Woodshedding vs. Consistency

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

In earlier times wayward kids were subject to a form of corrective discipline referred to as “woodshedding”. The parent would take the straying kid out to the woodshed for private application of a paddle or belt to the straying kid’s hind quarters. The practice was universal such that over time the term “woodshedding” came to be used as a colloquialism to refer to all manner of discipline, including the self-discipline involved in mastering a skill through practice. Musicians picked up the term to refer to extended sessions of private practice – sometimes literally in a woodshed for privacy.

The woodshed ultimately fell to the wayside of history with the rise of electricity, but the term woodshedding has stuck with musicians as a way to refer to intense efforts toward improvement through private practice. For us guitarists the idea is to get in a place where we can be free from the pressure of others hearing our flaws and mistakes, the distractions of people, phones, televisions, etc., and focus intently on improving our mastery of technique, improvisation, or details of specific songs.

If you read about or watch documentaries about highly acclaimed musicians you can’t miss the importance they place on practice toward achieving their goals. In many cases you will hear stories of spending nights and weekends daily for years to develop their impressive skills.  If you are a hobbyist with limited time to practice you may come to the discouraging conclusion that routine woodshedding is essential to developing satisfying musical skills that you can be proud of sharing with others.

Make no mistake: the more time you spend engaging in effective practice, the better you will get. However, it is quite realistic to expect to achieve a satisfying level of functional musicianship without practicing five hours a day every day of the week. For a hobbyist musician, a half hour to an hour of effective, goal-oriented practice per day for five days a week will deliver meaningful results. While there are a number of elements to effective practice, the object of our focus for this article is the importance of consistency.

I often observe students of guitar setting aside my recommendations to cover a broad range of materials in every practice session and instead focusing on one element that they have become temporarily absorbed with. They will then woodshed this one item, and then everything else they have been building falls to the wayside. Then we have to go down the deadly road that sucks the ambition out of the most enthusiastic students of music: review.

When you are learning the fundamentals of music, woodshedding is NOT a productive substitute for consistency. Not only does it rob you of costly skills in the areas that you are neglecting to practice, it also doesn’t work well for the one area that you have focused on. It may deliver a temporary sense of satisfaction in that over a few days of woodshedding one thing you may see a visible improvement in that one thing, but here is the dirty secret about woodshedding: the gains disappear as soon as you stop woodshedding that one thing.

You can easily perceive this for yourself by considering the equivalent of woodshedding in the academic world: cramming. We have all been through the experience of neglecting consistent homework and then trying to intensely study in preparation for a test. Does it work? Yes, many times you can pass the test with a lot of short notice intense study. However, did you ever go back and take a test on the same material a week later? How do you think you would have done?

If you are studying music it is most likely not something that is being forced on you, so you should not be reluctant to do your “homework”, nor should you be eager to put behind the most recent material you studied. If you are … maybe music is not the right thing for you, or maybe you are pursuing skills in a style that is not the best fit your inner muse. Assuming you are passionate about learning music, you should logically wish to pursue a course that will allow you to retain hard won gains, rather than constantly cramming for a test (such as your next lesson) and then forgetting. It is a simple fact of human memory, both cognitive and physical (i.e. muscle memory), that repetition is the key to long term retention. So you should pursue a practice routine that includes consistent repetition of the knowledge and skills you need to achieve your short to medium term musical goals. While you may not see the more immediately satisfying visible gains of woodshedding one area, you will continually improve your musicianship by increments each day, and medium to long term you will be a much more potent musician for it.

It is important to understand that consistency does not mean that you will be ever stuck practicing everything you have ever learned. There will come a time for instance when you can perform your basic chords with ease, such that you do not have to practice them specifically and routinely any more. It is the same with scales and phrasing, and general knowledge. Once you have reached a particular goal, you replace it with something you can’t do yet and get to work consistently practicing that new thing until it also becomes habitual.

And finally, let us consider the real and practical value of strategic woodshedding. If you are performing publicly then what you need for a given performance (such as my application group classes) is a high level of fluency in those things you will be performing for that one occasion. Then it makes sense to woodshed the specific things required for that presentation. Then after the presentation you go back to a more generalized practice routine until a few days before your next public performance. Likewise, if you join a band and suddenly need to learn a list of new songs, you may need to get up to speed on those songs very quickly. So you would woodshed the set list as much as possible before your first group practice, then make practicing though the set list a part of your regular practice routine.

If you are situated such that you have time to woodshed everything on your highly effective practice schedule, then by all means go for it and we will look forward to seeing you on the Billboard charts soon. However, if this is not you then don’t despair. The proverbial tortoise wins the race most of the time. Consistency is the key!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Besting the Beast of Boredom

Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

 

The process of learning to play guitar involves some basic training exercises that are designed to increase knowledge and physical skills in numerous areas. Most of us are impatient to play at the level we envisioned when we started this process. The repetition of basic concepts and physical exercises can be tedious at times, especially when we do not feel we are seeing any measurable results.

This is quite normal. All musicians go through this, and the truth is that it never ends. Once we master some new skill or technique, there is always another one waiting in line to challenge us again. It is critical to learn to maintain your motivation to work through boredom and get on to playing like you want to play.

So let’s consider how boredom develops, and then how you can combat it. Your teacher gives you a new exercise. You begin to practice it. It is exciting at first because it is new and you know it is a direct step toward your goal of fluent playing. But then after a number of repetitions you have it memorized. Eventually you are just going through the motions mindlessly. It becomes less and less interesting and eventually turns into something that feels more like work than entertainment. You may even get to the point that you hate to even think of doing the exercise again and you feel reluctant to even pick up the guitar at all.

This is the critical point where you have to make a decision. You can give in to the beast of boredom and quit, or you can work to find a way around the beast and eventually reach a point where your playing is quite gratifying. It is important to realize this – becoming bored is a natural consequence of the human condition, but staying bored is a choice, and you have the power to choose otherwise.

What to do?

Substitution: The first thing you should do is to inform your teacher that you are struggling. It may be that the teacher can substitute some other song or exercise, or work with you on some other area that is more satisfying to you for the time being. However, you should consider input from the teacher before making the final decision on this. It may be that it is best for your long term goals to finish mastering the material you are currently struggling with. Your teacher should be able to offer some kind of explanation as to the value of the material you are working with and this may help you in maintaining your interest in working through it.

Alteration: If you have become bored with an exercise or some other aspect of your practice routine, trying altering it in some way. This is particularly important in improvisational soloing. It is very easy and very common to fall into the trap of playing the same note sequences with the same embellishments and the same timing. Straight eight notes is the bane of many aspiring soloists, and it is the easiest trap to fall into since timing choices (or lack thereof) are not as readily apparent as note choices. Try changing the timing of your collection of stock phrases, then work on changing timing mid-phrase, hold one note noticeably longer than the rest, etc. This is much more challenging than playing straight time (same time value for every note) and may seem impossibly difficult at first, but it will certainly shake up the feeling of boredom and will also make you a much better improvisational soloist.

