Travel is part of modern life. Whether it is to visit family, for work, vacation, or study, it seems that as a society we travel more than ever before.
For a classical guitarist trying to maintain a regular practice schedule it can pose some distinct challenges and opportunities.
The challenges inherent in travel are pretty obvious: your time is scattered, your routine is disrupted, and its unlikely that you will have your instrument and other resources handy in the same way as you do at home.
The opportunities, however, are not so obvious. Musical avenues that are normally obscured by the desire to get your hands on the guitar can open up. These avenues lead you to musical development that is equally as important as physical practice but rarely pursued.
Relax & recharge
It might feel like brute force is the only way for you to master your instrument. Accumulate your 10,000 hours as quickly as you can and diligently practice x hours per day with the latest method.
This relentless approach to life is unfortunately encouraged quite a lot in modern society as the rat race feels more and more competitive. I see it quite often in young students still in school. They have so many activities scheduled each day that idleness, creativity, and exploration get squeezed out in favor of resume building. Adults too can get swept up in the hype of productivity, efficiency, and the daily grind.
The counter intuitive component of all this is rest.
Sleep, reduced stress, and an opportunity to recharge your energy levels can do wonders for your musical journey.
Not only will you benefit from a renewed focus but you might find yourself being a little more positive about your abilities too. A break away from playing can offer some surprising objectivity that can be encouraging and let you listen with a fresh pair of ears.
Don’t be afraid to step away from your regular practice and embrace the travel as an opportunity to pause, relax, and recharge.
Be musically curious
Whether you are traveling to another part of your home country or you are off on an international trip, chances are, you are going to be exposed to some different music than you are used to. This is an opportunity to learn and to be musically curious.
As it happens, I am currently in Greece. On the island of Crete to be exact. Evita, my wife, is teaching here and I decided to join her so I could visit this beautiful corner of the world.
Over the last few days we have both enjoyed picking up on new sounds and listening to new patterns in the music we come across. Sometimes it was on the car radio, sometimes in a restaurant, some of the most enchanting music was to be found on the street.
On the second night, we were ready to crash after pushing though our jet lag and a huge music stage came to life outside our room. No sleep for us that night…
For a while we sat outside on the porch and listened to the music which was heavily influenced by folk music. Besides being great music there was something striking about the rhythms we were hearing. They weren’t straight 4/4 or 3/4 time signatures like we were so used to hearing but rather they used odd groupings.
After a few songs we started to latch on quicker and quicker to the time signatures and it because a game for us.
“7/8 in groupings of 123 – 12 – 12!” then the next one was grouped in eighth notes as 123 – 12 – 12 – 12. “Is that 3/8 then 3/4 or would you call that 9/8?”
Through a simple process of tapping our hands, guessing and listening with a curious mindset we were actually practicing our aural skills and rhythmic skills too.
Harmonically we have heard music that sounded particular. To Evita it sounded “middle eastern” or “Arabic”. This is because of the Phrygian mode that was being used, a mode that we might associate with some flamenco and Spanish music that was influenced by the moorish past of Spain.
The use of musical drones was quite common too and here is an example of a street performer who had a truly unusual instrument!
The lesson to be learned here is that if you have your eyes and ears open when you travel your musical learning will continue in ways that are difficult to imagine while practicing in your normal corner.
Broaden your musical horizons: Read, Listen, and Enjoy
The destinations we reach when traveling are usually full of things to do. The time in between, however, can be open stretches that are perfect for learning. Long haul flights, time in the car, train rides, even a ferry ride, they all can be your musical classroom with a bit of planning and preparation.
There are shelves upon shelves of wonderful books on music waiting for you out there. Books that will put the music you are playing into context. Books that will confuse you with theory terms only to be read a second time to drop pennies and provide “aha!” moments. Books that will delve into the lives of composers you admire, and books that will introduce you to music that you would never have listened to otherwise. There are even books that you can listen to in your car these days with sites like audible dot com.
Talking about reading, how about reading a score? When was the last time you actually sat with a score in your hands away from the guitar? You might be surprised as to what you discover without the temptation to play guitar and read at the same time.
Scott Tennant revealed an interesting habit of reading scores when he travels:
If you are organized enough you can get some scores and recordings to listen to while reading. You could do this with guitar works and compare interpretations of various performers. You could sit with an orchestral symphony by Beethoven and follow along with a miniature score (this was a favorite of mine when I was younger). You could sit with the score and try to analyze the harmony. You could go through different scores of the same composer and compare pieces. You could compare various arrangements and even compare them to the original piece on the original instrument!
So much to learn and not a guitar in sight!
Listening can be as enlightening as reading. In fact, I would say that it has a kind of osmosis effect that can influence your playing.
If you are learning a piece, or even better if you are about to start learning a piece, then listening to a wide range of recordings will inform many of your decisions to come. It is quite possible that it may guide you away from learning wrong notes in a piece which is common. Having familiarized yourself with the sounds of a piece you will be able to hear if a note is correct or not.
There is a fair argument against listening to others’ interpretations before developing your own but I think that in the early to intermediate stages of learning it will be more helpful than harmful.
Don’t feel that you have to restrict yourself to just classical guitar music either. Listening to music within a time period or style will greatly advance your understanding of phrasing, ornamentation, inflections, and overall musical style.
Even if you don’t feel like having a studying mindset while listening you can actively choose to listen to unfamiliar music that will inspire and broaden your musical horizons.
Using a travel guitar
If you are anything like me then you can actually miss the feeling of just playing the guitar! And, depending on your travel situation perhaps you just need to keep practicing.
There are several good options out there now to fill in for your classical guitar but none of them will check all the boxes.
Right now, I have been enjoying my little Guitalele which is a ukulele sized guitar with six strings and it has the tuning of a guitar (albeit up a fourth). It works well for reading through pieces, composing, and it also is very fun to play. The size of it makes for an easy carry on for air travel. Being so small, however, it is not going to be good for technique work.
Travel guitars and silent guitars will offer you more of a standard feel for playing the guitar and perhaps if you are a regular business traveler this could be a good option.
In general, however, you are just not going to get the same feel and physical benefits of guitar practice without your normal set up. So it is a matter of compromise and practicality.
The reason I wrote on this topic in the first place is because the question of how to continue practicing while traveling has come up frequently.
I feel that traveling provides an opportunity to actively take the guitar out of our hands and pushes us to think of other ways to study music.
If you have found useful ways of practicing while traveling please share in the comments below!