of time…”

All of these are the right words, but we need to adopt a different order and priority for them.

Let’s try:
“I need to get my musical work in while being focused on my playing by working on tunes and improv, doing the fairly technical stuff that I need for sub gigs first, every day, by which I will maintain my chops without wasting a bunch of time as my Effective Practice Routine.”

Feel free to print that in a huge font and place it in an easily seen location.

Notice I tossed ‘Serious’ and ‘Several Hours’ and ‘Ton of Exercises’ and ‘Technique Practice’. These are currently useless to you.

Music is fun and we can have ‘Serious’ fun, but do children buckle down and have ‘Serious Play’? No. They just play and learn and develop. We need to do the same.

Why did you want to play guitar? Music. “Technique Practice’ develops skills, but you already have the skill of playing guitar. You only need to practice music, or a specific technique you don’t have for a specific piece of music. The ‘Ton of Exercises’ are now in the music for you.

Nobody learns or develops ‘Several Hours per Day’; we just don’t. It’s too much for our bodies and minds to process. Feel free to spend several hours per day with the guitar, but be aware of what you are doing: Learning Music, Playing Music, or ‘Exercising Guitar’.

In my opinion, if you are exercizing without the concrete goal of developing a specific technique for a specific song, you are wasting time. Sometimes I play through exercise types of books, currently ‘Jazz Guitar School’ by Ike Isaacs, but I just treat it as a musical ‘Snack Time’. Just something light and fun to do while not engaging in the ‘Serious Work’ of learning music.

I hope this helps you and I want you to know that I have struggled with the same issues. It’s too easy for us to ‘Exercise Guitar’ because learning music is actually harder.

Let me know your thoughts.



Communication Breakdown Solo

This is an excerpt from one of my lessons. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made a video of this solo earlier. I figure since I had to reacquaint myself with it for the lesson, I may as well get some mileage out of the effort and share it here and elsewhere.

My fingers are plenty pissed off already since I haven’t:

A. Played this in a while and just played it 10 times in a row,

B. Done any bending recently and I use 11s on my guitars.
(The tone, maaan…)

Anyway, crank it up!


Mardi Gras Gig at Westminster Canterbury

0209161852I have played Westminster Canterbury many times, but this is just the second time for Mardi Gras. Many of my gigs here have been guitar and bass, some guitar and voice, but this one was guitar and trumpet.

The trumpeter was Ernest Deane. I have known Ernest for a number of years and he is a fantastic player. As a matter of disclosure, he is one of the musicians I met early in my career who intimidated me. Not from his personality, because he is a great guy, but from his playing. He, like a couple other folks, is one with whom I finally feel adequate enough to play.

Tonight’s gig was really fun. We were familiar with the tunes, but haven’t rehearsed them much. We didn’t have any issues, but not knowing what to expect tonight was a lot more fun with Ernest than almost anyone else with whom I’ve played. I don’t think it’s a matter of skill or professionalism, but rather a matter of comfort with the unexpected: that little something we should be able to expect from a great player. I think most of us, especially me, are too afraid to make a mistake and just do not trust ourselves to sound great.

The residents of Westminster Canterbury were very receptive. We usually have a good response there with any musical arrangement, but tonight was especially responsive. I think this is really saying something since it’s the middle of winter, these are elderly folks, and we played from 7-8pm.

Ernest will be playing in The GoodFoot too, and that will make a great difference because I will have time in the rhythm section making a groove. That is something I think has been missing in just a trio format.

Our setlist was:

Basin Street Blues Bb
Mardi Gras Mambo Bb
Joe Avery’s Blues Bb
Iko Iko D (C7 Bridge)
House of the Rising Sun Am
Just a Closer Walk with Thee Bb
Mardi Gras in New Orleans Bb
Mess Around Eb
Jambalaya G
When the Saints Go Marching In G

You can find these on YouTube and can purchase them from plenty of places online. There’s no reason not to start building your Mardi Gras music collection for next year. Maybe you will discover some great music that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Happy Listening!