Inspiration: Every aspiring guitarist has a reason (or combination of reasons) that inspires the effort to learn guitar. Often it is a parent or other significant figure who plays an instrument. In many cases it is admiration for some notable professional guitarist, or a particular song or type of music that the student wants to play. Whatever the case may be, it is important to keep that motivational reason in the front of your mind while going through the learning process. Boredom is a feeling – a feeling of restless dissatisfaction. When you are confronted with boredom reflect on the satisfaction you will feel when you reach your goal. Combat the unproductive feeling of boredom by choosing to meet it with one that inspires you to keep working toward your goal.

Challenge: Another way to combat boredom is to find a new challenge in whatever you are doing. So you are working on some exercise and you have repeated it enough times that you know every note, every motion, etc., so that it begins to feel uninteresting. So what can you do to change it so that it is challenging again? Look for ways to improve the details of your performance. For instance, you have played through a chord change exercise for what feels like a thousand times and you feel like you are done with it. Is it possible you can improve the speed at which you execute the change from one chord to another? Probably. Are you inadvertently muting any strings while strumming the chords? Probably. Is it possible that a metronome will reveal that you are not keeping good time throughout the progression? Probably. Break out these details and set small goals within the overall exercise, and then challenge yourself to improve in these details. As you focus on these parts within the overall goal you will find satisfaction in challenge and accomplishment. You can not be bored when you are intently focused on solving a problem. In fact, you might just find that your main problem is that you do not have as much time for practice as you would prefer!

Substitution … alteration … inspiration … challenge … these four powerful weapons will help you cut the beast of boredom down to a manageable size. Keep these things in mind, and review this article if necessary when you find yourself feeling dreadful of your practice routine. Remember that perseverance is the key to success. It is your choice whether to excel or expire, but with the right tools in your toolbox the road to excellence will be a lot smoother. Choose well!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Technique vs. Feel: Which Is More Important?

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you have been learning guitar for any length of time then you know that unbridled self-expression is a long term project rather than a once-done event. Along the way you may at times find yourself wrestling with a vague sensibility that your playing seems to be technically correct as best you can tell, but yet does not seem to have the lively gut-wrenching feel of your favorite guitarist playing the same thing. Then you may be tempted to think that your technique development endeavors are not getting the job done. If you go online to read some articles about such things, you may stumble across lengthy arguments regarding whether or not technique is more important than feel, whether or not music theory stifles creativity, and so forth. If you are in that stage where you have pretty good technique but do not feel that you are expressing yourself well, you will probably be tempted to align with the “feel/creativity” side of this age old debate, versus the “technique/theory” side.

Let me point out some pertinent issues before addressing the core of the matter: (1) humans (myself included) are averse to work and we will latch on to any rationalization we can find to get out of doing some work, such as technique development, and (2) people who do not have a fully developed understanding of a thing often insist on convenient, simple answers to things where such answers do not exist. So it goes with ideas about learning guitar. Aligning with either extreme in the “technique or feel” debate betrays a lack of experience that leads to further lack of understanding and consequent erroneous judgments over the more subtle aspects of musicianship. Asking whether technique is more important than feel is like asking if a tire is more important than the wheel it mounts to. In both cases, neither can do its job without the other such that they are both critical to achieving the desired results.

So here is the core of the matter: Playing with feel is not the opposite of playing with good technique, but is rather the outgrowth of having developed your technique to the point that it is no longer a barrier between you and self-expression.

By way of example, I recall in my youth being greatly moved by certain beloved songs. I had more than enough feel. I was bursting over with it. What I did not have was any idea how to make such sounds come out of my guitar. My lack of knowledge and technique utterly crippled my efforts to pull what I wanted to express out of my guitar. I needed knowledge of what my favorite artists were doing, and the precise finger control and hand coordination to make it happen. Without sufficient mastery of technique, all the feel in the universe is useless in making music.

So I set out on my technique development journey with a scale book, metronome, and various private lessons. Some years later I reached a point where I could rip through scales at speeds I would have never thought possible for myself, but I still could not make my licks sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s level of raw passion roaring from every phrase (or at least not to the level I wanted to … some folks thought my playing was quite good at that point).

The next level for me was working on refinement of my bending and vibrato, particularly the accuracy of the start and stop points of the bending, plus the rate and proportions of the sweep of the bend. Then to nail these down beyond pure technique accuracy, I looked toward my favorite Blues players and mimicked their technique. Bear in mind, if I had not had the experience and results of laying the foundation of accurate and timely bends then I would not have had the ear for what my favorite artists were doing, much less the finger control to reproduce it.

Then I needed work on my pick attack. I think much of the “feel” in guitar music comes from the pick attack, which varies a bit from one guitar player to another, and from one style to another. Pick attack is a very personal part of musicality, but there are certain universal aspects of pick technique that enable good playing … proper pick hold, strong articulation, accurate timing, playing to the song, etc. Again, without the pick technique foundations you will not have control to apply the subtleties that make for true self-expression.

It is also important to understand that no matter how well you have developed your technique, if you do not resonate with what you hear coming from the guitar then you are not going to be able to play with maximum feel. Self-expression is ultimately a sort of dance between you and your guitar, transcending technique. Technique must be something that is done and out of the way, but you also must enjoy and be moved by your guitar’s tone to get the most out of your playing. If you are not sure what your tonal preference is, just listen to your favorite guitarist and start tweaking your tone towards that. Much like overall musicality, tone development is not a once-done event, but rather a process. The sooner you get started the sooner you will find a tone that compels you rather than hinders you, and then you continually tweak from there as your ear and tastes develop.

Now let us consider a more subtle aspect of music that you must be aware of to avoid undue frustrations with your playing. If you want to play with feel, you must play music that you truly feel! As an example, I am never going to play highly expressive solos in certain styles such as progressive metal, jazz, or bluegrass flatpicking, because I do not really resonate with these styles. This is not because I have any contempt for them or those who play them, but they do not move me as do Blues and Classic Rock. This does not mean that I can not play anything at all over these styles, but my best playing will always happen when I am playing along with Blues or Classic Rock or their close cousins. So if for instance you are attending my group classes, you may not really resonate with all of the variety of songs I use for these since I need to appeal to the tastes and abilities of a broad audience. So, if you find that your solos are coming out somewhat lifeless in these situations, realize that this does not mean you are failing at guitar. Always strive to improve your overall skills of course, and recognize that sometimes being a musician means playing what suits others rather than just yourself. At the same time, recognize that you are never going to be able to get into the “zone” while playing music that does not really stir you up inside. That is perfectly normal, even for pros. (If you take a moment to think about it you will notice that most highly regarded guitarists are known for excellence in only one very narrow range of style.)

