On exercises, practicing, and rehearsing

In my usual “catching up” with all the threads that I missed before I discovered lines, I came across this one and was disappointed that there wasn’t more to read… @jasonw22 how has practicing been for you since this thread?

I love talking about practicing music, because for me at least, that also implies “practicing creativity”. I have always been interested in the classically or theoretically trained musicians who say “I wish I never learned theory” because while it’s a valuable tool and a powerful language, it hinders the creative mind to stumble freely and discover new, more unconventional things.

I personally have an extremely limited formal education on music. Can’t read music, can’t quickly recall all the notes in an Eminor scale, etc… But I feel like over the years I have found my voice as songwriter, and now I feel like I’m finding my voice as a synthesist. So practicing for me has become divided into two (sometimes three) totally different activities. The first kind of practicing is just “noodling”, be it on guitar or at the modular. Songwriting or just finding new weird sounds that I’ve never made before. All of this is practice, even if it feels aimless, because the next time I sit down to make something, I’m that much closer to growth.

The second type of practicing is the more technical and theoretical kind. I’m going to play scales on my guitar for an hour or jam along with a record and try to find the chords; I’m going to patch Cold Mac for 3 hours and then incorporate it into a patch. I find it the most productive not to force this kind of practicing to take priority over the former, especially if you have limited time. For me at least, I know when I start to get that “I don’t know enough about what I’m doing” feeling, I need to do some more traditional practicing. In a perfect world we would spend half the day practicing theory and techniques and the rest of the day making compositions. Or maybe the other way around.

The (third) type of practicing would be more of what jasonw22 was talking about while being on the train. When you don’t really have the tools in front of you, just thinking about the thing you want to be practicing, giving it more brain time, cycling through different ideas in your head about how to do something new, what you want to learn more of, how you can apply what you already know to what you haven’t already done, etc… Mental organization as a form of practice away from the thing your practicing?

Ok long unearthing reply done now… I just had to chime in on this one :slight_smile:


I do think about this stuff, though I have different practical applications of the ideas these days/years.

I grew up as an instrumentalist, putting 10k hours on both piano/guitar, and creeping up to that on drums/percussion. So in a previous (previous (previous)) life, I would spend hours a day working on the specific (generally technical) requirements of a given instruments. So running through scales/arpeggios on piano, then sight reading, repertoire, improv, etc… I would have whole routines worked out, and would just hack away at it, day in day out. At the time, unfortunately, I didn’t build in too much ‘exploratory’ time, though that would find its way in here and there. I do think this is incredibly important, in that vanilla ‘rote’ practice, does very little for you. If you’re not mentally engaged, it’s not as efficient as it would be otherwise. So 1h of more engaged (mentally) practice > 3h rote “doing stuff”.

At some point I made a conscious decision (a more accurate representation would be that an unconscious decision happened to me) that I was no longer a pianist. For a long time I still thought about music through the lens of being an instrumentalist. That was (and is) no longer the case. The music that I make, and want to make, doesn’t jibe well with those 88 buttons, or 24 frets (or 128 values).

So what it is to music these days is very different for me. I still do woodshed work, although not it is typically on practice pad (and drumset before I moved), as I feel(/know) that my hands aren’t where my brain is, with regards to physical technique on drums/percussion. So I do vanilla-ass work there, to improve my “chops”. Besides that, I spend a ton of time on my laptop, programming, and thinking about ideas for videos/things/pieces/instruments/etc… I spend a lot of time talking to @Angela about creative stuff, and planning future instruments (getting excited about finally getting into modular etc…). I view this stuff as practice, but even that sells the term short. I view that stuff AS art, as living through it. It’s not the preparation for it.

On a more improv note, I have spend periods of my life drilling things, like improvising, recording, listening, adjusting, and doing it all again. I did that mainly when coming up with a series of pieces for snare+feedback.

Although this is not something I do, I imagine that just ‘practicing’ modular stuff, or rather, working through conceptual models of exploration and routing, is invaluable, and worth doing, methodically or otherwise.


Much easier lately! I changed teams at work, which reduced my commute from 2 hours to 30 minutes. Turns out there are only so many hours in the day, whodathunkit?

And practicing on the modular is now something I think I have some understanding of.

