"Play Feel" when playing music vs. thoughtful composition (even if it doesn't feel so great)

Over the past year and a bit of working from home, I’ve been running to the piano at least twice a day for some “coffee break practice”. I don’t know that what I’m doing is hard, just short bursts of focus on new (and thus uncomfortable) things that maybe aren’t very compelling to play around with when I’m sitting down to try and make some music.

It’s been extremely helpful for me in terms of re-writing the automatic responses. I hadn’t really thought about it that way until @nonverbalpoetry mentioned it.

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I keep rereading this section of your post and I both agree and disagree. Practice of a new technique, song, etc is hard but I think “easy practice” can be just as valuable. Playing something slow is the first step to playing it fast. Playing a simpler version of something can move you towards adding more notes or complex rhythms. I guess what I’m trying to say is that yes it is helpful to work on things that feel hard, but part of getting past your comfort zone is figuring out how to fit it into your comfort zone first. Not saying you don’t know this. Your statement just prompted some contemplation. When I’m straining with something hard that usually means I should shift down a gear until I’m comfortable to ratchet it up a notch again.


I’m not sure how helpful it is to take a leaf out of Tim Leary’s book, but the idea of the set and setting can be a useful tool applied creatively as well. A guitar grabbed off the stand will probably invoke a guitar grabbed off the stand type experience. Likewise, perhaps a fresh daw template will have you double clicking on the candy rather than digging into vegetables, as it were. Setting your intentions, and then creating the creative space for that state of mind is probably a necessary step to overcome more novel sessions.

The guys from Son Kite / Minilogue also had a nice Ableton promo video once, explaining their process in two sessions. One, set the placements and the conditions for everything you want to do, and two, play or perform within that space. Perhaps what you need to do is define that play space so it enables unconventional or exploratory modes of practice, and steers you away from the standard ones by the very framework of them simply not being available.


On this and @G4B3’s point, I totally agree! I think I was using hard as a catch all for needing to focus on an unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable thing (and tbh, I have ADHD, so that shit is real hard!).
I vary much have this habit of either only being able to do the same generic familiar things on my instruments, or focus really really hard for short bursts on new things. But actually I think the end goal of getting used to a little discomfort while playing music is that you can slowly get to a place where every time you pick up an instrument you end up doing a little of that intentional and slightly uncomfortable practice, instead of familiar noodling, without even realising :slight_smile:


Just want to comment on (paraphrasing), “you have to fight the things that are in your hands”.

At slow speeds the brain can play each note, at higher speeds the brain starts to work in gestures and depends on “the hand” to execute larger chunks of notes.

So if you want to improvise at fast tempis, what you want is some kind of automatism. The key is you want open (as opposed to closed) automatisms. Closed automatism is what happens when you’re able to play say a bach piece at high speed. If you change a single note or a fingering, chances are the whole thing falls apart. Open automatisms is what you use when driving a car, you don’t have to think about changing gear, it’s automatic, but it only happens when you want it.

The way to achieve open automatisms is to practice as many variations of ‘something’ as you can possibly think of, shift it around, start on all beats, remove first note, remove first two notes, vary the ending, practice if coming from another idea, all 12 keys.

So in my opinion you shouldn’t fight what’s in your hands, but rather take control over what gets to be in your hands, and make sure it’s super flexible.


In improvised music, fingers and ear need to be balanced. Sometimes you let the fingers take the lead; sometimes the ear takes the lead. If the fingers dominate then the humanity is diminished. If ear dominates then spontaneity is diminished. They must be balanced to give full satisfaction.

I’m pretty sure the problem does not lie with the pentatonic scale itself. There is still more original music left to be wrung out of it. This mind-blowing performance from 1976 is nothing but an hour-long rendition of pentatonic recorded in Lamonte Young’s space in NYC, and 45 years later it’s still one of the best improvisations ever recorded. Pran Nath takes us on a journey around the cosmos using just five notes and four words (the name of god):


I agree with many of the sentiments posted regarding practice, and the idea that the stuff that makes you uncomfortable is exactly what you should be working on.

I also think the alternate tunings suggestion is a great one, and that there are a number of other cheat codes for not sounding like yourself. This is why I was drawn to sampling early on in my electronic music practice, as well as elements of chance and randomness. There are so many processes you can incorporate to add a little more self-surprise to the equation.

Finally, I think context and arrangement can make a huge difference between something sounding cheesy and something sounding cool. Change the guitar tone. Add some fuzz and reverse delay to those blues riffs and now you’re playing psychedelic rock. Play it at half speed over a bed of droning feedback and we’re in doom metal territory. Loop a small section, add some wobbly pitch effects and dirty drums and you have a lofi hip hop thing. There’s obviously so much more to music than just the notes.

Being self critical is good, and it’s part of how we make the choices that define us as artists, but sometimes all it takes is a shift in perspective from “this is bad, and I am bad” to “this is bad, how can I make it good.”