Likewise, when playing open jams, playing with a friend, or being put on the spot by someone who knows you are taking lessons asking you play for them, realize that you are not going to do your best playing in these situations, so don’t judge your skills by how you perform under these conditions. Open jams are notorious for including musicians who are not well developed enough to keep good time. You can not feel the music when one or more instruments of the rhythm section is out of time, and you can not resolve phrases properly when a chord change you are expecting is early, late, or just wrong. When you get put on the spot with no warm up you are not going to be able to play as well as after you have had thirty minutes or an hour of playing behind you. The best thing to do with these types of situations is to avoid them. If you wish to play open jams then just play rhythm as best you can and see if the general level of musicianship is going to allow for good soloing with feel, before attempting to cut loose with your best chops. If someone pulls out a guitar from a closet and asks you to show them what you’ve got, tell them you are going to show them some Hendrix first and then smash the guitar over their head. If you are attempting to play in a band and the group is not in good time with one another (i.e., “tight), then do not expect your best playing to happen with this group unless and until they get it together.

Finally, we need to strike a balance between technique development and making music. In answer to a question like “how much technique development do I need to invest my limited time in”, I respond, “rough rule of thumb for a hobbyist, about 20% more than you need to play the music you want to play”. For instance, if you wish to play Blues and Classic Rock, then you do not need to invest a lot of time in cultivating sweep arpeggios to 1000 notes per minute, but you should work on speeding up pentatonic scales and licks to 20% past the speed that you will use them in live playing. This gives you a buffer to offset stage fright, distracting anomalies in the rhythm section, etc, such that you have more than enough control to listen well and play with feel at the speeds you really need, even under these imperfect conditions.

So … if you have been thinking that “feel is more important than technique”, try doing some spirited sport driving with the tires removed from your wheels. After you get out of the hospital then get back to metronome practice, and lot’s of it. 😉

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

3 Answers for Overwhelm

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you are new to guitar, or especially if you have been playing for a while then you may already be acquainted with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that there is a long road ahead and you are not sure you can see the destination. If you have attempted any kind of lesson program you have surely observed that there does not seem to be any one clear thing or few things that you can do to get the results you seek. Maybe you have sensed that there are a LOT of things you need to accomplish. If you are currently involved in a program of instruction, you may have a pile of those things on your desk right now.

As with other impediments to eventual success with music, this feeling is quite normal. Once you get deep enough into this to realize how much is involved with fluent guitar playing, it is easy to become awed by the amount of information to learn and tasks to work through. You may then conclude something like this … “I am not able to do this”, or “I could possibly do this, but I do not have the time”. Then the next logical step is, of course … giving up.

So let’s consider how we get stuck in this trap and then how we can avoid it, or work around it. The first thing we need to know about overwhelm is this – it is a state of mind, not an objective reality. Particularly, it is a feeling … a feeling that we are not up to the job ahead of us. It is also a false feeling. Unfortunately, there is enough of reality inspiring this feeling that it may be difficult to see the falsehood in it. Let’s put on our reality glasses and take another look at this self-defeating false feeling of doom.

1. Know The Facts: The first thing we need to do is address the truth – that learning to play an instrument well is a big task. Although I am a proponent of “positive thinking” to a reasonable extent, a positive attitude does not change the immediate reality of things. We can sit all day and think positive thoughts about being a great musician. Other than a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction, this will accomplish nothing unless we allow this positive framework to motivate sustained action toward a specific goal. A positive outlook combined with focused action will indeed yield impressive results, possibly far beyond what we would have thought ahead of time. So, let’s start by rejecting the sense of doom and replacing it with a positive outlook that we are indeed potentially capable musicians. Let us also combine that mental framework with the willingness to do some work toward our goals.

2. Formulate a Properly Balanced Perspective: Second, let’s narrow down our goals to something realistic. Let us not go to either extreme. One extreme might be what I call the “moon child”. In other words, shooting for the moon. Example, “I’m 38 years old, know three chords, work sixty hours a week, have a wife and three kids, and I want to play like Eddie Van Halen within 6 months of dusting off my old high school guitar”. Here is another example that I see routinely in my pre-enrollment consultations, “I want to be able to play expertly in any style from classical to progressive rock and everything in between” (have you ever taken note that well known accomplished guitarists only play in one very narrow range of style?) The other extreme might be, “Since I can’t play like Eric Clapton my playing is worthless”. Really? Try telling that to B.B. King – one of the most acclaimed guitarists who has ever lived, who made a long, lucrative career and legacy out of simple repetitive blues licks.

So let’s face some facts – some goals are completely off the chart unrealistic, and some goals are simply not appropriate for some persons. On the other hand some folks go to the other extreme and assume that ANY goal is beyond their reach. Here is the balance of truth in the middle of the extremes – there is plenty of fun to be had with guitar at skill levels within the reach of the average person. If you set a goal that is out of proportion to the amount of time you can and will invest into guitar, this is a set-up from day one for overwhelm. If you give in to overwhelm at the slightest appearance of difficulty, you are robbing yourself and others of the great satisfaction to yourself and others that comes from you expressing yourself well with an instrument. Let’s avoid both extremes. Balance is the key.

3. Set Effective Goals: So what is a realistic goal? That is of course going to vary greatly from person to person according to any number of factors. We can look here at some of the common factors. It is very important to pick a range of style to focus on. For instance, classical guitar is a very different approach to guitar than rock. It is unlikely that anyone, and particularly a hobbyist, is going to achieve great things in both of these styles. Even professional musicians tend to focus on one style. So pick the one you like most – the one that has the most songs that you enjoy hearing. In doing so you have eliminated a great deal of material that you need to bother with learning.

Now let’s narrow it down some more. For instance, within the Blues style, we have a number of even more specific styles …. Delta Blues (acoustic slide), Chicago Blues (low gain electric guitar), Texas Blues (medium gain electric guitar with a rock flavor). If you want to play Texas Blues, you do not need to master alternate tunings for acoustic slide guitar. So you see, when you narrow down your goal, you eliminate a LOT of material that you would be wasting time to pursue. This does not mean you are permanently eliminating the possibility of playing songs from any other style. Contrarily, learning to play well in one style will undoubtedly leave you potentially much more capable to approach other styles with better results, especially closely related styles such as Blues and Rock.

Ok, so we have narrowed things down to where we can see some outer limits to what we have to accomplish to reach our goal. There is still a lot left to do. So how do we look at all this and avoid a sense of doom? Very simple. There is an old adage I am fond of repeating to my clients: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Rather than look at a whole body of knowledge and tasks with awe and overwhelm, we break the project into parts that we can manage and set up a plan to start building up fluency in each of a number of targeted areas.

