Want to get good at music…or anything? Check out this article I published for last year’s web log… 

18 things musicians do that can help you improve your performance…at anything.  

Does practice make perfect?  It depends on how you practice, of course.  Musicians learn quickly that homework is a requirement to play an instrument.  Most sign up willingly.  It can be very rewarding to watch as your technical ability on an instrument improves and usually happens most noticeably in the first few years of study.  This feeling of achievement is one of the reasons music is an important part of elementary education.  It’s also fun to play with the band.    

As the easy studies become easier and more challenging pieces are attempted, it becomes apparent that a few minutes of practice here and there will not be enough.  More time playing is needed.  In this frame of mind, practice equals time.  You might say something like, “I practiced for an hour yesterday,” or, “I played that song so many times, my fingers are sore.”  In all this time spent playing for the sake of improving, it is important to look at what is actually occurring during that time.    

There is a difference between practicing and playing.  Playing is the act of performing a piece of music to the best of your current ability for enjoyment and artistic expression.  It’s the best reason to study music in the first place.  Practice, on the other hand, is a process intended to improve one’s ability on an instrument.  In order to do this effectively, goals should come before time.  Time is still very important, but a session of focused, goal-oriented study can often outweigh hours of playing and hoping.  

The following practicing strategies have helped me whenever I am faced with new piece or challenging passage to play.  I have used each of these techniques at one time or another while preparing my latest recording of guitar music, Platforms.    

Being a musician often means wearing more than a few different hats and learning new skills, so I often find myself using these techniques elsewhere.  At first, many of the items on this list appear to be music-specific, but with a little imagination, they can apply to almost any new endeavor and applied as needed. 

1. DON’T GET BORED.  Good practice involves identifying trouble spots and improving them through repetitive playing.  The problem with doing this is that boredom can become an issue.  At a certain point, the mind may start to wander: motions are being made, but the value of that rehearsal time is diminishing. Good practice involves staying focused, and a good way to do this is to set clear goals and track the progress as you perform.  Set a goal for the number of times you would like to rehearse a section.  Two dozen?  Thirty? Fifty five?  For passages of just a few notes, I have used 96 as my goal if it involves a new technique.  The goal kept me focused.  I would actually stop, pick up my pen, and put a check mark on the score at the end of each pass.  Before doing this, be sure the technical details are worked out.  You don’t want to waste time and add confusion by studying a section incorrectly for any amount of time.  And always listen to your body to be sure that the repetition isn’t causing injury.  If you don’t want to stop and note each time a trouble spot has been played, you could use time as your goal.  Still, with this method, I find it helpful to keep a mental note of the number of times a section was played during the proposed amount of time.  The key is to focus on the measured goal and nothing else.  Your concern should be completing the rehearsal structure you have set up.  Don’t worry about the actual goal just yet, which is to play the difficult section perfectly within the piece.  This method makes practice feel more like a task than a chore.   

2. ISOLATE, THEN REINCORPORATE.  If a section of music is problematic, don’t allow it to remain to be the bumpy part of the song that you hope will improve through repeated performance of the entire piece.  Work on that part specifically.  Once that part has been worked out,  begin to add some of the notes leading into and away from the isolated area as you practice.  When you are looking at one section, it’s all you’re thinking of, so you need to reincorporate the surrounding notes as well before returning to the entire piece.  Doing this will test how well you have prepared the section because your mind is going into it cold after thinking of other notes first.  Additionally, make sure that the parts that lead in and out of the difficult passage come just as easily.  

3. CREATE ELEMENTS.  If you’re having trouble with just a few notes in a piece, identify the element at the heart of the issue and recreate it in another context.  A guitarist, for example, might encounter a unique challenge picking a series of notes.  The picking pattern can be isolated as a unique element and reinterpreted over different notes that fall on the same strings.  It could be as simple as moving the notes of the fretted hand up the neck a half step for each run through.  Piano players can sometimes benefit from isolating melodic elements and playing them in other keys.  Once you have mastered an element, you could use the idea as a study piece.  A woodwind player could take a series of intervals, for example, and transpose them throughout the instrument.  Reinterpret the idea in as many ways as you care to imagine.  

