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Can I Help You? Depends On …

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

Having played and taught guitar for many years now I have accumulated a great deal of insight into what works and what doesn’t, both in regards to teaching methods and the approaches students take to learning music. I can often tell early on, sometimes within a few minutes of talking with a prospective client, and certainly within a few lessons, if they are going to reach a satisfying level of musicianship or not. Of course there is an occasional surprise where someone makes it a lot farther than I initially expected, which is why I never give up on a student who is making effort to improve. Other times I have high expectations which the client does not fulfill. My initial impressions usually turn out correct. It is not because I have psychic powers, but simply because I have observed the same causes and effects so many times that they become predictable.

When I started out with teaching I had a number of concerns as to how effective I would be at communicating, what materials I would use, how to organize and present them, if my gruff personality was suitable for teaching, and so forth. I was mostly concerned with things about me. What I have found with experience is that the number one obstacle I face as a teacher is not me at all. It is, rather, something that is unfortunately largely beyond my control. It is something in my prospects and clients, which I should have known from general life experience would be the case, as it always is with everything in human affairs: attitude.

The Singular Importance of Attitude

Probably the single most important thing I have learned in my decades of musical endeavor is that music is not just about technical matters pertaining to managing the fingers or voice effectively. Rather, it is mostly a matter of cultivating the mind, and that means among other things that a person’s overall attitude about life, work, and people is going to have a great deal of impact on his or her accomplishment as a musician. As with any “rule” there will certainly be notable exceptions, but they will be notable because they are exceptions. Mastery of things technical is certainly very important, but the foundation of it all is mental attitude. Can I help you? Well … it depends very much on your attitude. That terminology is often used in a way to imply contempt, as in “He has an attitude!” That’s not the way I am using it here. I don’t say it with any kind of judgmental intent. It is just an objective fact. To illustrate, let’s look a bit at some examples of how attitude effects musical results.

Why Me? – In my initial consultations with prospects I always inquire as to their expectations regarding time frames, because I know there are many people who for whatever reason think that they should be able to play guitar like a professional after a few months of lessons. That was something that caught me off guard when I started teaching.  I started playing very young and have been around musicians all my life, and it being thought to be quick and easy was never a part of the picture for me or any other musician I knew.

Early on in teaching I observed that a lot of people had very little patience for the process. Some would even blame my teaching if they could not play like a pro in a matter of weeks, and then quit. Others would blame themselves for “lack of talent” and quit. In both cases they were suffering from the “Why Me” syndrome, an idea that the challenges they were facing were unique to them, and either insurmountable, or else some else’s fault – such as their teacher. They were completely off base in both cases, because their expectations had no basis in reality. I couldn’t help them because they were evaluating their playing skills according to unrealistic criteria.

Learning guitar is challenging, and it takes time. The loftier the goal, the harder it is, and the longer it takes. That’s the way it is, despite common claims from some web marketers. There are shorter and longer paths, and a great teacher can cut years off the timeline, but it is still going to take substantial time, effort, and commitment. Beginners should be thinking in terms of years rather than weeks. There will be times of mind-numbing repetition accompanied by apparent stagnation, followed by a shift in fluency, or occasionally a major breakthrough when a number of hard-won gains come together at once. That’s normal. You can’t take the struggles personally, as if it is something unique to you. If you do give in to taking it personally, the bad news is I can’t help you.

The good news is that if you’re willing to discipline yourself toward working your way through an ongoing process, and choose to stay focused on your goals rather than the barriers of the moment, then I can help you a great deal!

Why Not Me? – Despite my never ending studies of books, lesson videos, and previous private lessons with a number of teachers, I am ultimately responsible for my progress and competence as a musician. Some of my sources were fantastic, but I still had to do the work. Some of my sources were not so fantastic, but it was still my responsibility to improve my skills, even if that meant eventually moving on to another resource or teacher.

As do all good music teachers, I teach music principles and not just song transcriptions. I can’t show students every note to play for the rest of their lives. I teach them how to develop finger control and how to figure music out for themselves. I provide a number of resources outside of my private lessons, such as articles like this one, backing tracks, and a Facebook page with music videos for practicing improvisation along with additional third-party articles covering everything from playing tips to gear. I provide group classes to allow my clients an opportunity for applying what they learn in private lessons to making real music in real time, with opportunity to learn the songs in advance through my private web forum. The forum itself hosts additional learning resources, such as artist highlights with links for getting acquainted with guitar masters (and stealing their licks!).