I love this topic. I think quite a bit about these two things. I find the opposite is true for me. Where when I’m super analytical and try to write from a theory standpoint, I normally write something that lacks personality and relatability. Where as when I just write on instinct it sounds like me but sends to be very simple theory wise. I think I’ve settled on vacillating between these two approaches where they are appropriate.


Great post, @a773.

Innocence comes with an openness to exploration. And we can explore only if we are nimble enough to do it and enjoy it. No skill means being lost most of the time. Being lost, we keep to the same trees that we know.

Innocence spoken of can only be regained, imo, by discovering new layers where one knows little but trudges through in his desire to explore it. The more you know, the more you don’t know. The less you know, the more you don’t know you don’t know.

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“The more you know
The more you know you
Don’t know what you know
Stone’s throw left to go
Bad weather hell for leather
Now and zen you goof again
You never blow your trip forever”

Edit to add: Self-confidence and competence – an inverse correlation?

“Highly confident leaders and employees are potentially the least competent in their respective fields.”

This made so much sense when I heard a radio report (several years ago) on the psychologists who had done the study…

Humility is, to my thinking, a necessary precondition to being able to learn anything…


A few thoughts, some of which certainly will echo the previous.

I like the idea that practise should be difficult, outside your comfort zone. The satisfaction when you finally nail the piece/lick you’ve been struggling with is great.

Blues is like a language, there will always be writers you don’t like. I’m not that interested in SRV either, but the Memphis soul guitar players that I love probably play pretty much the same licks.

I think it makes sense to practise/imitate/study what you love – preferably in many different genres. Over time it grows into your own collection of tricks.

Letting myself get lost on the neck in an unfamiliar tuning always results in a new song.

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I disagree with this, and my rationale would be the same as described by previous posters above. Kenny Werner’s book explains effective practicing in more detail (note the word “effortless” in his title):

The book is largely New Age woo woo, but the fraction that is practical is essential knowledge for improvising musicians.

The gist is that you never practice anything you cannot play perfectly. At the beginner level this might mean starting with just one or two notes, and not adding a third note to the phrase until the first two are perfect in every way. Even more advanced players will usually start working on something new with small chunks played very slowly. Everything has to be perfect: attack, tone, intonation, timing–everything.

It’s pretty obvious that SRV learned to play this way by copying Albert King licks. You can tell from listening to him. When he does his Albert thing he has every nuance down to the tiniest aspect.

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Bottom line: Record
Method: Howsoever

If you find yourself ‘thinking’ about how to make music, you’re sidetracking.
Just bloody do it. Thinking or not.


If I said I’d lost my way
Would you sympathize?
Could you sympathize?

I’m jumbled up
Maybe I’m losing my touch
I’m jumbled up
Maybe I’m losing my touch
But you know I didn’t have it anyway

Won’t you come on down to my?
Won’t you come on down to my rescue?

Things are wrong
Things are going wrong
Can you tell that in a song?

I don’t know what I want anymore
First I want a kiss and then I want it all

Won’t you come on down to my?
Won’t you come on down to my rescue
Rescue, rescue
C’omon and rescue me

Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?
Is this the blues I’m singing?

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They should put this quote on the book. I’m only half kidding. This made me want to read it.

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It was probably unfair of me to describe it that way; I only read it once when it first came out and haven’t opened it since. I’ve developed more appreciation for Zen and meditation in the subsequent decade. I’ll stick with my general point though: the purely practical advice in the book could have been a classic magazine article; the rest of the book read like religious/mystical filler to the me of ten years ago. But it’s from a jazz master, and the advice converges with what the great classical teachers also preach.


I haven’t read it, but I did do a session with him at Berklee probably about 5 years ago, when he came to talk with my class of first year entering students.

It was quite cool, and while I can’t recall any details, it left me with the impression that the method would be useful for artists in disciplines beyond just music.

Of course, being a a bit of a curmudgeon on occasion, I didn’t adopt the method for myself.

At any rate, my understanding of the woo-woo ideasphere is that a great deal of the “inner game” really boils down to finding ways to get the judgemental inner critic to shut the f**k up long enough to get something interesting happening, and then stay shut up so that the interesting thing doesn’t get stomped on when the conscious mind recognizes that “hey, I’m doing something cool”…

That’s all there is to it…. The rest of the book (any book) is filler…


Step 1. Learn how to play an instrument well enough

Step 2. Play something cool on accident while trying to play something else

Step 3. Remember what you did

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In an alternate reality, you are still trying to figure out how to do it. Or is that this one?

Just trying to help.

I suppose you can put different perspectives on this. When I come to a new difficult piece, what I do is to practise it slowly (with a minimum of effort) and gradually increase the speed as I improve. I’m not after splitting hairs on this, but a new “colourful” chord can often be an uncomfortable stretch for my left hand. I will practise switching it back and forth til I can do it without effort.


I just wanted to say that I really appreciated everyone’s thoughtful responses on this topic. Amazing discussion and food for thought.