Monthly Archives: September 2013

Keys To Guitar Mastery: Focus

Among the challenges we face as developing guitar players, retention of knowledge and technique is certainly high on the list of obstacles. As with any long term complex undertaking, we can take shorter or longer paths to the same end. While common sense dictates that we take the shorter path, there a number of ways to step off the shortest path without realizing it. For maximum results in the shortest possible time we need to be aware of these potential pitfalls and make every effort to avoid them.

A prevalent obstacle to maximum progress among developing guitarists is lack of deliberate focus during lessons and practice. Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to recall and technique, but repetition without deliberate focus can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. Contrarily, repetition combined with deliberate focus will enable your mind and hands to progress at their maximum rates.

It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to let the attention wander around to different things, and thus sustained focus on one thing requires some conscious effort. Additionally there may be no feeling of increased progress while making the extra effort to stay focused, and so there may be no immediate sense of gratification in exchange for the extra effort. However, both science and common sense reveal that all types of memory, including muscle memory, achieve their peak power in response to sustained focused attention.

So let’s look at some specific applications of deliberate focus in overcoming common pitfalls. It is not practical to attempt to cover every conceivable situation in which lack of focus will hinder your progress, but looking at a few examples will paint a clear picture of how this works. You will then need to use good judgment in applying the general idea toward finding specific tasks where lack of focus is holding you back.

1. Paying attention to instructions – it is very easy to allow the mind to wander off in the middle of an explanation, then practice something wrong all week. In some cases I have seen students so excited about learning something new that in the middle of my demonstration they take off trying to figure out what I am playing by ear rather than concentrating on the demo, which of course defeats the purpose of the demo. While I commend the passion about learning new things, this is an obvious example of not paying attention to the instructions, and the results are predictable – we have to go over it again. Whether your instruction method be a book, video, or personal one-on-one lessons,  be assured that you will get better results by controlling the impulse to take off playing as soon as you have the first hint of where to put your fingers, and instead getting your mind around the full explanation before attempting to apply it.

2. Following the instructions – assuming you have paid attention to the instructions and thus have a sufficient understanding of what to do, the next step is to apply the instructions. Certain details of optimum physical technique are often at conflict with our natural inclination toward doing what feels physically easiest for us at the moment. While few would argue whether or not following the instructions is important, some aspects of our motor skills operate at a subconscious level. While attempting scale exercises for instance, we must manage a number of things simultaneously such as note location, timing, and coordination of the picking and fretting hands. It is very easy in this kind of multi-tasking situation to allow the fingers to revert to auto-pilot while we monitor other details, and then we slip into repeating poor physical technique and allow it to become a self-defeating habit. It is very hard to break ingrained poor physical technique habits. Do not allow this to happen. Follow the instructions!

3. Frustration – nothing will derail your focus faster than allowing the feeling of frustration to take over your consciousness. This is a certain path to lagging progress, which leads to more frustration, and so it becomes a cycle of self-sabotage. Don’t let it happen. Assuming you are following a good program of instruction and are actually following the instructions accurately, indulging frustration is a waste of your time and effort. Do not allow frustration to become your measuring line of how well you are doing. Frustration is a typical human response to any complex endeavor and it does not necessarily mean you are doing things wrong. If you know you are working on what you are supposed to be working on to reach your goals then when you feel frustrated you should put it aside and stay focused on what you are working on instead.

4. Timing – while learning to apply new scales or develop efficient chord changes, it is common to focus on simply getting the finger motions done to neglect of the critical timing details that make these things sound clear and smooth so that you acheive a good sense of musical flow. Pay attention that each note of a solo gets a clear pick stroke and “air time”. Stay focused on matching your notes up to the underlying beat. Make sure that you are continually pushing yourself for faster chord changing so that each pick stroke of your chords is clear, rather than chopping off the last pick stroke of a chord just before the chord change. That is a lot to manage simultaneously, but it will get easier with time and repetition until you can do it automatically. In the interim, stay focused on timing!

5. Speed/overplaying –  beginner to intermediate level guitar players often show a tendency during solos toward filling every perception of space with as many notes as possible. While an intelligently executed run of sixteenth note triplets can add a lot of intensity to a solo, this is not the same phenomenon as simply blasting every bit of space of with a battery of memorized scale patterns. While soloing you should be focused on timing, note articulation, and creating a sense of tension and release. Do not allow yourself to fall into mindless ripping of scale patterns. Blasting scale patterns at top speed is practice, not playing. While playing focus on the flow of tension and release so that you are saying something with your music rather than simply showing off your mastery of scale patterns.

Keep in mind … focus is a choice rather than a “talent”. You will never develop a mental habit of deliberate focus without determined effort to make it so. It does get easier with time and repetition so get started today looking for deficiencies in your level of focus. The results will be worth the effort.