What I observe is that very few actually take full advantage of these things. Some do the minimum they can to fulfill the practice schedule I provide (or less). Some do a little more than that. A few go after every learning outlet I point them to, and it is evident in the results. Those who utilize all the tools I provide, plus doing their own research and study in addition to my lessons, which I fully encourage, those are the students who achieve the fastest and most significant results.

I’m willing to help clients who fit any of the above descriptions, because people have jobs, school, and family obligations competing with their time for music. I well understand all that because I share in the same struggles. If you are truly doing all you can do, then that’s all you can do and I do not intend to beat you over the head about it. If that’s you then I encourage you to stick with it and be patient.

I know that many students of music, not only mine but in general, could do more and they simply choose not to. Some former students have blamed their frustration with slow progress or stagnation on me or my lessons. Sometimes they have let me know this in one way or another, either through direct challenges to my lesson materials or methods, or else in more subtle ways. I do what I can to steer them out of this kind of self-defeating thinking, but I can’t force anyone to learn guitar. I am responsible for providing an effective course of instruction, encouragement, and accountability, but I cannot be responsible for results. Responsibility for results lies with the student.

I can’t help those who blame others or circumstances for their results rather than buckling down and doing the work. Whether you take lessons with me or attend Berklee for eight years, your progress and competence as a musician is ultimately up to you. If you allow yourself to side-step that responsibility, I can’t help you.

If you will commit to learning guitar up front and then persevere through the process, following the instructions and taking every avenue and opportunity presented to you toward improvement, and taking full responsibility for your results, then I can help you a great deal!

It’s My Hands! – No it isn’t, unless you have health problems that constrain them. Your hands are incredibly capable, stunningly engineered grappling machines. Beyond your instinctive programming for certain basic movements, your fingers do exactly what you tell them to do. Technique then is the result of a process of training your mind. You may object that you know what you are trying to do but you can’t get your hands to do it. I assure you that though it may feel that way, it is not the case. When you play guitar your hands are doing exactly what the messages from your brain are telling them to do. They are not capable of doing anything else. If your messages are flawed your results will be flawed. You have to repair and refine the messages, and the way you do it is through programming correct messages into your brain’s muscle memory. This means repetition of the right movements. In contrast to a computer, programming the brain takes a lot of repetitions. A lot.

However, it also means this: the subtleties of good technique are in timing and dynamics. This comes more from general musical sensibilities rather than muscle memory. Musical sensibility is a product of a well-developed ear for pitch and time combined with an overall sensitivity to flows of tension and release. Musical fluency comes from knowing what will sound good before involving your fingers. This comes from studying the music that others have made, and from experience with applying a high level of sustained mental focus to practice and playing situations. That’s why it is important to analyze great music rather than just practicing rhythm and phrasing. Physical control is essential, but the target is what you have programmed into your musical sensibilities from analyzing the masters. If you have no clear target then you will not shoot straight. So you must understand that the battleground for progress as a musician is in your mind, not your hands! If you are committed to thinking your musical limitations are in your fingers, I’m sorry to say I can’t help you.

If you will embrace music as a whole body-mind phenomenon rather than just finger gymnastics, then I can help you a great deal!

It’s My Genes! – I started my musical journey playing bluegrass rhythm guitar with a family ensemble. I enjoyed bluegrass music and still do, but the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen’s monster guitar solo ‘Eruption’, I was bound for new pastures. I also quickly realized I had no idea how to extract any sounds like that from the guitar. At the time there was no Internet, so I didn’t have convenient access to virtually unlimited resources to explain how he was doing this stuff. I didn’t even know what “tapping” was. I quickly concluded that he was some kind of musical freak show and that his sort of playing was not accessible to me.