Ragtime: The Last Musical at Heritage High School’s ‘Old’ Building

Tonight was the closing of Ragtime at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, VA. What a great production from all involved. It’s great to witness such talented young people, both musically and theatrically.

It was kinda weird being in a production without my daughter, Celeste. She commented (Tweeted) regarding the strange feeling of being in the audience for a show at her alma mater. She was great in all her roles, of course.

From the ‘Guitary’ side of things, the music wasn’t terribly difficult. Now, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was tough; especially the parts adapted from piano to guitar. Well, adapted is being used very loosely here: copied directly would be more accurate. There were many arpeggiations in seconds in the piano, and subsequently guitar, part.

Anyway, the book was 141 pages and, while we cut some tunes and there were sections for alternate keyed songs, the show was still 2 1/2 hours long.

It seems the toughest part of this show for everyone from the soundman (He was there since the first show in 1976.), to the students in the cast and orchestra pit, was the fact that this is the last musical in this auditorium. The new building will be ready for use in the 2016-2017 school year.

Natually, the current building will be demolished. I plan to watch this process if possible. I’m sure it will be emotionally touching as well. I went there, my wife, Angela, went there, and Celeste graduated from there in 2015.

I took some fuzzy pictures of this run with my ‘Flippy/Floppy’ phone.

They are:
Tech Week,
Last Pep Talk,
Last Pit Performance,
Last Show,
and Last Show.0128161900 0204161855 0205161907 0206161854 0206161908 0206161908a 0206161908b

Certainly, it will be exciting to be in a new building, but it’s always a little sad when major components of our life become history.


January 26, 2016 Gig

I am playing a Parents’ Night at Heritage Elementary School in Lynchburg, VA. on this date. It is a solo gig with the Digitech JamMan.

The plan is to play Set 1 or Set 2 from The GoodFoot. It will be the first test of our new Setlist Creation Procedure, which I stole from here:

I’ll let you know how it goes. Oh, and it’s the first solo gig with the HotRodPlexi/JamMan/FenderBluesJr setup. I’ve been really diggin’ it in my personal rehearsals.

Your New Guitar Teacher and How to Choose Them

Hey, Y’all, (Hey All?)
With next week being my last week teaching music regularly, I have been considering posting something, but really couldn’t think of anything fitting or comprehensive.
A friend asked me today if I would recommend someone to teach their friend’s child, but instead of recommending someone by name, I wrote the following which I think is important to share.
The importance is that there are many ‘reasons’ we choose music teachers, phone companies, insurance companies, etcetera, but not all of these reasons are thoroughly considered. Sometimes, I have chosen to use a company simply because they were not Company Y; I hated my experience with Company Y.

See what I mean?

However, the following are, in my opinion, a good way to learn which person will truly help you become a real student of music.

My suggestion would be to meet as many teachers as possible and keep a few things in mind:
1. Great players do not always (usually?) equal great teachers. Don’t choose a teacher based on the public opinion that this person is a great player. They may very well be a great player, but can they help YOU become a great player?
2. Most of the lesson time should be spent with the STUDENT playing. Teachers must be able to demonstrate, but we have already practiced and your lesson time is NOT our showoff time.
3. Price is only relevant to the student’s budget. As much as it drives me crazy, there are still Dr.’s of Music charging College Freshman rates.
4. Progress is ONLY measured by the increase in the student’s ability to play music, not the number of pages of ‘stuff’ the student is unable to play. If a student takes three weeks to learn how to play the chords of a tune in time, then it takes three weeks…this isn’t a race and musical ability is a lifetime journey.
I hope these points make sense and don’t sound cynical. These are just the most common problems I have seen in 19 years of teaching. I’ve even made them myself early in my teaching.
Oh, and thanks for the best 19 years of my professional life.

The Depths of the Unknown, a Post for Teachers

Well, that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

The Depths of the Unknown is a tenet of my teaching philosophy.  It means that we teachers need to reach the understanding of what, exactly, is not known by the student; that which is preventing futher progress as a player.