Finding the Right Guitar Teacher for YOU!

By Chad Crawford, PMI Blues/Classic Rock Guitar Instructor

Imagine this plan for buying car: call the two or three dealerships nearest your house, find the cheapest car available on these lots, and buy that one without  any further consideration.  Does this seem like a good plan to you? I hope not! And yet, this is how many folks approach the search for music instruction. If you are one of these then I hope to persuade you that music instruction, just like cars, comes in many levels of quality, features, and cost. You need to know something of how to find the right teacher for you before you even begin looking for a guitar teacher!

So let’s take another look at the car analogy. How do we know what car to buy? Well first of all, we know that however much it is going to cost this is going to be more than we want to spend, so we may as well put that aside for the moment. We start with what we need in a vehicle. If we need to carry four or five people routinely, we need a large sedan. If we need to carry four or five people AND a bunch of equipment pertaining to extracurricular activities for the kids, we need an SUV. If the need is for general purpose cargo hauling, then of course we need a truck. Towing a boat? We need a big motor. No boat? More concerned with fuel economy? Then a smaller motor is in order. We pick the vehicle FIRST, before even considering where to buy or how much to pay.

Once we know the vehicle we need, we might do a bit of research on the web, ask some friends, etc., to find what brand and type are most reliable. Then we find out the nearest places we can find such a vehicle. Only then do we go looking for an actual example of the vehicle on a lot somewhere … not necessarily only the closest lot to home. Why not the closest lot? Because the closest lot may not have the car that most closely matches all of our goals and preferences, and of course at this point we are looking for a car that we can afford!

So then, the final decision is the result of a balance of multiple considerations. And so it should be with a wise choice pertaining to selecting a good guitar teacher. You are going to spend a year or three or five of your life with your guitar teacher, and hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars. Is it wise to make such a life-impacting decision with no forethought? It is conceivable that one by sheer luck could go the closest music shop, pick the cheapest teacher, and end up with the best possible teacher for them. It is also conceivable to win the lottery. The odds are about the same for both scenarios.
What are the steps for identifying a good guitar teacher?

As a beginner or early intermediate guitarist you may have difficulty discerning if a particular teacher is the right one for you. The right teacher for you may be different at varying stages of your progress. The idea is here is to eliminate the ones you KNOW are not right, and then make an informed guess as to which one will be the most appropriate for your goals and other pertinent considerations. By following the steps below you will greatly increase your odds of correctly identifying the right teacher for you early on, and avoid wasting precious time and money with a poor match.

Step 1. Know the facts: Not all teachers are the same. Some teachers are mediocre, some are great, and most are in between. Not all good players are good teachers. A music degree does not automatically make for a good music teacher. Cost is certainly a factor for all of us in considering any kind of financial investment. However, as with most any other investment, generally you will get what you pay for. If a mediocre teacher charges you half the price of a good teacher, but it takes you four or five times as long to reach your goals, you have come out  behind both financially and in terms of your guitar skills. Likewise, if the closest teacher to your house is not the right teacher for you, the few minutes of driving time you save per trip will be swallowed up in the extra months or possibly years it takes to reach your goals.

It is very important to remember here that you are looking for a person at this point – not a location or a price. We will come back to cost and location later. Learning an instrument takes a lot of time and money. You do not have time to waste with a mediocre teacher, and if you are like most folks you do not have money to throw away either. If you have to pay more per lesson and/or drive somewhat  farther to get a good teacher who can get you results, do it!

Step 2. Define your goals: You need to know what your end goals are before you go looking for a teacher to help you reach them. The guitar is a very versatile instrument. A classical style guitar is very different from a heavy rock guitar. The physical techniques AND knowledge required to play them well are very different. Just like most other areas of human endeavor, you may have some interest in a wide range of specifics, but you will only be able to excel in ONE of these areas. Identify the style of music that you most enjoy and want to be able to play well. You will need a teacher who knows how to develop the knowledge and physical skills specific to this style.  There is some overlap between styles, such as Blues and Classic Rock. However, if you want to excel at bluegrass flat picking, a heavy rock oriented player/teacher is not going to be your best choice.

You also need to consider how far you want to go with guitar. Hobbyist, pro, or something in between? If your goal is campfire hobbyist with just enough skills to carry simple folk tunes, then the average Joe teacher at the closest shop might work for you. If your goal is at the other end of the spectrum, then you need an experienced teacher with a strong grounding in music theory and performance.

Step 3: Seek out the teachers in your general area that appear to be a match for your goals. This does not need to take six months, but it need not be confined to a day or two either. Yellow pages blurbs often have very little information, often only an address and phone number. You may have to make a number of phone calls, and ask a number of your musically experienced friends who they recommend. Many teachers now have personal web sites that you can examine for clues as to whether they are a match for your goals.

