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The Dangerous Bridge – How To Practice Taking Leads With Tactical Practicing

Posted by brae on Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Often in life the hardest things are the transitions. Sure, ice skating is hard, and rocket science is probably no picnic. But I am sure if you interviewed Nancy Kerrigan or Dr Robert Goddard, they would both agree that it was harder when they were getting started. Once you’re in the groove, things generally go your way, but getting up on that cold gleaming ice without face planting, that’s another story.
And it’s the same with playing music. As anyone knows who’s played an open mic, once you were walking off stage with that smattering of applause swirling around you, life was grand. But when you were waiting in the green room to go on, someone could have said “boo” and you’d have jumped out of your skin! But eventually you stumbled up there, and after a few terrifying moments that lasted an eternity, you launched your song and managed to get through it without any unintentional urination.

Let’s take another common example in music, folk and bluegrass music in particular. In these fine traditions there is a phenomenon called “jamming” , or impromptu playing circles where folks take turns passing the song around. Generally, everyone takes a turn at being in the spotlight, or “taking a lead” as it’s called. This is when you get to try out that new arrangement for Turkey In The Straw that you’ve been practicing obsessively on, or perhaps even some seat-of-the-pants improvisation. The upside is that you can have some of the most exhilarating experiences a musician can have, flying effortlessly over the circle with everyone supporting you and acknowledging your hard work and talent. The downside is, you might sputter out a few notes and go plunging into a ditch, leaving the song in a plume of black smoke. In other words, you crash. Hard.
This is probably the most common experience of the new jammer, as they try to get into the action and start playing songs in a Jam, just like their teacher keeps telling them to do.
“You can play in front of the cat all you want, Nancy, but until you actually play this song at a jam, you don’t really know it!”

If you’re a beginner or even early intermediate player, this should be ringing a bell. No matter how much time you spend going over the TAB, and even if you can get through the break totally perfect at home, as soon as you are in a jam session, it all falls apart. In particular, trying to “take a Lead” when it comes your turn. When the guy next to you finishes and nods, you lunge in with the enthusiasm of a cheetah tackling a wildebeest, but the next thing you know something is horribly wrong. Suddenly you’re rushing the tempo, and you can sense the strain on the faces of the others as they struggle to hold it down. Or maybe you just started a moment too early, and now you’re opposite the beat, and your playing has the grace of a circus clown. And just as sadly funny.

Or maybe you get so caught up in playing every note perfectly that you lose track of time, and next thing you know you’ve overplayed your welcome and the fiddler next to you is no longer your friend. Do any of these unfortunate scenarios sound familiar? Well, like I said, if you’re just starting out in the jamming game, they should. Or you’re in denial.
Because the plain truth of it is, everyone does these things! Yep. Nobody came off the press like Chris Thile, they all had to go through these growing pains.
But there is good news. You don’t have to learn the hard way, leaving a trail of mangled jams behind you. There is a trick to this, and I’m going to tell you what it is.
Ready? I call it “tactical practicing”. No, this isn’t a SWAT team maneuver, although it can be just as scary at times. What I mean by “tactical practicing” is to choose a particular musical scenario, and develop a tactic to deal with it. In this case, we want to take aim at the dangerous transitions between playing backup, and then getting into your lead without crashing.
Make sense? I can see a lot of you shaking your heads ruefully, because you know exactly what I mean.

SO, instead of sitting around getting your lead perfect, we have to spend time focusing on the particular area that is causing trouble, in this case, the transition from chords to Lead.
To do this, you are going to need a few basic things:

1) A lead part that you can play inside and out
2) Something to play along to, whether it is a savvy music teacher or a JamAlong Track (more on that in a moment)
3) A Tactical Practice Plan

And that’s pretty much it.
So, decide which break to which tune you’ve played the most, and is the most bullet proof. Then, find an appropriate audio track that mimics a jam, that goes back and forth between chords and lead parts.
Where would I find something like that, you ask. Well, you just so happen to be in luck! This is why we’ve created the (FREE!) series of videos on YouTube we call the Virtual Jam, we’re we take turns playing chords and leads, and you get to have the experience of a real live jam session without the pressure of actual human beings around.
And in the comfort of your own home with your device of choice, iPad, phone, desktop, what ev.
So, take a moment to go check out our Virtual Jams  HERE, and then let’s move on to step 3, your Tactical Practice Plan…

Ok, step 3 is really simple: Get comfy, put your instrument of choice on, and hit play on your Virtual Jam of choice. Play the chords dutifully like a good jammer, and then when it comes your turn, dive in and give it all you’ve got!
And yes, you might crash, you might speed up, you might play out of time. Of course, you’re a human being, not a Bela Fleck 🙂
But the beauty of this approach is that all you have to do is click pause, scoot the slider bar back a bit, and presto, you get another lead! And if you play over your time, our video jammer will happily dive into their solo regardless of your incessant noodling.

This will actually start to become FUN, imagine that! And before you know it, you’ll be gliding in and out of leads effortlessly.
And what’s even better, is we’ll make you a custom backing track for any song you want, that’s right, any song (but hopefully not Wagon Wheel, again).
Just visit our  Facebook page at JamAlong Music Method  and message us that you read this blog, and you’ll automatically get a credit for a FREE backing track to the tune of your choice.
And this way, by focusing our practicing on the things that you really need, by taking a tactical approach to playing solos, you’ll get there a whole lot quicker.
And even better yet, you’ll have FUN doing it! Which is really the whole point, right?
So although the bridge to playing leads may be fraught with danger, with some clever tactics you will not only cross it, you will be dancing on it. OK, let’s get to pickin…

-Brae, JamAlong Music Method

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