It’s really just like practicing any musical instrument. It just didn’t seem that way at first due to the chance operations, nonlinear feedback, and complex ergonomics, which all contribute to a feeling of non-repeatability. This makes it seem like you can’t do what you would normally do while practicing a musical instrument, which is to choose a piece of music and go over and over a difficult part until you get it right. How do you do this if it sounds different every time you patch? I think I found my answer. I’m finding that timbre (akin to embouchure on a wind instrument, intonation on a string instrument…) is really pretty repeatable stuff. I don’t really have trouble dialing in sounds the way I want them to sound (just took practice!) And with regard to the chance operations, I was assisted by experience playing In C. I realized I really appreciate the experience of chance at a macro-level in a composition, whereas smaller cells are carefully composed and practiced and performed in a more or less typical manner. The cells are practiced to perfection. I think of them as atoms. The molecules can take advantage of chance to make every performance unique.

When I was getting started with modular, it all seemed so chaotic, I was having difficulty understanding how anything could be practiced in the sense of having goals and achieving them. It was even hard for me to discern goals of any kind at first. That’s all behind me now, and I am finding it possible to do all three types of practicing that @stripes mentions.

I still could use to spend more time on it all, but at least I have a method now, when I do get around to it.


I haven’t read through this whole thread yet, but that’s a really great description of how practicing modular should work, I think. I’m very new to modular, and so far my practicing is mainly, “I’m going to use all of these things,” but there’s a distinct difference between using all of the things and using them well. Practicing the elements and combining them in different ways sounds like a really good way to get a handle on things, such that I won’t feel ‘stuck’ trying to carefully re-arrange a certain element.



Lately I’ve had some different practices on my to do list, and I find it helpful to prioritize and order them accordingly. I have a solo show of playing a set from my songwriting project this evening, a new teletype, a couple of potential future modular performances, and an impending scramble to get everything together for a 5 week tour in september.

My practicing days have been first practicing my acoustic set all the way through once or twice since that has been the most immediate need, then sitting down and doing housekeeping things for the long florist tour, then when I have a bit less anxiety about all that I go to my modular and I start studying which leads (usually) to patching. But I think even if your life isn’t like mine and you don’t have all the other things to practice for, making a list and following it top to bottom seems like a productive way to feel like you’re actively practicing and that feels pretty good!

I’m wondering if anyone could recommend some desk-side theory books that are not too dense but would be a good tool to keep near the music area to read through and reference when wanting a refresh on something. I have the Allen Strange textbook and often read that for pleasure but also if I am unsure of some synthesis thing. I would love to have the same for scales and modes and things.


Beyond Slonimsky is my favorite at the moment. Takes Slonimsky and puts it in a tonal context and focuses on guitar. I find it’s also quite handy for earthsea given the guitar like fourths layout.


Some of the other theory and practice books on my desk (many of which I discovered thanks to this forum!)

A Geometry of Music
The Jazz Piano Book, Levine
Thesaurus of Scales and Patterns, Slonimsky
Repository of Scales and Patterns, Lateef


I’d like to do a bit of ear training while I drive to work. I’m interested in getting better at identifying intervals and chords, so relative rather than perfect pitch.

Anyone have any recommendations for podcasts, recordings, soundcloud links etc. that I could listen to hands-free and train up my ears some?


I use an ipad app that i wrote in PD and that runs on mobmuplat. it gives me visual pitch tracking and I use it for vocal training since years. It helped me go from near tone-deafness to becoming a pretty confident performer.

But since you need your eyes it’s not really ideal for driving. I admit that I have used it while driving but I am not proud of it and I wouldn’t recommend doing it. :slight_smile:

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Any chance you’d be interested to share the patch? This seems like something I’d be keen to try out :slight_smile:

An op-z or op-1 (depending on your interests) would be ideal for your commute. I keep my op-z in my bag for whenever I catch a break (not often) during the day.

Sure, here’s a link:

There’s three files. One is the regular PD desktop patch. The two other that have iOS in the name must both be dropped into the Mobmuplat app over iTunes. One is the PD patch, the other one is the graphical interface for it.
I have to say I haven’t updated my PD in forever and I don’t even know if Mobmuplat is still developed and supported, but it works great on my old iPad.
You can set the range to a degree, but I can’t promise how well it works for female singers with a really big range. It can be edited though.


