Exaggeration: A Practice Tool to Bring Your Playing To the Next Level
Exaggeration can be a practice tool. As such, it helps us learn music faster and become better guitarists.
We can become more expressive players by mastering the full range of volume, from very quiet to very loud.
And this means we can share better music and enjoy practice more.
A Common Scenario
Let’s face it: sometimes we sound better in the practice room than when we play guitar for other people.
It may be only our loved ones, the cat, or our teacher. But somehow all the subtle phrasing and expression evaporates when someone is listening.
Why do we sound better alone?
It’s possible that we are not listening as closely when we are alone as when we are with other people. Our minds can wander in practice without our noticing.
Once we feel a little pressure, our senses become more alert and we hear ourselves more clearly. Chances are, we sound very much like we do alone, especially on the first run-through of a piece.
Of course we also have the fear-factor. Performing can make us nervous. Our muscles tighten and our breath becomes more shallow. And all that completely changes how we play.
So how can we practice so that we play expressively and securely in front of people?
One tool we can use in the practice-room is exaggeration.
Exaggerating makes practice more effective
When we exaggerate our dynamics and phrasing, we gain concrete benefits.
Decision: A Musical Force
First, we force ourselves to make musical decisions. To exaggerate a swell or fade, or an accent, we have to decide where and when.
While there are best-practices, the most important part is that we make the decisions. Even if we’re not sure it’s the best idea. Something is better than nothing. We can go back and change it later if we want to.
As an example, our inner talk may be, “ I’ll get louder here. I’ll get quieter here. This chord will be really loud. This part will be exactly like this other similar part….”
As we learn our music, we can make the decisions and write them (in pencil) on our sheet music.
Then when we practice we can exaggerate each element.
If it is to be quiet, we can make it ridiculously quiet. If we mean to crescendo (get louder), we swell like a tidal wave. Staccato, as staccato as staccato can be. Legato, as legato as legato can be.
We are not looking for good musicality or subtle shading. We are striving for ridiculous, gross, gaudy exaggeration.
We want to exaggerate to the point of clownishness.
This is not how we will perform it later in front of people, or when we are playing “for real“. This is how we practice. It’s just a powerful practice technique.
The reason is this:
When we practice to exaggerate our decisions, it implies that we have actually made decisions.
It is not enough to simply play the notes. Good music does not play itself. We need to make good decisions, and make them for good reasons. Forcing ourselves to exaggerate also forces us to examine our decisions.
When we practice this way, everything may seem more difficult. This is because exaggeration takes more mental power and physical control.
As we challenge our technical skills, we become better musicians and guitarists.
Our practice is now guided by musical demands. We engage more. We’re invited to focus deeper and slow down.
Pretty soon, we can change volume or tone “on a dime”. We have a larger number of musical options, and the ability to execute them.
And perhaps most importantly, we begin to listen differently. We start to notice little opportunities for expression that we used to miss.
Performing on Classical Guitar
When we do perform in front of people, we can assume that we’ll still have a bit of the issues described above. We’ll still have anxiety. We’ll still be hyper-present and may hear more than we normally do (which can be distracting).
But if we’ve been exaggerating in our practice, then we’ll include our musical decisions.
When we ’re performing at full tempo in front of people, all these choices will compress. They will “bland out” just a little bit. We won’t swell or fade to as large an extent.
This happens even if we don’t exaggerate in practice. Most of us don’t play with as much expression in front of people as we do in the practice room. If we have been practicing subtle volume or tone changes, etc., our listeners may not notice.
But when we exaggerate in practice, they will more likely come through under pressure. Listeners will be more apt to hear the music like we do. (We can test ourselves using video.)
If we want to hit a mark and we have any sort of resistance, the only way to hit that mark is to overshoot. It’s like golfing in the wind. Or piloting a plane. If we want to hit any target from a distance, we must aim higher. This is true in music as well.
More Perks of Exaggeration Practice
We may also find that we explore music more deeply when using exaggeration. We may discover new emotional content. We may imagine new visual imagery.
We can also exaggerate in technique practice. We can play our scales with severe crescendos and decrescendos, staccatos and legatos. We can play our arpeggios with exaggerated rhythms and accents.
This makes us better players. We connect more with listeners. We develop skills faster. And it’s fun!
Here’s how to get started:
-Pick up your guitar, and choose a few notes of whatever you’re working on.
-Decide on dynamics (get louder or quieter). Remember, anything goes. Play it a few times exaggerating these dynamics.
(Tip: the guitar can only go so loud, but the quiet side is ripe for experimentation.)
-Each time you play the passage, make it even more exaggerated. Then even more. Notice how you feel. Notice any difficulties or stopping points.
-Wash, rinse, repeat.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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