Intervals and rhythms don’t necessarily have to be maintained to benefit from working with elements.  Sometimes, changing one pitch a half step or adding another note to the rhythm can reveal a lot about an element that proves helpful in the ultimate performance of the piece as well as in the cumulative process of understanding a particular instrument.  

When putting an element in a different context, think of yourself as a composer.  You are writing a new piece of music centered around the idea.  You can begin to think of your element as a motive or fragment of a theme and build a song around it. This type composition is generally referred to as an etude, but it can also lead to some wonderful pieces of music.  

4. SLOW DOWN.  If a passage is not working out at the required tempo, don’t keep practicing at that tempo hoping to get it right.  This doesn’t work.  There is a term for when a few repeated efforts haphazzardly get desired results: luck.  You don’t want to play the lottery with a performance.  When you slow down, you have time to learn the steps needed to make the performance successful.  You are actually learning a new skill when this happens.  Slowing down allows you to think about the fine details and commit them to your new skill set.  Once you’ve done this, you can do the opposite in the next tip.  

5. AIM HIGH.  If your goal is to run a 100 meter race, practice running 150.  With 150 as your extreme, you will easily be operating at full steam when you make it to 100.  Once a section has been conquered by slowing down, take it a little faster that it should be.  Doing this will also reveal any weaknesses that might remain.  

6. DO NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES.  Play difficult passages slowly enough so that the motions are accurate.  As you build speed and encounter mistakes, back off a little.  This is similar to slowing down for a section to be rehearsed, but the emphasis here is to never play a part incorrectly while continually playing through a piece.  Slow down for the difficult portion and return to the proper tempo after the trouble spot.  

7. KEEP IT LOOSE.  Don’t tense up.  Think about your whole body and practice everything for the way you will eventually perform the entire piece.  Anxieties that build as a challenging section approaches won't always be apparent in the parts of the body that manipulate the instrument.  Keep those parts relaxed, but remember that your whole body is involved in the process of playing music.  Be aware of how it is doing.  Sometimes shoulders will get tense.  Your posture could decline while focusing on the music.  Check your breathing, especially if you’re not a wind player.  Be sure you are getting enough air.  Once stiffness sets in, it has a way of spreading and clamping down over an entire performance, so monitor the rest of your muscles as you go.  

8. DON’T FRET A STEP BACK.  Expect to lose a little ground the next day.  Each practice session will yield results, but the start of each session isn’t always going to be as good as the end of the last one.  Memorizing complex passages and techniques requires time to become second nature.  It is at the heart of why practice is so important.  We cannot truly master anything during one session of rehearsal or study.  Prepare yourself for this by knowing that even though a section was worked on diligently for an hour that it will need review several more times.  Do not put the pressure of disappointment on your development, and realize that each day’s growth will require touch up in future sessions. 

9. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE COLD.  Don’t judge your performance until you have warmed up.  You are nowhere near your best until this happens.  Avoid critical assessment in the first 15 to 30 minutes of playing.  Sometimes, a warm-up routine that is suitable for your instrument and style can be helpful.  Long sustained notes of various dynamic levels are good for wind players, as they have to warm up an instrument up as well.  Scales and arpeggios that require some stretching while playing are good.  Warm up your mind.  Allow your thoughts to settle into what you are doing, especially if you have just been in traffic on the way to rehearsal. 

10. GIVE YOUR CHOPS A BREAK.  Instead of playing, try to visualize the music on your instrument.  Close your eyes and watch the instrument play the notes.  Do the same with the printed score if you are playing from sheet music.  This technique has the added benefit of offering relief from the occasional bout of insomnia when done at bedtime.  As you visualize, don’t skip details.  If you can’t visualize all of the notes, you probably need more time studying before performing.  Can you hear the entire piece in your head?  Try to hear each and every note from start to finish without interruption.  This will test your memorization of the music and strengthen your ability to concentrate on the performance.  Any weak points in memory or execution will become apparent.  

11. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.  Make time for the things that keep you happy and healthy.  Allow your mind to reflect not only on music, but all other aspects of daily life.  Take a walk, or spend a few minutes daydreaming over a cup of tea.  Get plenty of rest.  Stay well hydrated.  Eat what’s good for you.  Enjoy the company of a friend or fellow musician.  Spend some time with a good book, but not TV, unless that’s really your thing.  Your mind is still processing all of the hard work from your practice session in the background as you rest and focus on other things, so, technically, doing this is also part of a good practice regimen.    

12. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.  Keep it honest: use a metronome.  Practicing without one allows for the possibility of cheats in the performance.  Do you unknowingly slow down for the harder parts?  Sometimes, ironically, we speed up during difficult passages and create even more mistakes!  Be aware of the timing of the whole piece, even the easier parts.  I refer to a metronome after I’ve been working with a piece for a while, but you can use one throughout the process as well.  As the proper tempo is practiced, the groove should reveal itself.  It is a powerful force that will carry you like the unrelenting waves of the ocean, but it is easily spooked, and will certainly vanish if you disregard the timing of the piece.  

13. MAKE TIME.  Don’t skimp.  30-60 minutes a day or every other day is not unreasonable when learning a new skill, especially one that takes your playing to the next level.  Be careful to avoid practicing for big chunks of time sporadically.  While this is better than nothing, it will leave you short of your goals if you are working on something that involves a lot of memorization and unfamiliar techniques.  A routine is best, such as every day after breakfast, or a specific time in the evening.  If the requirements of a piece exceed your routine, or it is difficult for you to establish one, schedule time for yourself in a day planner.  Treat it just like any other appointment that you can’t miss.  Tracking your rehearsals with a calendar will also provide written proof of your accomplishment, which will provide additional motivation while giving you a good sense of how much time is required to study a piece of similar difficulty in the future.  

14. KNOW THAT PRACTICE IS CUMULATIVE.  The work you put in to learn a skill for a new song will be established when it occurs in future studies.  Even if it becomes a little rusty before it is needed again, the time required to get it back will be shorter than learning it from scratch.  This is obvious to a beginner who might learn a new note in one piece and is prepared for it when it arrives more frequently as etudes advance.  A string player might encounter an arpeggio with a unique turn or fingering that will be approached with confidence in the future.  Composers treat each session of writing as a valuable experience even if a new work is discarded: the next one will be crafted with that experience in mind.  Consider each new technique that is developed for a particular piece to also be preparation for music you haven’t even thought of performing yet.  From this mindset, each moment spent in the practice room is an investment in your lifetime of playing in addition to reaching more immediate goals.   

15. PREPARE TO PERFORM.  The ultimate goal of most rehearsal is usually a performance of some kind.  Regardless of whether that performance will be for a teacher, an audience, or even just yourself, preparing for that performance is a valuable part of the rehearsal process.   When you are beginning to feel that you have a new piece of music down, see if you can play it all the way through and be satisfied with the results.  Once you are, make a video of yourself and watch the performance critically.  The red light on the video recorder has a way of bringing potential pitfalls out of hiding.  Work out any problem areas you may encounter.  Once you’ve done that, perform the piece for an audience of one, such as a family member or friend.  The act of playing music for for someone may reveal issues that the camera’s red light missed.  Head back to the rehearsal room work on those areas.  Finally, play the piece for someone who is not a family member or close friend in a setting that is not your house or studio.  Try to get two or three people in your audience if possible.  The comfort and familiarity of your private rehearsal space can sometimes give you false feedback about your performance.  Beyond these steps, you could go one more step and try a larger audience and less comfortable surroundings such as an open mic or performer’s workshop.  Ideally, your test audiences should give you their full attention throughout the performance, so be sure to ask for it in advance, but don’t ask for feedback.  In this exercise, the performance critique will come from you.  If you absolutely cannot resist asking for a critique, be sure the question is something very specific such as, “Did that fast passage of notes sound like it flowed into the next part?  Here, I’ll play it again for you.”  Never ask, “What did you think?”  Most audience members feel put on the spot when asked this question, so try to avoid it.  For the purposes detailed here, we really just require a few moments of time and nothing else.   

16. REST.  Let it breath for a couple of days.  Burn out often creates a forest and trees situation where you get so caught up in working on specifics that more general performance issues get lost.  The ultimate goal is to play music, and at the end of all of the time spent in the rehearsal studio, that’s what it should sound like you are doing.  Taking a short break from a piece also allows for free “practice” where your mind can process the advances you have made and work out any problems in the background.  When you return to the piece, you will be able to tackle challenges with a better understanding than you might have had without the break.  Periods of rest can be applied within rehearsals as well.  If a passage has really got you bogged down, take a moment and stretch, or get a glass of water.  Sometimes, a short break will reset your perspective allowing you to use your time more effectively.  

