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.