If you have been at this for a while you have probably accumulated a lot of material and it becomes practically impossible to study all of it routinely. So what do you do? You have to look at your short term goals and see what material will help you reach those goals. If you have material that is not pertinent to your short term goals, set it aside for now and focus on things that are directly relevant to the closest goals. For instance, if your near-term goal is the ability to play pop rock solos, you do not need to practice exotic scales and diminished arpeggios. Focus on pentatonic scales, embellishments, and phrasing. The more advanced materials can wait until you have mastered the basic stuff to an extent that you can yield more practice time to exploring new ideas.

Essentially, the problem of overwhelm yields to these things: positive attitude combined with positive action, goal-oriented organization, and targeted elimination of non-essentials. Push aside incapacitating thoughts. Replace them with enthusiastic action. Organize your practice time and materials around your near-term goals. Eliminate (for now) those things that do not contribute to these goals.
Finally, as with all things guitar, practice well and often!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Defeating the Scary Guitar Clown

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you are in my age range or better then you may remember IT. IT was a millennia-old creepy space alien featured in the 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name, and a TV miniseries in 1990. IT manifested itself to the neighborhood children in the form of a circus clown. IT would appear in a benevolent clown form and woo the neighborhood children with laughter and promises of balloons and parties, and then when he had their confidence would morph into a scary clown and steal them away to a creepy underground bunker.

In the novel and film the surviving neighborhood kids grew up and came home to band together and defeat IT once and for all … or so they thought. The fact is, in teaching guitar to beginners and up for some years now, I have found that IT is hanging around my studio. He pops up all over the place. For example, when providing feedback on technique refinements I often hear responses such as, “I’m trying, but IT (“my hand”) wants to do it this way,” or “IT wants to tense up when I try to move that fast,”, or “IT (the pick) shifts around when I try to hold IT this way.” “IT (my thumb) wants to hook ITself over the top of the neck.” “IT (my pinkie) wants to curl up into a popcorn shrimp when I make a fifth chord.”

Indeed. Creepy IT seems to be the number one barrier to progress for many students of guitar. This need not be so, because the fact is … there is no IT. There is only YOU. YOU are the Scary Guitar Clown. It is YOU who is permitting excess tension, allowing the fingers to fly and flop around chaotically, plowing the pick through the strings like a bulldozer, allowing mental focus to drift, and generally making the hands and fingers wrestle against the strings rather then dance with them.

If you like your IT you can keep IT! However, if you want maximum results in the shortest possible time then you will have to deal IT a crushing death blow sooner rather than later. The first step in conquering IT is to acknowledge that IT is YOU. If your fingers are doing anything at all other than totally relaxing, then YOU are doing it. Apart from direct physical manipulation by someone or something other than you, your fingers can not do anything except exactly what your brain tells them to do. Pinkies do not curl up into a tight ball on their own. Likewise, if you are locking up your wrist and clamping too firmly on the pick during rhythm strokes, it is YOU tightening up the forearm muscles that control the wrist. YOU are doing that, not IT! So take responsibility and avoid passing the blame to IT!

Now let us discuss for a minute why IT gets the blame for so much technique chaos. We come from the factory equipped with several levels of control over the muscular systems. Level 1 is the autopilot mode. The heart, for example, will continue to beat at the set tempo regardless of our consciousness of it or efforts to manipulate it through focused attention. Level 2 is the autopilot with manual override. The eyelids are a good example of this one. When we are awake they close and open without any conscious attention, and when we sleep they remain closed. However, we may at any time take full control of them, either blinking, holding open, or holding closed as we prefer, until we release them back into the control of the autopilot mode. Then we have the skeletal muscles on Level 3. They run mostly in manual mode with autopilot override for special circumstances, such as the knee jerk reaction when the leg responds to a strike to the knee joint.

Then we have the fingers. How do we label the control mode of the fingers? I think most entry level guitarists would say something like, “Manual mode until I try to play guitar, then Scary Guitar Clown mode,” by which they mean that it seems impossible to fully control the fingers when trying to manipulate them individually, when IT appears to take over. Is this really true? It is partially true and partially not true. The fingers run on a mix of all the above modes, but mostly on manual control. If you don’t think they have an autopilot override, try putting them on a hot stove burner and you will see how quick they go into autopilot override.

So how does this examination help us to defeat the Scary Clown Mode? We must understand four important things about the control of the fingers:

(1) The default control mode of the fingers is a hybrid of manual control of the fingers as a group, with autopilot control of the other fingers when trying to use one independently. To illustrate, put the tips of all four fingers downward facing on the edge of a table and then use the other hand to curl the pinky until the tip touches the palm. It is quite easy, with no strain on the knuckles, muscles, or skin. Now try to do that same test with your fingers free from outside constraints, using only the control offered by your mind. You will observe that the ring finger follows along with the pinky, no matter how hard you try to separate the two. Why does this happen? Mechanically the two are completely independent. It is the default programming of the brain making the ring finger follow the pinky. The default program is to use the fingers as a group. This is great for grasping things firmly, but it is totally contrary to what we need to do as guitarists. This is the deadly IT of which we speak, and the one we must overcome in order to develop a great command over guitar technique.

 

(2) In addition to the limited degree of manual independent control we have over the fingers by default, we can cultivate greater individual finger control through focused repetition of specific movements. This is why scale practice should always be near the top of your guitar practice priorities. Scale practice is not simply a tool to remember note placement. Among other things, if done correctly it is the most powerful technique improvement tool available. With enough practice we can not only cultivate finger independence, but we can actually reprogram the autopilot portion of our finger control so that it does new things in autopilot mode, such as play through scales accurately and efficiently. This is the secret of mastering guitar technique. It is important to note here that we are reprogramming the autopilot every time we practice, regardless of whether we are practicing great technique, good technique, or slop. This is why it is important to pay attention to the details while practicing scales!

 

(3) Regarding the pick hand, it is very important to understand that you have already spent many years cultivating an alternate autopilot program that takes over when you attempt to exercise fine control over the pick hand – writing. Writing is similar to picking, but not the same, so when you allow the writing autopilot to take over when you go to pick, you will have poor control over the pick.