How I wish I would have had someone to explain things to me then! First of all it would have been helpful to know that Eddie Van Halen came from a family of musicians where he was vigorously encouraged, and even compelled against his will, to learn music from an early age. He was forced into piano lessons very young, then experimented with drums a bit before picking up guitar. It would also have been helpful to me to know that his signature tapping technique was stolen. Yes. Stolen! Like all guitarists, he did not just make up a new style of guitar playing that no one had ever heard of. He picked up the tapping technique from observing many guitarists who went before him, then developed it and put his own twist on it. It would also have been helpful to me to know that he developed his chops in a small scale cover band before anybody knew he was a big deal, and also that he learned much from transcribing Eric Clapton songs by ear. The fact that he could do that in his teens had a lot to do with the early piano and drum experience.

If I had known all that then I would have also known that it had little to do with “natural talent”, but rather had a lot to do with POW – “plain ol’ work”. Then I would not have been inclined to give up so readily when I ran into difficulties learning my favorite songs, letting myself off the hook with the excuse, “I just don’t have that level of talent”. If I had just known that Eddie Van Halen also had to work at it for a long time, just that one little bit of information would have totally changed my approach to learning guitar and I would have become a much better musician much earlier in life.

Do you think that musical skill is reserved for the gifted few? If you do, and if I can’t talk you off of that motivation-killer, then you will not persist through the challenging times when your hands and memory seem to be defying your best efforts, and so, as much as I want to … I can’t help you.

If you will accept the fact that music skills are the result of persistent effort, and you will commit up front to doing the work until you get the results you seek, then I can help you a great deal!

Show me the Magic! – I see a lot of Internet advertising for guitar training featuring the appeal to the quick fix. There are two basic types: (1) “Click for the secret of instant guitar Ninja!”, and (2) “Play great guitar with just a few notes!” The first type is snake oil rubbish. The second type is technically true. There is a catch. You can indeed mine a lot of good phrases out of just a handful of notes, and will do well to learn how, especially for hobbyists with limited time for scale practice. If you do not also command finesse in pick attack, dynamics, bending, vibrato, tone, and rhythmic sensibility then the few-note phrases will sound like a hack slaughtering half of a scale.

The reason people publish these kinds of advertisements is because they work. It is standard marketing practice because it is more effective than laying out the cold facts about work and perseverance, hooking the attention of well-intended but uninformed, frustrated guitarists. Nor do I wish to come across as trashing all Internet marketers. Sometimes a perfectly legitimate service provider will utilize these kind of marketing gimmicks, not intending to defraud but rather hoping to grab the attention with the neon light of the quick fix offer. Then they divert toward a more substantial product. Between the snake oil and the legitimate providers forced to compete with snake oil for attention, I have prospects coming to me with expectations, sown by these prolific ads, that I will show them the “tricks” for rapid fluency.

I meet with all prospective clients for an initial consultation. One thing I am looking to communicate is that I do not deal in the music marketing crack cocaine of the quick fix offer. If they do decide to enroll they know that they are in for a long term process. I continue in the lessons to reinforce the idea that learning music is a long term endeavor. Despite all this pointed effort to clearly set myself apart from snake oil vendors, I still occasionally run up against the call for the quick fix even among my enrolled clients.

A passionate teacher with an organized program of effective learning materials and methods, combined with routine adherence to an effective practice schedule, is the shortest path to musical fluency. There is no magic. There are no tricks. There is no one isolated piece of knowledge or technique insight that is going to suddenly make a radical change to one’s musical ability. It is a process of cultivating mastery of bits and pieces over time. I don’t want clients who are looking for snake oil. It is not because I am mean, it is just that I already know it is going to be a bad experience for both of us. I can’t help people who are looking for magic.

If you’re willing to discipline yourself to working through a proven process which will deliver real results much faster than going it on your own, then I can help you a great deal!

My Way or the Highway! – Having been around the music scene for many years now, I have observed much in terms of how human relations affects the process of learning and performing music. I have seen guitar players play way too loud, way too long, or just plain badly because they have not done their homework. I have seen drummers play so loud that it caused literal pain in other band members. I have seen bass players go off on a disruptive, meandering excursion into jazz fusion when all that was called for was a simple walking pentatonic. I have seen people who thought they were above rehearsal. I’ve seen folks rationalize mediocrity by citing the legitimate dangers of “perfectionism”, but by which they actually meant “me having to do anything that resembles work”. I have seen people who would make a commitment to be somewhere at a certain time, having no intention of fulfilling that commitment, and didn’t care about the impact this had on other band members. I have seen bands revel in silly pride over playing way too loud for the venue. I have seen sound techs who would not trouble themselves to really learn sound management, and so make an otherwise solid band sound like hacks due to a poor mix.