17. LISTEN.  Keep your thoughts and ears focused on the end result: the sound coming out of the instrument.  Difficult passages of music can take brain power away from listening as you make the necessary calculations to mechanically recreate the music.  Practice these areas with this in mind so that they can be performed as evenly as the others with your complete attention to the sounds you are making.  The easier moments in a piece can also lead to lapses in attentive listening, as we mistakenly take advantage of the reduced demands on brainpower to think about a hard part coming up or, at these moments, simply just loose focus.  Follow all of the details of the less demanding passages with the same focus and enthusiasm that you would have for a difficult passage.  Be vigilant during rehearsals to remove any bad habits that interfere with hearing every note that is played.      

18.  HAVE FUN.  Don’t lose sight of why you play music in the first place.  Make every moment that you are playing an opportunity to express yourself through the art you create and enjoy yourself as you celebrate your talent and hard work.


The new recording, Platforms is finished!  My latest all acoustic, all instrumental album features nine tracks of original music for solo guitar.  The songs balance intricate finger style playing with compact melodies and harmonic passages that explore the full range of the acoustic guitar. 

The songs of the album were arrived at organically.  Some of the rhythms grew from picking an electric guitar in a bar band over the years.  Some of the melodies were inspired by my experiences as a guitar teacher.  Some of the pieces expand on the reflection of a poetic thought or wistful recollection.  Some of the phrases developed out of a love of the technical exploration of the instrument.  Some of the tracks answered a question such as, “What would a song called ‘Hacksaw’ sound like?” 

I tracked the songs at my home studio in three or four sessions over the summer of 2015.  That winter, I took the rough tracks to engineer Rich Isaac’s studio.  We selected the best takes and mixed the final recording.  I allowed for a lot of flexibility in the mixing process and continued to shape the compositional elements even at this phase of the process.  Some takes, for example, were selected based on a particular dynamic or articulation that focused a section of music more clearly than another take that was otherwise just as good. 

The mixing process was spread out over a few brief sessions each month mainly because of scheduling priorities and other interruptions, but after some time, the final mix down was finished in the summer of 2016.  The mastering and final touches to the album artwork followed in the fall. 

This record was a long journey that started as a concept in 2007.  I kept it on the back burner as I developed the ideas that would take the final form of the record.  The bulk of the music was written between 2013 and 2015.  I had a lot of help along the way.  Rich Isaac is a wizard at Pro Tools, and was essential to the final sonic shape that the recording would take.  Photographic artist extraordinaire Dorrett Oosterhoff provided the cover image and shot the photo inside of the album.  My wife, Kirsten, who was, as always, at every turn throughout the process, contributed her boundless energy and enthusiasm to the project as a whole.  She also created all of the graphic design for the album.  Thanks to everyone, including the friends and fans who let me experiment with their ears as I played some of the rough drafts.  Enjoy!

Check it out here: http://www.robzuzin.com/music

This Taylor Guitar and Move 

I’m always amazed at the sounds I get from this Taylor guitar when I record it.  I used it for the previous record, On Steel Strings (it is the one I'm holding on the cover).  Hearing the playback of those tracks in the studio caught me by surprise at first.  Was that the same guitar coming through the monitors that was recorded moments earlier?  Rich, the engineer at the session, replied to my disbelief cooly by saying, “That’s what that guitar sounds like.”  The microphones and preamps played a part as well, I’m sure, but you can’t deny the source. This guitar would certainly be on the next record, Platforms

My reaction to the playback was the same for Platforms.  The guitar sings on every song and is very responsive to changes in articulation and picking (I go into a lot more detail about these variables in my previous post, Maeve’s Lament).  The guitar closely mimics a nylon string instrument in Move, the third track on Platforms.   The mids are warm, the basses percussive, and the trebles sound round and full.