 

(4) Ultimately, we DO in fact have a great degree of control over individual fingers, but we must consciously choose to exert this control in defiance of the default programs. For example, I often see a tightly curled pinky when making fifth chords (power chords), and I always advise that this creates unnecessary tension, which further causes unnecessary levels of finger pressure and undue difficulties in changing from one fretboard location to another. I then advise to manual override the pinky popcorn shrimp of death while making the fifth chords. It is always a struggle at first, but I have yet to observe a student who can not eventually cultivate a new habit of keeping all the fingers straight and relaxed while executing fifth chords. Likewise, the pick hand technique always starts out with a sort of stabbing motion coming from pushing the index finger and thumb out from the side of the hand which is planted on the bridge, and then curling it back in to make the pick stroke – just like writing. With enough focused effort the student can defeat the writing program and develop a new autopilot mode of efficiently picking from the wrist, with the fingers immobile and the base of the hand planted on the guitar or strings. (See my pick technique video for in depth analysis)

 

Don’t let IT ruin your technique. IT is a formidable enemy at first, but by consciously choosing to control your fingers until they do what you want, you can send IT packing and make beautiful music instead. Get to work, and don’t stop until you get the desired results!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Keys to Mastery: Attention to Detail

By Chad Crawford – Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

Don’t sweat the small stuff! So goes the old saying, and within its sphere this is a sage piece of advice. When playing guitar the ability to cruise past mistakes without getting derailed is critical. However, we need to keep in mind that playing guitar and practicing guitar are very different things. When practicing guitar we very much need to sweat the small stuff. Practice does not make perfect unless it is perfect practice! Repetition of slop guarantees playing slop. So when practicing we need to perform every detail of our technique as perfectly as possible. Of course “perfection” by its nature is not a realistic goal. The point is that we need to be continually striving to improve on the details of how we interact with the guitar. If we make “perfection” the target of our technique endeavors then our actual results will be far superior to those resulting from a vague goal like “doing the best I can”.

While doing our best is not a bad ideal, in practical application this kind of ambiguously defined goal leaves us a lot of room for actually not doing our best. If we measure doing our best solely by subjective criteria such as “this felt difficult so I must have been doing my best,” that is a well-intended but flawed yardstick by which to determine what is our best. Our best practice will result when we apply focused attention to the smallest details of our technique, measuring by objective criteria rather than by our perceptions of difficulty or success.

It is important to understand that people do not deliberately set out to practice in ways that are less than productive. Rather, focused concentration for extended periods is not our default mode of thinking, such that errors creep in just under our notice despite our general intent to “do our best”. So it is important to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the details!

Let us then look at some specific details of common technique flaws among students of guitar. Keep in mind, the goal of this discussion is constructive feedback toward the end of helping you to identify problems and correct them. Merely adopting the ideal that it is good to pay attention to detail will make no difference in your progress. You have to actually make the conscious effort to implement!

1 – Harsh Chord Changes: chord changes is one of toughest challenges for beginning guitar players. Just getting the fingers to work separately from one another at all is a full agenda. Once you get past this then the next step is to work on changing chords while keeping a rhythm pattern going. This is where the problem with attention to detail begins to show. Specifically, releasing tension on the last beat of the current chord in anticipation of the finger shifting for the next chord, such that the pick stroke yields a buzzy thud instead of a clear harmonious ringing. Most do not realize they are doing this until I point it out. Why? Because they have already shifted their focus off of the details of the current chord and onto the chord that has yet to happen. This is a perfect example of how lack of attention to detail results in undesirable sounds. If you want your chord rhythms to flow nicely so that they sound smooth then pay close attention to the last pick stroke of each chord and make sure you are retaining the fingering of the current chord until it is time to change. If this means you have to slow down to execute the chord change properly then do it. Speed up gradually as your muscle memory of the finger positioning allows it.

2 – Choppy Scales: for scales to sound their best we need to play them with no time lapse between notes. This requires consistent finger pressure on each note until the precise moment of the change to the next note, and then a coordinated execution between the fret hand finger and the pick stroke as we shift to the new note. One common problem I observe is releasing pressure on the current note just as soon as the note is made. The cause is the same as the chord changing issue … preoccupation with the note ahead to the detriment of the one currently ringing. It is critical to pay attention to keeping the current note “live” while maneuvering both hands to set up the next note. Another common problem is lack of precise coordination between the two hands such that the pick strikes the string either before or after the placement of the fret hand finger on the upcoming note. Again, both of these issues respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the details of your fingering and two hand synchronization, such that you execute notes well. Then after sufficient repetition to enforce the habits of hand, speed up gradually as your mastery allows while continuing to pay attention to these details.

3 – Bends and Vibrato: bending along with its cousin vibrato are the most powerful, expressive techniques we have as guitarists – when they are executed well. They are also among the most difficult things to master since they are entirely under your control, unlike simply fingering a single note or chord where you have the frets to help you with pitch accuracy. The common problems I see with bending and vibrato are picking the string after the bend has started, bending up to an out of tune pitch, and then releasing the bend to a pitch other than the original unbent note. Again, these all respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the start, peak, and trough of the bend, then repeating until accurate bends become a habit while continuing to monitor the accuracy of peaks and troughs. Then speed up as improvements in muscle memory permit.

4 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Single Notes: the pick should be located between the pad of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, and the wrist should be relaxed such that the pick makes roughly a 30-45 degree angle to the strings. Then play with the base of the hand parallel to the strings, with a sharp but relaxed bump of the wrist to make the pick stroke. While this is physiologically the easiest, most comfortable way to hold and maneuver the pick, we tend to bring a lot of hangover from our handwriting habits into picking. This results in all manner of difficulties, such as bringing the middle finger into the pick hold, trying to pick from the far side of the hand (as with writing), and all manner of wasteful sweeping and swooshing motions where the job requires only a straightforward 1/4 inch arc of the pick. These handwriting habits are hard to break, but it is possible, and essential for fast and accurate picking. While practicing scales, pay attention to these details and force your pick hand to comply until it becomes a habit.

5 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Strumming: the pick hold is the same as for single notes. However, the pick stroke for strumming should come from the elbow, with the pick making a straight line across the strings. For the best tone we need light contact with the strings and a fast moving pick coming from a controlled flick of the wrist. Common problems with strumming are locking the wrist and then plowing harshly through the strings, trying to make an arc from the wrist rather then the elbow, and playing an arch or angle rather than a straight line parallel to the strings. Pay attention to these details for a smooth, chime-y, shimmering tone from the strings while strumming.

6 – Excess Tension: this is a universal problem among beginner and even intermediate level guitarists. Playing with too much muscular power results in pressing fretted notes too hard, often bending them out of tune. A heavy handed pick attack results in notes and chords that sound harsh. Excessive muscular tension is an automatic nervous system response to physical challenge arising from our instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. While this response is very useful when we encounter a bear in the woods, it is a disaster to our guitar technique. Playing guitar is a dance, not a fight. We must play with finesse, not power, if we want our guitars to yield up pleasing sounds in response to our manipulation. All of the problems above are at least partially a result of playing with excessive muscular tension. You can counter the fight or flight response with deliberate focused attention on the state of muscular tension in your hands, arms, and shoulders while practicing scales and chord rhythms. Make it a habit to play with as little muscular tension as possible.
Finally, be sure to practice as often as possible! Learning guitar is all about memory in terms of both mental recall and physical muscle control. Every day that you do not practice you lose a bit of recall and muscle memory. That is just the way the human machine functions and there is not much we can do about it. Therefore, it is best to practice every day. This is not feasible for many hobbyists. In this case, make it a point to practice more days than not … at least five days a week.
Pay attention to the details to ensure that your practice routine is leading to progress rather than frustration!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Keys to Creativity

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor Palmetto Music Institute 

Among the challenges we face as developing guitar players, cultivating a sense of artistic creativity may seem among the most formidable. Many assume that creativity is a mysterious insight arising from the recesses of the fortunately gifted minds of a select few. In fact, creativity is not a mystery. As with all things musical it responds to focused effort to cultivate it.

