Practicing without your instrument is more useful that you might think. When, I have down time at my job, or have to sit on a plane for 12 hours without access to my instrument, I like to read theory books and sight read. The next time I pick up my guitar, there is usually a noticeable result.
I think the best example of this was a problem I had with my time keeping. I used to get a lot of flack at jam sessions from friend Eddie Landsberg. He said, “The greatest sin is to drop the rhythm.” This was a bit of a shock, since I never gave it any thought before. He recommended tapping my foot when I play, and of course using metronomes. These both helped, but I think what really did it was walking in tempo and snapping my fingers while listening to my iPod between train stations. Eventually Eddie complimented me on the improvement, and now I can catch HIM (or anybody) dropping the tempo or playing behind the beat. More importantly, I can change my tempo or orientation to the beat at will.
Recently, I’m focusing on sight reading. Considering I that I can read Japanese, reading music really should’t be a problem. It’s acknowledged that reading a staff for the guitar is challenging for any guitarist because of redundant notes or “false fingerings.” Ironically, I realized that reading rhythms was my weakest area. So I’m approaching it scientifically. In one measure, I am exploring all the different possibilites of quarter notes, eight notes, 16ths, etc. This is so that I can find patters that I don’t recognize and might cause me to stall. What I noticed it is also doing is improving my phrasing tremenously. Specifically I mean that I have a much more lucid picture of where to start a phrase and where to place the notes when I’m playing.
I’ve probably spent more time trying to read bebop heads like Donna Lee or Confirmation than anything else. One tune I had a really tought time sight reading was Au Privave. So I compared each measure to all the others. Not surprisingly the note placement is VERY logical, but doesn’t
sound musical until can hear the phrase across the bar. So in the end, it’s not about how well you can read the score, but how well you can HEAR it. The real challenge is not just to trigger your fingers to hit the notes on the page like a machine, but to articulate it to sound like music.