I decided to take the guitar more seriously a few years ago, I usually practise about three hours a day, five days a week, and have seen a huge improvement. It has been the single biggest positive change in my music making in the last 30 years!


Is noodling practicing? :slight_smile:

I don’t have any targeted practice sessions, instead for my recordings what i do is that when writing the songs/tracks, i jam for hours on end and at the same time rehearse the song that I am writing. This even though not practicing scales or technique in a targeted way still helps to build up my dexterity and skill. I am not really learning anything new, i still work within the musical framework that i am comfortable with, i do take a lot of chances and experiment while “rehearsing”, but this is just purely out of curiosity and the constant wish to break rules rather than follow them.

I do feel that (probably due to the lack of proper training) when a long time passes between sessions these jam parts/rehearsals take a bit longer than usual. Hesitation and playing errors are much higher in frequency… but i enjoy the creative part so much that i never get bored.

For me targeted rehearsals feel boring, eg, there is no real end game to the musical endeavours … so i sort of see the weird shortcuts that i take (what i call technical cheating) sort a way of building my own style and sound.

Also, i have no goals in becoming a session player and/or live musician e.g i am skilled “enough” to be able to realise the ideas that pops into my head. If i am too slow, or not tight enough for a passage, well… then it’s time to have a sequencer handle that.

Key take away i think for me is that I feel a slight improvement during the long jam sessions prepping for recordings and writing the songs. I think this for me, is the most fun and natural way to rehearse.


I have been thinking about this lately and have come to a similar conclusion. The modular is not a discrete instrument so trying to practice in the conventional sense is difficult, but getting familiar with discrete combinations, meaningful gestures with those combinations, and where the “edges” are (i.e. where I stop thinking it sounds “good”). Really practice is developing familiarity, no matter what instrument, and synchronizing muscle memory and sonic perception.

I have committed to the MN Shared System at this point and think abandoning the quest for the “perfect” set-up has been really helpful in thinking of the modular as an instrument. In my first eurorack excursion I would change things on a monthly basis, which always made the system more of a collection of sound makers rather than something I felt like I could play like an instrument.


Pardon me if this has been addressed here, but I had to ask before reading all of the posts in this thread, how do you practice modular synthesis?

Many instruments require technical facility to master or just play. The modular synth doesn’t really require this. Instead you’re working with the manual and making assumptions and calculations to get sounds or cajoling patterns out of of the thing.

Is this really practice? Or is it practice, as in doing the thing rather than training.

Then again can you practice patching things to get sounds? Or patching to create moods?

Is sitting at the modular and patching things just active process, not practice? I mean how often do you run through the standard patching techniques and sound generation patterns?

I find I’m practicing my process and listening for things that are worth keeping. The practice is more applying my knowledge of the modules at hand and trying to apply and break the patterns I use make music with the modular.

It’s not a long thread… And as many of the replies above attest, practicing modular is bound up in practicing music in general, and the nature of playing, composing, recording, and noodling. The folks above have given some great insight into their processes, and are worth reading (and even re-reading, as I just did!)

I think this is really starting off on the wrong foot. If anything, modular requires more technical facility than a traditional instrument. I formally studied modular and can offer some insights into what my training and practice consisted of:

  • Focus on one module. Or just one or two controls & CV inputs to a module. Play it for an hour. Do one a day until you come round… then do them again… and again.
  • Pick a single sound out of a recording - or nature - or the noisy world outside. Now attempt to reproduce just that single sound.
  • Limit yourself to some fixed number of patch cords. Make a patch using just that many - though you can move them over time.
  • Make a patch - then only perform on the knobs. Practice each knobs’ range. Practice how they interact.
  • Take two different modules - make them sound as alike as you can.
  • Build as big a patch as you can that doesn’t resemble a linear “voice”.
  • Build a linear voice that is all in the “wrong” order.

These exercises are things that can be done again and again - like scales. The point is the same: You want the fundamentals of making sound lodged in your fingers and central nervous system so that you can use them to make music. When you practice like this you are explicitly not trying to make finished music. You are focusing on fundamentals. I suggest not recording these.