So how do you get from having “no creativity” to the point of being able to write songs and play improvisational solos?

First let us address the occasional Mozart who shows up with tremendous innate musical ability. There is indeed a phenomenon of abundant natural talent, but for most musicians, other artists, engineers, inventors, writers, etc., natural talent is not in fact the key to creativity. So the Mozart’s are irrelevant in terms of understanding how a person of typical native ability can develop creative prowess. Forget about natural talent, and most importantly don’t fall for the common misconception that creativity is something that you either have or do not have as a result of inheritance.

Now let us consider what creativity actually is. Is it really assembling something out of nothing in a mysterious seizure of inspiration from quarters unknown? No! Even Mozart had to sit with paper and pen and work his inspirations into orderly, flowing pitch and time relationships. Consider this quote from prolific inventor Thomas Edison, whose record on creativity speaks for itself: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

Creativity is neither an unknowable mystery, an accident, nor a fleeting peek into the ethereal mists. It is rather a predictable result of a process involving mastery of the fundamental elements of an endeavor, and then applying those fundamentals in such a way as to generate beauty of function and form. Notice that I did not say anything about creating something from nothing, or even something totally new. Creativity does not mean creating something from nothing. It means assembling the known into that which effectively solves problems or manifests beauty. It is well within the reach of anyone willing to apply themselves to the process.

Now let us consider how this applies to music, and specifically to guitar. Music is fundamentally two objective phenomenon: pitch relationships and time relationships. Musicians assemble these relationships in such a way as to create the more subjective phenomenon of an emotionally satisfying flow of tension and release. This does not require the creation of anything new, but rather a well developed awareness of how pitch and time relationships work together to create a satisfying flow of tension and release.

So let’s break it down now even more specifically to the things we need to have mastery over in order to make music that satisfies us and our intended audience.

1. Know your notes on the fretboard – everything we do as musicians involves assembling notes in melody (one after another) or harmony (in unison, such as a chord or double stop) with reference to a tonal center (key). If you do not know the notes then you are limited to playing by patterns or by ear. While playing by patterns and by ear are useful tools, if you wish to cultivate maximum creativity then you need to allow yourself as many options as possible. If you can visualize the letter names of the notes you are playing then it is much easier to choose resolving notes for phrases, or make useful alterations to chords to achieve just the right shade of mood.

2. Know the names of the notes in the Major Keys – the Major Scale is the starting point for all we do. Everything else is an alteration of some sort to a Major Scale. If you know the names of the notes in the key you are playing, and can also see them as you play them on the fretboard, these together will give you a great deal of power to achieve a desired musical effect without having to always guess your way through things with experimentation.

3. Understand Intervals – intervals are the building blocks of the pitch aspect of music. A thorough understanding of intervals will allow you to know what effect a note is going to have before you play it. If you know your intervals then you will be able to create musical effects at will, alter scales and chords to create precise shades of emotion, and transfer musical ideas from one key to another with ease.

4. Understand the effects of the basic divisions of the beat – along with pitch relationships, relative timing between pitch events is one of the fundamental components of music. A good set of timing relationships by itself is very powerful (think of a powerful drum intro that sets the mood for a song). If you understand the basic divisions of the beat and how to modify them to tastes then you can create strong shades of mood at will.

5. Understand scale harmonization – knowing how to translate a particular scale into chord sequences will enable you to assemble pleasing chord progressions in a matter of moments. Knowing the chords in the key and the notes in the chords will also give you a lot of useful options for resolving solo phrases.

6. Listen to a lot of music – musical inspiration is often a residual effect of exposure to other music. Saturate your creative muse with immersion into a wide variety of music, and pay attention to the individual details such as the vocals, drums, and bass. In doing so you will cultivate a deeper intuitive understanding of music, much as a child learns to speak by regular exposure to speech.

7. Start from the known – creativity is often a matter of slight alterations to common ideas. Learn the signature licks, chord types and sequences, and rhythmic ideas of the masters of your preferred style. Then experiment with alterations until you uncover ideas that express what you wish.

8. Constantly refine your technique – if you have ever wondered how an accomplished guitarist can play something very simple and yet have it sound very beautiful and powerful, the trick is often in the technique. What many experience as a “lack of creativity” is in fact a lack of technique refinement that will make an otherwise great idea sound lifeless or even just plain bad. Technique development is not just a matter of mere repetition. It is essential to pay attention to the quality of sound (a.k.a. “tone”) during technique development practice. Don’t rush through technique exercises with the goal of merely getting them over with as quickly as possible. Listen carefully to the small details. Strive to improve the quality of sound resulting from each pick stroke.

If you are breathing then you have creative potential. If you cultivate the appropriate knowledge, technique, and persistence then you can be sure that your creative muse will show itself. Get to work!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Realistic Measures of Progress

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

 

Learning to play an instrument well is a process involving study, memorization, repetition, and refinement, all of which happen across time. It is not a matter of giant leaps but rather steady increments of progress. While a good program of instruction combined with a good practice routine yields inevitable results, at times the progress may seem very slow or non-existent. It is easy during these spells to become discouraged and possibly even give up altogether, so it is important to be able to make realistic evaluations of progress. The four steps below will help you to measure your progress realistically.

 

  1. Avoid comparisons – it is not profitable in any way to compare your progress or your current skills to those of others, especially iconic professionals. Regardless of what you may have heard or read, no one achieves a high level of musicianship without sustained effort across a period of years. Aspiring guitarists have widely varying circumstances which lead to widely varying progress rates and skill levels. Additionally, every musician has strengths and weaknesses in various areas such that comparing your current weaknesses to another’s current strengths will leave you with a warped view of how you are doing. The only legitimate and relevant measure of progress is how you are doing today versus how you were doing last month, six months ago, and last year.

 

  1. Excessive concern with mistakes – ideally we all want to play perfectly, and continual effort towards perfecting our music is advisable. However, while learning guitar be cautious about striking a realistic balance between continual progress and reasonable allowance for mistakes and imperfections. These are a perfectly normal part of the process. They key to dealing with them is to not let them completely derail your playing, such as stopping every time you make a mistake. Avoid the temptation to think that mistakes in your playing mean that your music is no good and that you are not making any progress. Even pros make mistakes.