I will take as much time as needed to find the right instrument.  I will search for months, or even years for the right guitar in some cases.  I auditioned dozens of guitars before deciding on this particular one.  I sampled guitars from just about every major manufacturer as well as several boutique models with the recording projects I had planned in mind.  After all of this, I narrowed my sites on one of Taylor’s least expensive models, the 114 “Grand Auditorium.”  I was surprised.  The higher end ones I tried were great, but something about this model intrigued me.  I asked the salesman to get every 114 from the stock room and auditioned each.  All were equally as good as the one in the showroom, but the last one we unpackaged had a lively spirit that set it apart from the others.  It was an instrument that needed to be recorded, so I took it home. 

I wanted Platforms to growl a little more than On Steel Strings, so I went for a single mic configuration with a direct line from the guitar mixed in.  I selected a mid-line Blue microphone that I was familiar with from tracking my 2007 release, New Music For Old Truckers.  It has a round depth to it and a shimmer that gives the recording some immediacy without being too delicate. 

Some of the passages in Move are pretty intense.  Chords dance up and down the neck with a moving bass line and detailed inner voices.  It requires a lot of restraint and hand strength to keep all of the parts at the same volume.  The efforts to balance the counterpoint added to the buoyant tones achieved on this track. 

This was the last composition written for the record.  I was in the middle of unpacking boxes in my new residence last year when I decided I needed a break.  I sat down with the guitar and Move came out.

Maeve's Lament 

Each of the nine songs on my latest record, Platforms, have a lot in common.  They are all performed using a picking technique that combines a finger style approach with the use of a flat pick.  This is called hybrid picking.  This is the “platform” that the songs for the album are based on.  They all feature syncopated melodies and strong bass lines and are best performed using the hybrid approach.  All are about the length of the modern pop song and use some variation of a strophic form.  Beyond these similarities, though, each is a piece of unique character with its own voice, though some are related in subtle ways. 

Hacksaw is closely related to Call Signs.  The two pieces have very different musical goals, but the picking of the arpeggios are nearly identical.  One arpeggio in Hacksaw was actually the kernel that Call Signs was written around.  Move and 200 share the same lonely, pulsing introductory call on the low E string, but unique rhythms and time signatures propel them in different directions.  In 200, that call leads to the staging of a wild guitar solo section while Move is more focused on the composition and technical aspects of the melodic interplay.  Circles shares a brief ascending quartal harmonic line with Call Signs, where the transposed incarnation punctuates the end of a phrase.  

Even with all of these elements linking them together, each piece has an individual statement that requires care in the execution and recording for it to be fully realized.  I experimented with the string height of the guitar.  For songs that required a bolder sound, I raised the height, even if doing so made the piece more difficult to play.  I recorded Momentum several different times experimenting with the length of my fingernails.  I ultimately cut them very short for the recording which helped bring out the galloping bass line.  Before recording, I tried a variety of strings.  I settled on Elixr brand’s poly web coated guitar strings, 80/20 alloy.  Traditional phosphor bronze guitar strings were too warm for the Taylor guitar that I used for the entire recording.  I experimented with different mic positions for each song.  Some recordings had more sound dampening in the room that others.  At the height of my experimentation, I was even taking note of the temperature and humidity in my surroundings. 

Maybe I went a little overboard on that last one, but all of these considerations helped give each piece its own voice in the balance of the entire record.  Maeve’s Lament required a big, round melody on the thin and trebly B string.  The ruckus of the lower strings had to splash with enthusiasm as they dealt out a squeaky sixteenth note triplet run.  It all came out perfectly.  I should also give credit to Rich Isaac, the recording engineer.  He balanced the mix of the microphone and direct line and dialed in the equalization and effects. 

So, what is Maeve lamenting?  The title was inspired by my wife.  She overheard me as I was working out the composition in the next room and said that the subject of all that picking was definitely named Maeve. I think Maeve is lamenting the fact that there aren’t more tunes that feature a shuffle rhythm like the one found in her song. 

The opening melody is presented as a simple statement that becomes a cyclical cascade.  This same cascade is quoted in Maeve’s sister song, On Snow, On Winter.  A rolling open string transition in the bases leads to a restatement of the opening theme.  A thump of the strings heralds the single note guitar solo made up of sustained and percussive sixteenth notes spelling out the new harmonic component that is there answer to all of Maeve’s woes.  This new progression reshapes Maeve’s introductory statement as it is framed against a galloping single note rhythm in the bass.  There is a slight respite as the rolling open string figure appears again, this time beefed up with a couple extra triplet sixteenth notes that completely fill any open space that existed in the first presentation.  Finally, Maeve’s opening thought, now satisfied, is played while resting against a drone on the low A string.