I have discovered that most young students practice exactly what they are told and little more. Perhaps young students, (below age 20), are afraid to explore. This would cause them to need ‘Permission’ from teachers and themselves to experiment and explore the instrument and its possibilities. Be sure to give all your students permission to explore their instrument as well as the assigned development work.

Older students, especially those old enough to be parents of the younger students have a strong tendency to have no idea how to learn a new skill; especially a new physical skill. The primary issue of this group is that most of their ‘learning’ is simply a different application of the hard skills already possessed.

For example, if an adult decides to learn the Microsoft Office Suite of applications, they are really just applying skills already posessed in a different format. Adults usually have some writing, math, formulaic, and design skill just from having to function in everyday life. So, in this case, there is no ‘new’ skill being learned, just a new use of current skills.

Learning to play an instrument requires physical repetition and mental development that usually hasn’t happened in a couple decades or more for most adult students. We often need to encourage adult students to be patient with themselves and to understand that learning a musical instrument is often completely different than most of their daily ‘learning’.

I often realize, (When will I get it through MY thick head?), that a student is not progressing because I have not discovered their Depth of the Unknown after weeks, sometimes months of working with them. The problem almost always rests in the time spent with the instrument at the student’s home. I can forgive myself for missing these issues because I am not able see students practice at home each week. The only clue I have to go on is that the student is obviously not progressing and I am half of the equation. It is important to frequently ask questions about a student’s thoughts, feelings, practice habits, etcetera at each session. This is how we (eventually) discover the Depth of the Unknown for each student.

This process often takes a while because most people don’t know what I need to know about these aspects of themselves and I just haven’t come upon the right question to receive the needed answer.

However, once the problem is discovered, the solution usually just a few steps away. There is a very simple formula to playing music, and that is: Play the right notes in the right order at the right time.

Funny enough, most people are very sensitive to timing and tempo, especially tempo. What I hear from nearly every student when I ask them how their playing of a section of a tune compares to mine is: “I’m not playing fast enough.” Rarely am I told: “Well, I played the first note three times because it didn’t sound like I wanted it to sound. I skipped the fifth and seventh notes. I played everything with only a downstroke. I cut off every note the moment I played it in my rush to the next, not realizing that unless there is a rest, each note I play should BECOME the next without a gap of silence.”, etcetera.

In the reading of language, we use a technique called ‘Clumping’. When clumping, we are accepting the visual of three or four words at a time, then grasping the next three or four words while processing the first ‘clump’. When we learn to read, and subsequently when we learn to play specific music, clumping is not possible to do accurately. If you have heard a child learning to read, you probably noticed that they work through it one word at a time.

Most beginning students of an instrument have already been reading for years. This will cause them to attempt to use their clumping skill when learning an instrument, but they do not have the technical facility nor experience as a music reader or player to do this effectively, and as such, will play phrases full of mistakes. For this reason, as does a child learning to read, the beginning student of a musical instrument must work through a piece one note at a time.

I encourage students to break songs into many phrases which can then be repeated to a certain level of proficiency before moving to the next. It is easier to be patient enough to work through a short phrase one note at a time rather than an entire tune or A, B, or C section of a song. This technique seems to give a frequent sense of accomplishment quickly followed by another opportunity to repeat the process.

Simply put, the student must look at the note, play the note, and then be cognizant that what was seen and then played match each other before moving to the next note. While slow, plodding, meticulous, tedious, mind-numbing, or whichever adjective you prefer, it is a guaranteed, fast-track way to develop a clear understanding of the music at hand.

If hours are spent allowing mistakes to occur, there will be subsequent hours spent untying the mind and fingers to produce the right notes, in the right order, at the right time. This time can be saved and put to better use if we adopt the attitude of: “Let’s aim to be right the first time.”.

Believe me, this will transform your students’ progress; possibly your own as well.