 

  1. Avoid measuring progress by “feel” – few would attempt to measure a distance of one foot by solely considering how they feel about how long one foot is. Rather, most would simply apply a tape measure to the job. Contrarily, many attempt to measure their progress as musicians by how they feel about their playing at the moment. This is of course completely unrealistic, but it is also a common human response to a long term process. Preoccupation with results can be wearisome if we are working towards a wildly fluctuating target such as our feelings. If your feelings about your progress are at odds with objective measures of progress then recognize the feelings as irrelevant and put them aside.

 

  1. Utilize objective measures of progress – It is an inevitable aspect of human nature that we tend toward looking at the negative side of things. This tendency is magnified when working our way through a long term endeavor such as learning music. Counter this by using an objective standard such as a practice schedule cataloging effort toward various knowledge and skills relevant to your playing goals. Then you will be able to see plainly without the cloud of fickle feelings and negativity when you are in fact making real progress.

 

Remember, the only real and relevant measure of progress is measuring your past knowledge and technique against your present knowledge and technique.

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

A Secret Of Success

By Chad Crawford, PMI Blues Guitar Instructor

Catchy title, eh? Notice I said “A secret”, as opposed to “THE secret”. The truth is, there are many elements that contribute to success in any endeavor. They are not really secrets either, they just seem that way to people who have not perceived them yet. We are going to discuss one “secret” in this article that will be of great value to you as you strive to improve your guitar skills. This will also apply to about anything else you do in life.

I am going to guess that when you saw the title of the article you might have been expecting I was going to provide some kind of short cut that would make it easy to improve your guitar skills in a very short time. Did you? Well, sorry about that. No such luck. About the closest you are going to get to that ideal is “find a great instructor”. Unfortunately there are no easy ways to become a musician. There are only more effective and less effective methods.

If you want a straightforward bottom line about becoming a competent musician, the key concept is WORK. If you are one of these who has believed that it is all about “natural talent” I hope I can dissuade you of that view. I won’t go deep into that topic in this article, but if you want to check it out for yourself you can do some research on some of your favorite musicians and how they got to be great.

Now, if you have been a human being long enough you have probably figured something out: we don’t like work much. Work is hard and boring. We would much rather play, right? As humans we all have an inherent aversion to work known as LAZINESS. If there is any one thing that is most likely to derail your musical aspirations it is laziness. Laziness manifests in many forms, some very obvious and some not so obvious. The obvious ones are such as this, “I would rather watch TV than practice guitar exercises”. The more insidious ones might be along these lines, “I need to practice my harmonic minor scales, but it is more gratifying to just blast away on the Pentatonic Minor I already know, so I will do that for 30 minutes and practice Harmonic Minor for 2 minutes.” Or maybe this, “I know I need to follow my practice schedule but I will ‘warm up’ with my favorite songs first and then work on my practice schedule.” 45 minutes later … you know the routine. Another one, “It seems to me that I can get this piece played easier using my ‘natural’ technique rather than following my evil teacher’s more challenging technique recommendation which requires me to concentrate.” Yet again, “I know I am supposed to repeat this slowly and methodically, but I am going to disregard that and play it as fast as possible and hope that will work better today, even though I know it never has worked better.” The biggest killer of all, “I’m really busy today and one practice session won’t make a difference anyway.” Or how about this, “I really need to practice, but I will instead waste two hours having supper and spending quality time with my family”.

Ok, maybe that last one is a bit too extreme for you who are not REALLY committed just yet! Don’t worry, you don’t have to be that radical to get pretty good on the guitar. The point is that laziness is a deadly enemy to progress. It comes out in many ways and is always on your shoulder, whispering to you – take it easy, go the easier route, find a less challenging way to do this, take a short cut, if I had any talent this would not be hard so I might as well give up, etc.. We must overcome this if we are to succeed. So, you might be thinking the answer is discipline, right? Well, yes. However, laziness is a powerful and deceptive internal adversary and the truth is that most of us do not have the wits or the kind of internal discipline we need to overcome it – by ourselves.

And there in that last phrase is an age-old, very powerful secret of success, utilized by nations, armies, corporate leaders, athletic coaches, and other kinds of team leaders across times, places, and cultures. It is powerful enough to squash the roaring demon of laziness into a pile of goo.

Do you see it yet?

Imagine this. You are on the football team and the coach passes out a sheet at the beginning of the week. On the sheet is the list of all the agonizing physical torture he wants you to inflict on yourself this week. Since he knows you have self-discipline he trusts you to see to this, meeting adjourned, see you next week. You go home and look over the list while you are watching TV and eating donuts. If you are especially self-disciplined you might even memorize the contents of the list. You may even go out and run a half mile until you get winded and it starts hurting your legs. Then you give up. After all it is 90 degrees outside and this is boring, and besides who will know or care if you cheat?

Do you think a football team would get very far with this approach to preparation? No, of course not. That is why you are going to stay at the field with all the rest of the team and torture yourself under the observation of the coach and the peer pressure of the rest of the team.

Hopefully by now you are seeing the principle that I am getting at, but if not, I will spell it out plainly here. The “secret” I am speaking of is COMMUNITY. You may hear it called teamwork or work group or network or some other name, but the basic concept is the same – the most effective way to combat laziness is to be part of a social network where you are inherently held accountable for the results of your work. Inclusion in a social network will provide negative feedback in the form of embarrassment if you fail to perform, and positive feedback in the form of praise and respect when you do perform. In addition, we all tend to have a competitive instinct such that we will almost automatically try to out do the people around us. Furthermore, we have an internal mechanism that feels obligation to meet the expectations of our friends. And again, it is built into us to derive great satisfaction from being part of a special group defined by our unique successes. So we have all these very powerful motivators sitting inside us, ready to do battle on our behalf against our arch-enemy laziness. These are the same motivators that have brought victory to armies, athletic teams, companies, the list goes on and on. These motivators are inert until exposed to a group environment, then they rise up and start kicking down walls!

So you have something to do here. You have all this potential power inside but it is up to you to get it activated. How do you do this? Well, you need to get involved with other musicians. Taking lessons is a great step in the right direction. Tell your family and friends that you are learning to play guitar and you are serious about it and you will not accept less of yourself than success. Try to get a friendly hobby band together if possible, or just hang out and jam as much as you can with other friends who are musicians. If you are in church you can see if they will let you join as a future back-up musician while you are learning, then you sit in on the weekly practice and try to play along. Get involved with a local musical fellowship through MeetUp.com. There are a hundred ways, but you need to do something to get yourself involved in some kind of group setting.

For my actively enrolled students I offer access to a private Internet forum. Internet forums have become explosively popular in the last decade and there are many opportunities for networking this way. However, it will do no good to look over the forums from time to time. You have to get involved. You have to get known in an environment where people are doing the same thing you are doing. You have to engage in friendly competition with people at your same level (you do not have to state this, it will happen automatically. I do not recommend telling people you want to compete with them until you know them really well). You have to let people know what your goals are and what you are doing to get there. You must show interest in their goals and progress and thus build mutual respect and goodwill. It will come back to you many times over.