Alas, Electronic Music by Allen Strange is out of print and very hard to find in any form. It contains many sections focused on small parts of a modular, with lots of information to explore between the electronics and music theory, the physics of sound, and the physiology of hearing. Well worth it if you can lay your hands on a copy. Does anyone know if there is something comparable these days?

These days, I spend a lot of time with percussion step sequencers. I practice for this the same way: I find on line sites with notation (staff or piano roll) of various beats - and I recreate them on my instruments. In this way I get the relationship between various rhythmic feel and steps in the sequencer into my fingers… so live I can just dial in what I’m thinking in my head. (Beat Dissected is one such nice site.)

I made one big change to my practice regime recently: I moved the bulk of my instruments and live performance gear into the detached garage studio. Now I practice for longer sessions without the interruptions of my computer - or the goings on in the house. The focus is sublime. +1 for woodshedding!


Thanks for sharing these exercises! Definitely going to try them out. Did you study with an instructor or was this self-led?

I studied with the composer Ivan Tcherepnin. I also spent some time with his brother, Serge Tcherepnin, of the eponymous synthesizer.


Last January I quit a freelance tech job. I decided to forget about being a tech worker for three months, start practicing piano every day, get my music reading back, build up my ears again for harmony and better understand the FM synth I began for Norns.

Now it’s 5 months later (I cheated and did a 1 month contract job, so really it’s been 4 months, not three) and here’s my processes. For context, I’ve been playing instruments since I was a kid and studied classical piano in college. Then I just stopped for like, 15 years. :woman_shrugging:

  • To get reading skills, I picked a piece from Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, then sight read it with a metronome. This was hard, then got more manageable but never easy. Doing it every day for 20 minutes was enough. The pieces sound nice, which helps.
  • I would practice scales until they got boring. This took only a few days before I lost interest and would just sit there and zone out noodling through major and minor scales. I stopped doing scales every day this way because I wasn’t learning anything after the initial few runs.
  • I picked up some “real music” from the standard piano rep with the intention to lean notes without pretense of playing for an audience. I would read through bars to get the harmony and phrasing, figure out the hand shapes and where I had to move and stop after 2 hours max. Classical harmony helped me get my ears back so I could do stuff like pick out a note on a piano when listening to recorded music. I recorded short sessions (warning, slow and lots of missed notes!) with an overhead camera. This helped me see where my movements were getting jammed up.
  • I started transcribing songs I like into western notation, and doing little arrangements. This was very fun and a good ego boost since it took less time than I expected.
  • To get more comfortable moving around the whole piano keyboard, I would do 7 octave jumps and arpeggios. I found these much more interesting and fun to practice than scales. Then I started doing chromatic runs in different directions. That really opened up the keyboard and the sounds I felt comfortable making.
  • I started thinking of the piano in terms of harmonics rather than chromatics or scales. Playing the harmonic series and circle of fifths across all octaves really opened up my ears to timbre
  • I would always end piano practicing with improv. If it was good enough, I would try to remember the chords and melody (if there was one), walk away and come back the next day to play it again. If I could I would write it down in a little phrase book.

For all of these activities I would set a time limit. When I forgot about my own rules, I would get frustrated, sometime hurting my hands because I kept practicing a phrase because it was “too hard” and I thought if I just did it one more time everything would click. This is never true. In many cases, walking away and going to sleep to pick up where I left off showed more improvements than hacking away for hours.

Transcribing was fun but it was easy to do for too long. One day I spent 5 hours on some bars in the Brahms B minor rhapsody and felt terrible that evening. When I set a time limit I would feel much better and more accomplished.

After all this approaching the FM7 synth was a bit easier. Writing out high level instructions of what I wanted to do before going into the code made a huge difference. I began thinking of the synth design as a harmonic spectrum rather than as parameters and numbers. This also helped guide the UI design. Chipping away at the code day by day (3 hours max, with breaks) and I got better at having a specific idea, going into the code and making that idea real. I also began doing review coding exercises for at most 30 minutes, to keep my mind fresh.


Can grab it here with a free Scribd account:

It’s by far the best book out there on modular synthesis. Nothing else comes close. I did hear someone was trying to get a reprint made.