I have seen music teachers who had no real interest in teaching, nor interest in their clients beyond a check, nor anything close to an organized teaching system. I have seen music students who were chronically inattentive, and some who felt no obligation to treat their teacher as a person rather than just an information source. I have seen some who were combative about tuition, and some who didn’t have enough class to notify that they were going to miss a lesson. (As a matter of policy I do not allow these things to go unchecked in my school. If they persist then I decline further lessons.)

All of these troublesome things are symptoms of one underlying problem that is often the root of social tension: failure to practice respect for others.

It is important to recognize that both music training and performing are team endeavors. If you are playing with a band then the team is everyone in the band plus the management. You may not have thought about the team as it applies to other common aspects of musical endeavors. If you are playing with a band in a commercial music venue then the team is not just your band but also the sound tech and staff of the venue. If you are playing solo acoustic/vocal in a coffee shop then the team is you and the coffee shop’s staff. If you are working with a teacher then the team is you and the teacher, or the group and the teacher if you are learning in a group setting. As with all successful team endeavors it requires that everyone submit to a bit of restraint for the team’s success. This is called a win-win deal. It is very important to your success with and enjoyment of music that you strive to cultivate win-win deals with others who are likewise inclined.

There is a simple rule of thumb that will help anyone to cultivate win-win deals: don’t be a jerk, and don’t stick yourself in the mud trying to coax a win-win deal from a jerk.

 Here are some of the ways I avoid being a jerk and instead show respect for my prospects:

I don’t try to entice folks into my programs when I know they want to play in styles that I am not fluent in, and interested in sufficiently, to stay passionate about their ongoing training. I do not proffer marketing claims that I cannot back up with substance, nor otherwise mislead as to what folks can expect from me. I do not allow clients to enroll in my programs without making an effort to communicate to them clearly up front what they are getting into in terms of the commitment required, and how long it will take to reach their goals.

Here are some of the ways I avoid being a jerk and instead show respect for my clients:

I do not wing it. I utilize an organized course based on personal experience, music teacher training, and countless hours of ongoing study as to what is relevant and effective. I set meaningful goals for the students and carefully track progress. I don’t waste time with gimmicks, filler, or otherwise try to drag the training out needlessly toward retaining revenue for which I am not providing real value. I do not stick clients into a creepy closet with me where they can barely move, nor drag little kids off to a concealed room where their parents can’t see what is going on. I don’t show up to lessons looking like a “rocker” stereotype who just crawled out of the dumpster behind the studio after a week of binge drinking. I avoid phone interaction as much as possible during lessons, and on the rare occasions when it is unavoidable I make it very brief. I don’t take up instruction time indulging my own playing beyond what is necessary for illustration purposes. I don’t allow clients to steer the lessons in directions that I know lead to a dead end, but rather try to balance their immediate interests with my larger view of what they need to reach their goals. I continually research and accordingly update my materials and methods, never letting up on improving my effectiveness.

I could continue, but for brevity’s sake I will stop there and hope I have illustrated that I take my obligations to my customers seriously. I want to enjoy the lessons and I need to make a living, but I put my clients’ results and enjoyment equal to my own interests. I also insist on respect from my clients in return, not only for fairness’ sake but because students get better results from a teacher they respect.

What does all this have to do with the practical realities of making music? It has everything to do with it. If you want to do something with music besides practice in your bedroom all the time then it is good policy to treat others with respect, and accept nothing less in return. If you are working with a teacher or plan to work with a teacher, consider first that the teacher demonstrates respect for clients in ways such as I have mentioned above. Demonstrating respect for your teacher will go a long way in your getting the best effort from your teacher, and consequently the best results for yourself.

I think it was Zig Ziglar who said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude!” I’ve seen it often, and I’ve heard it from other teachers and coaches. In most cases a student with average or even below average talent, working with an average teacher, but with a good overall attitude, will in the long run surpass a more inherently capable student who is working with an outstanding teacher, but harboring some variation of self-defeating attitude. Can I help you? Maybe … depends on your attitude. Attitude is the foundation of success, and it is a choice.

In part two of this series next month we will take a closer look at how attitude affects the more technical aspects of developing musical skills.

