Progression takes more than adding weight to the bar!
The first thing I want to say is that you need to understand that it’s not just the amount of weight you add, but how much you’re doing with it. If your goal is only to get stronger, then you don’t really need any other motivation than strength itself.
However, if you have a strong desire to become better at something else, then you’ll probably benefit from learning some new skills along the way. For example, if you want to learn how to play an instrument, you might start out playing one note and gradually work up to higher notes. Or maybe you’d like to improve your photography skills so that someday when the time comes for a wedding album or family photo album, they look great instead of crappy.
If you’ve ever tried to learn how to play an instrument, you may have found yourself stuck because you didn’t know where to begin. You could spend hours trying different scales and fingerings until finally finding what sounded good to you.
Or perhaps you could pick up a book and read through all the exercises before getting started. Both approaches are fine, but neither will give you the results that you’re looking for unless they incorporate both strength training and motor skill development into their workouts.
While the methods I’ve listed above will get you started in the right direction, they’re still lacking a few key factors. The first factor is that they aren’t specific to your needs.
That is to say, there isn’t any attention to detail within the exercises. You’re learning skills from a book or from a teacher and that’s it. There’s no way to know whether you’re doing the exercises correctly or not. The second factor is that there isn’t a constant emphasis on strength training, which is imperative in improving your ability to play for extended periods of time without getting fatigued.
What I want to do in this post is give you some tips on how to incorporate all three of these factors into your own workouts so that you can see real results in a relatively short period of time. To do this we’re going to take the first factor (the instructional material) and use it as a foundation for learning some new skills.
We’re then going to make up our own strength training program using some of my own exercises (based on those used in FIG classes). Finally, we’ll make up our own exercises that incorporate both skill development and strength training.
As a side note, it’s important that you don’t burn yourself out by practicing too much. It’s better to practice for shorter periods of time each day than it is to practice for longer periods of time only once every couple of days.
This will keep your skills from deteriorating and will help to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
The first thing I want you to do is get yourself a metronome app for your phone or your computer (they’re free online). The one I have on my computer is built in, so you may already have one.
After that, I want you to set the speed to 80 beats per minute. This is a good speed to start at and we can always raise it later.
The next step is to take your index finger (or the finger you play first) and go back and forth from the A below middle C to the A above middle C as fast as you can. The goal is to do this as fast as you can without breaking your rhythm (I know I didn’t give a speed, but you’ll be able to tell what I mean after a few tries).
Do this for 10 minutes.
What this does is strengthen the necessary muscles needed to execute the scale. These are the same muscles needed to keep a steady rhythm, which is what we musicians rely on.
This is a good warm up to do every time you play and will prevent carpal tunnel in the long run.
The next thing we’re going to do is learn an exercise using all 7 fingers (including the little one) every measure. I know this sounds weird, but stick with me here.
The exercise itself is simple.
Put your left hand into the position it would be if you were playing the A Major Scale (all the way on the left for the first finger, halfway between the first and second for the second finger, all the way on the right for the third, halfway between third and fourth for the fourth, etc). Now, put your right hand in the position of a C Major scale (index to middle for C, middle to ring for E, ring to pinky for G).
Now, alternate playing these two scales as fast as you can.
This is what I mean (using only the left hand for simplicity’s sake).
Note: I’m not actually suggesting that you play these scales in this order using only your left hand!
I know this sounds strange (and it is), but stick with it for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find that this strengthens your hands individually as well as coordinating them together.
This exercises can also be useful for sight reading as well, but we’ll get to that in a couple of months.
For the first couple of weeks (or until it feels natural to you), I want you to spend at least 10 minutes a day on these exercises. After that, you can drop it down to 5 minutes a day.
As far as other skills go, I’d start out by learning to transpose songs. So if you have a piece that is in the key of C, but you’d like to play it in the key of G, you would take each note that exists in C and find it’s relative note in G and then come up with new fingerings for your fingers.
(I’m terrible at explaining this, so if you need a better explanation, let me know).
For instance, if I’m playing a piece in the key of C and there is a black key between the C and the D, then I know that the black key is a flats and therefore the second note in G. (Actually, in this case, it would be a GDFAER scale, but you’ll learn more about that later).
If there is a white key between the C and the D, then I would know that the white key is a sharp and therefore the second note in G is an A (again, this would make it a GDFT scale).
As you might be able to tell, knowing which notes are flats and which are sharps will come in handy here.
Now, most of the time, when you’re transposing a piece, the notes are going to be exactly the same as they are in the original key. For instance, if I wanted to play an “F” scale (which would be just like our “C” scale, but would start on F instead of C), I would play exactly like we learned before with one exception.
Since we know that an “F” is a flat and a “C” is a natural, when I hit a key marked “F” I would hit it lightly with the tip of my finger and when I hit a key marked “C” I would hit it with the middle of my finger (again, this only really applies when we get to more complex scales later on).
If the piece was in the key of “G” then I would start to use more 3 finger patterns and when the piece was in the key of “D”, I would have to use my pinky more (you haven’t really needed it yet, but you will soon).
As you start learning pieces in different keys, this is something you’ll have to keep in mind. But if you always transposed pieces to the key of “C” (or at least the key of “G”) then you’d only have to use your middle finger and your index finger to play all the notes and your other fingers would be free for other things.
Anyway, keep up with your exercises and keep practicing and I’ll check up on you again in a couple of months.
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