Platforms will be released this spring.  Until then, many of the songs mentioned in this post can be heard on the video page of this website as well as the on the play bar below.

Call Signs 

Just wrapped the final mixes for the new recording. The audio mastering remains to be done, but I've posted one on the audio player at the bottom of the page. The fast picking aside, Call Signs, is one of the more atmospheric pieces on the record. It is a piece about reaching out to someone you want to talk to. Maybe someone you haven’t seen in a while. Radio operators identify themselves with letters referred to as call signs. They put these out over the airwaves to let you know who is transmitting…sometimes to talk to anyone who is listening…sometimes looking for someone in particular.

New Press! 


My latest album On Steel Strings A Tribute To ABBA was recently featured on page 4 in issue #76 of ABBA INTERMEZZO, the official publication of the international ABBA fan club.  Here’s an excerpt of their review of the album: 
“…We had the opportunity to listen to this wonderful, laid back CD and can highly recommend it.  Rob’s very own versions of songs like ‘Take A Chance On Me,’ ‘Mamma Mia,’ and ‘Summer Night City’ are extremely beautiful.  The arrangements highlight the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities while staying true to the original versions…” 
What an honor to be included in the magazine!  Thanks to Regina at ABBA INTERMEZZO for including the album in the latest edition.  You can check out the fan club on the web at www.abba-intermezzo.de




The title was the inspiration for this piece.  Hacksaw.  What would a song with that title sound like?  It would have an opening statement consisting of the relentless doubling of the open high E string set up with hammered-on notes by the left hand. The bass would move across the three lowest strings establishing the key of E.  It would have to be E.  There is no finer key for a jagged rhythm on the guitar. 

It would not be clear if the key of E is major or minor, but hearing a D in the bass would pull the ear towards the minor, or at least, a blues tonality.  This key would initially be confirmed as minor, but later move to the major in the third subject.  This same argument would then occur during the statements in the key of A: the second subject would take the position that A is major (while an open string pull-off run tiptoes up the neck with the grace of a funambulist struggling to keep balance), but the key of A would later be established as a minor subdominant chord in the third subject. 

Hacksaw would be relentless: a stream of nearly uninterrupted sixteenth notes spanning over four minutes.  An endurance exercise ranking as one of my most challenging composition to play.  During the three main subjects, the right hand should constantly be flicking out rising arpeggios which are answered by cascading descents back to the root note.  The fretting hand should have it’s work cut out as well: hammer-ons and pull-offs expand arpeggios and melodic elements. 

These sections should then be given some breath during a transitional element against a pedal tone on E.  The flat pick will get to shine while beating out a syncopated bass line.  Chord stabs on the trebles and a harmonized inner voice of sustained notes would appear above this rhythm. 

I settled in to watch some television after a long day spent primarily playing guitar.  My guitar was resting nearby as well.  The Sunday night football game was starting and I was looking forward to seeing the Baltimore Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.  During the team introduction for this broadcast, Ravens lineman Terrell Suggs gave himself the nickname Hacksaw.  I grabbed my guitar and began to play.  This is what a song called Hacksaw sounds like. 

The 3:30 Weblog 

Musicians usually have a lot to say about being a musician, and I’m no different.  I just finished checking out Joe Satriani’s autobiography, and I could relate to his desire to share some of the finer points of his music that don't make it to the liner notes of the recording.  I’ve been doing this for a while here and on other websites. 

My new record, Platforms, is coming out soon (and news is still coming in about the last recording).  In light of this, I’ve decided to keep the title page blog of the website dedicated to those efforts as well as for postings relevant to performances, other recordings, and news.  Interesting tales, thoughts about music and life, stories about performing and the people I meet along the way, as well as other random thoughts can be found on The 3:30 Weblog

The 3:30 Weblog can be reached through the link on the menu bar of this website.  Since most musings (and the desire to share them) come in the wee small hours of the morning, the name seemed obvious for this new page.  And, no, I’m not shortening the word, "weblog," because everyone’s got one of those these days! 

Happy reading!


The first posting will be published in just a few minutes.