Most importantly, try to get an interview with the teacher before investing in any lessons with them. You can do this by phone, but a face to face interview is best. A personal interview is a chance for you to perceive your potential teacher’s personality and character. In addition to your guitar-specific goals, you will need a teacher who you enjoy, respect, and trust. At first your lessons are going to be exciting and fun, but there WILL come a time when it starts to get challenging. If you do not like your teacher and do not trust his or her competence as a teacher, it is going to be hard for you to stay motivated to keep showing up for lessons when you run into the inevitable frustrations.

Step 4: Interview your prospective teacher.  Now, let me qualify this. There is no need to approach a potential instructor with a cold list of demands. When I say “interview”, I do not mean as if you are questioning a suspect. I simply mean to ask some pertinent questions of your potential teacher within the context of a friendly conversation. Here are the things you want to find out …

What styles do they teach? If circumstance permit, inquire of this before you share what kind of style you are interested in learning. You are looking for someone who plays and teaches in a style that is the same or closely related to the style you want to learn. If the answer is “I teach all styles”, find another teacher. Be careful with this. If you call a music shop or school and ask this question, they may answer, “All styles”. For a shop or school, it may well be that they have multiple teachers who specialize in various styles. In this case, you need to try to get an interview with the teacher who is most specialized in your style.

What kind of person are you dealing with? This is a more subtle criteria without cut & dry identifiers. What you are looking for is a person who is genuinely interested in you as a person and is internally motivated toward helping you reach your goals – a person with a “teacher’s heart”.  To illustrate this kind of instinctive measure, I refer you back to your school teachers and athletic coaches. You probably remember some who you knew really cared about you and your success, and some who didn’t. Which teachers and coaches got the best results from you and for you? If your potential teacher is cold, acts as if you are a bother to their busy schedule, or as if your questions are insulting and irritating, you will know this is a person who does not have a teacher’s heart. Find someone else.

At the risk of being a bit redundant and tedious, let me tell you that I can NOT overemphasize how important this is! You may not care so much about how your teacher feels about your progress and results. But you do want the results. That is what it boils down to for you: one with a teacher’s heart will be passionate about your results. Driven by this passion, they do what it takes to become effective at teaching, and you reap the rewards of this effort. I have had guitar instructors with true teacher’s hearts, and others who were lacking in this vital element of effective teaching. The difference in results is exponential.

Organized, structured program of instruction. Sadly, many guitar teachers have no idea what they are going to teach you until you sit down in front of them every week. You want a teacher who utilizes organized reference material such as a recognized teaching manual, proven method, their own custom course, or a combination of these, as well as a means for tracking your progress.. You do NOT want a teacher who is going to passively let you tell them what to teach you. A teacher like that is only interested in one thing – collecting your tuition for as long as possible. If you knew what you needed to learn and how to learn it, you would not need a teacher. A good teacher will strike a balance between your short term goals and their greater expertise as to what you need to know. You want a teacher who will push you to learn and consistently utilize proper physical technique, help you set up a practice schedule, help you identify & reach short & long term goals, etc.

Considerate of your goals. There are many guitar teachers out there who couldn’t care less about your goals. They just want to want to get paid for playing & talking about themselves and guitar. They are pretty easy to spot … most of the time you spend with them consists of you listening to them play. A potential teacher should in fact ask you some questions … your previous experience, your current skill set, and your goals. The focus of your time with any instructor should be on YOUR SKILLS, not theirs. Of course they will need to demonstrate things for you, but the general focus of your time should be on improving your skills, not showcasing their own.

Trained to teach. Teaching is a complex art form entirely separate from musical expertise. There are some people who are naturally gifted at communications and this lends itself well to teaching. You may be able to find a good guitar teacher who has not had any specific training in teaching. However, your odds of finding a good teacher are higher if you can find someone who has specific training in teaching as well as good musical abilities. Your odds are even better if you can find someone who has specific training in teaching guitar.

Finally … you will want to inquire about costs. Be sure that you find out not only the costs of the lessons, but the costs associated with any books or other required materials, such as a metronome.

Step 5: Weigh your options and make a decision. You now know the locations and prices of a number of teachers who appear to be qualified as a good teacher for you. You will have various impressions of the various teachers and probably have an order of preference as to which ones you would most like to work with. Now it is up to you to balance these preferences against costs, driving time, and how important it is to you to reach your guitar goals compared to other things you could do with your time & money.

Work hard and stick with it until you win. It is worth it. Best wishes for your success!

The author of this article will be very interested in discussing your interest in the guitar during a free no-obligation interview with you. Click HERE to schedule an appointment.


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