This attachment to a group is CRITICAL, I can not over-emphasize this. It will keep you going through the many times when the path of progress takes you through spots that are tedious and frustrating. If you decline to get involved socially this way then your chances of succeeding are greatly reduced. Contrarily, when you do connect with a group of musical peers you will not only achieve more but will also enjoy music much more. After all, music is a form of communication. It is rather pointless if you do not share it with others.

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

9 Not-So-Easy Steps to Guitar Mastery

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

1. Identify your goals – It is important at the outset of your musical endeavors, or if you are an intermediate player who has hit “the wall” then right now is the time for you, to determine exactly what it is you wish to accomplish. If you look around at the community of guitar players you will observe that most of the iconic players are known for one particular narrow range of musical style. By focusing on one narrow specialty they were able to focus on developing the technique and knowledge pertinent to that specialty to a very high level. It is not necessary and not wise to attempt to master all styles of music, especially so for a hobbyist who is necessarily under time constraints. Determine what kind of music you most want to play and identify the technique and knowledge you need for that style. Then don’t squander precious time on things that do not apply to your goal. You can branch out later, but trying to tackle the whole field of musical endeavor from the outset is a sure plan for catastrophic frustration.

2. Listen to the music you enjoy – For some rare, unusually gifted musicians most of their musical inspiration seems to come from some secret well-spring within themselves. If you are one of these you would have known it before you were able to read, so if you are reading this then odds are you should not waste time trying to bypass the route most of us have to take to musical creativity: learning from those who have gone before. Identify those guitarists who you most enjoy listening to and wish to sound similar to, and spend plenty of time just listening to their songs. This will inspire you to practice, awaken your own creativity, and sharpen your discernment of pitch and time relationships.

3. Work with a good teacher – people who do not know much about making music commonly believe that music is simply an outgrowth of the personality, and so polluting the muse with organization and technical ideas is a sort of poison. That sort of thinking is why these people are not musicians, or not very good ones. For maximum results in the shortest possible time work with an expert coach who knows how to help you refine your goals, steer you toward the appropriate tools, and eliminate common useless side roads and pitfalls.

4. Master the basics – we all covet advanced playing skills and the accompanying freedom of expression. However, we don’t climb mountains by jumping from the valley straight to the peak. Rather we climb up one step at a time until we reach the peak. Trying to start out with guitar by tackling advanced songs from master guitarists is a sure path to overwhelming frustration and poor overall skills. Start with the basics, and practice them to the point that they come automatically. Then start working on the advanced stuff.

5. Practice well – We have all heard that the key to musical mastery is, “Practice, practice, practice.” While that apt cliche is indeed as true with music as it is with any realm of human endeavor, it fails to answer some very important questions: what to practice and how to practice. If you wish to become a great or even just a good musician, you should approach practice as a labor of love, with emphasis on labor. Practice should be an organized effort to achieve clearly defined goals, rather than another session of doodling with the same bits and pieces of songs from yesterday’s practice session. Random doodling is playing, not productive practice.

Here are some keys to effective practice:

Assemble a practice schedule that addresses knowledge and technique relevant to your goa

Follow the instructions – “playing by feel” is the shortest path to going in circles of self-sabotage with your practice routine. It may carry you for a while, but eventually it will lead to a dead end. Whatever manner of instructional materials you are using, practice according to the instructions. When you have mastered the piece of knowledge or technique at hand you will then be able to incorporate it into that body of things which you can effectively apply by feel.

Cultivate good habits – habit is powerful either on your behalf or to your detriment. Habit will respond to whatever you put into it, either great things or mediocre ones. Utilize good technique, proven methods, and pay attention to details during practice. Make it a habit to push your mind and hands for an increment of improvement during every practice session, rather than habitually accepting yesterday’s routine as today’s standard.

Memorization – memory, both physical and mental, responds best to focus, repetition, relation to the already known, and consistency. This is why it is very important to have an organized practice routine and to practice as often as possible. Shorter daily practices will yield better results than weekend marathon sessions.

6. Creativity – self-expression is impossible when one is utterly distracted by managing the basic facets of musicianship. Beyond that, creativity in music is rarely a matter of coming up with something that no one has ever thought of. That is not possible at this time in history. Creativity is more a matter of taking what is already known and putting a new spin on it, or assembling it in some novel way. Every human being is creative. What most folks consider a lack of creativity is really more a lack of technical skills distracting the attention away from what the internal creative muse is trying to deliver. If you want to experience the fullest of what your internal muse has to offer then get past stumbling over the basics as soon as possible.

7. Managing Frustration – mastering music is a complex long term endeavor, and some frustration with the process is inevitable. Don’t let it become a bigger thing in your mind that it is in reality. Feeling frustrated can not stop your progress in any way, unless you choose let it stop you from practicing. Avoid comparisons to other players. That has no bearing at all on your progress and so it is an utterly useless waste of time. Don’t allow perfectionism to creep into your thinking. Even pros make mistakes, and the music is still quite good despite the occasional mistake. Be sure you are following the instructions. Much undue frustration arises from trying to play by feel rather following the instructions. Allow yourself due credit for what you have accomplished, and measure your progress by objective standards rather than how you feel about your progress. Such feelings are typically unrealistically harsh and often adopt the feeling of frustration itself as a measure of progress, or lack thereof. Feeling frustrated has no bearing whatsoever on the objective reality of your progress, so don’t let your mind sabotage you with such tricks.

8. Managing Stage Fright – psychologists identify a phenomenon that occurs when we are trying to perform any kind of challenging task under direct observation. They call it “performance anxiety”. We musicians usually refer to it as “stage fright”. It is one of the most challenging aspects of music, but like all things musical it will respond to strategic efforts to bring it under control. Stage fright is a lower-level instinctive response to stress such that our bodies gear up to respond with vigorous action. Since we need to be relaxed and focused to perform music well, it is detrimental and even crippling to our musical abilities. However, as powerful as this instinct is we can learn to suppress it with practice. And that brings us to step 9 …

9. Play with others – music is ultimately a means of communication, and as such it is rather pointless to do it at all if we are not going to share it with others, kind of like learning a second language with no intent other than continually practicing it alone in front of a mirror. Playing with others is not only fulfilling but also helps identify weaknesses in our knowledge and technique for further study, allows us an opportunity to learn from others, and gives us experience in managing stage fright. It is also important in a general sense to include a social aspect to our experience of learning music, both in regards to celebrating our successes and sharing the burdens of the process. As soon as you can play basic chord rhythms you should seek opportunities to play with other musicians. If you have no musically inclined friends, look online into the local fellowship communities such as Meetup where you can find amateur jam sessions that allow for folks with moderate skills to participate in a group setting.

Mastering music is not easy, but it is possible even for the hobbyist with time constraints. Practice wisely and well, be patient, and never give up!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.