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Guitar Mastery Tips: The Power of Simplicity

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

Learning to play an instrument well is a long term endeavor. There is no short cut to overnight success, but there are longer and shorter paths. For intermediate level guitarists one of the most common areas of weakness is the tendency to want to throw everything, and at super-sonic speeds, at every solo. While there may be some level of personal gratification in noodling around with flying fingers, and this is indeed a useful tool in the process of developing an overall skill set, bear in mind that speed apart from other elements of musical fluency typically does not lead to smooth, flowing phrases but rather sounds like what it really is … scale practice.

When you get to that point in your playing when you have moderate speed but your phrasing feels unsatisfying, that is a good clue that you need to look more closely at the details of your phrasing. There is more to good phrasing than simply placing your finger on a note in a scale and getting it plucked at the right moment. Consider these elements of good phrasing …

1. Appropriate speed – many aspiring guitarists tend to play phrasing at speeds that are beyond their capabilities. Remember, you are going to play what you practice. Sloppy practice = sloppy playing. Sometimes it is needful to focus specifically on speed during practice, and at those times it is useful to attempt speeds beyond your current skills. At all other times, practice within a tempo that allows for accuracy and clarity. Practice slowly and with good note articulation, two-hand coordination, and mental focus. Speed up only as increased mastery permits you to play accurately and intelligently at higher speeds.

2. Note development – when you first learn scales the challenge is just to get through them, playing the right notes in the right order. Once you can do this predictably then the next logical step is to work on increasing your speed. However, this is where things can begin to fall apart. Before moving on to increasing speed, consider examine these elements:

Legato – not to be confused with the term as used in the limited sense of describing the physical technique guitarists use to create a legato feel – hammers and pull-offs. Here we are talking instead about the musical ideal of smooth flow between notes. Be sure to connect each scale note smoothly, holding each note until it is time to pluck the next note, then carefully timing the placement of the fret hand finger with the pick attack on the new note, such that there is no unintended dead time between the notes.

Dynamics – this refers to changes in volume in the most basic sense, but with guitar we alter volume from note to note with changes in the strength of the pick attack, and this in turn makes subtle changes to the overall quality of sound coming from the guitar/amp. Generally, for cleaner tones we need a more aggressive pick attack, and for distortion tones the distortion does a lot of the work so that we do not need to be as aggressive with the pick. Given those generalities, play to the song. We will not need to be as aggressive with Jazz as we would with Rock. Also, create a flow of dynamics within a phrase, such as picking easier at the beginning of the phrase with increasing aggressiveness toward the peak tension just before the resolution. Experiment with dynamics and see for yourself how it assists the sense of tension and release within a phrase.

Duration – when first learning scales practice them with a metronome until it becomes habitual to play in straight time – every note gets the same allotment of time. This habit then spills over into playing, so that your phrases are all rhythmically identical. Make it a point when practicing phrasing to vary the timing within phrases between half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and triplet timings, using bends and vibrato to embellish the longer notes.

3. Space – resist the temptation to fill every perception of space with extra notes. There will be points in the song where it makes sense to linger on a resolving note, such as at prominent chord changes. Good phrasing follows the pattern of speaking – a burst of words followed by the emphasis created with space. Then another burst, then another space. Experiment with imagining vocal phrases that would fit well over a track, then try to match the vocal phrase with your guitar. It does not have to be a perfect match. The idea is to develop a capacity to create a flow of vocal-like phrases that match the flow of tension and release in the song you are playing over.

4. Vibrato – holding a note at the end of a phrase will indeed make your phrase sound like it has died unless you apply a robust vibrato. Vibrato is a powerful tool for maximizing the impact of resolving notes at the end of your phrases. Work on developing and refining your vibrato. Then you will enjoy the sound and feel of your resolving notes and this will alleviate the pressure to rush off prematurely to the next phrase.

5. Motive variation – this is a very effective way to cultivate a habit of getting the most musical value from few notes. Select an appropriate resolving note, such as the root note of the key. Then make up a phrase of four or five notes from the appropriate scale revolving around this resolving note. This reference phrase is your motive (theme). Then experiment with variations on note choice, note sequence, timing, and embellishments. These types of experiments will enable you to see the many possibilities for squeezing the most musical value out of few notes, rather than always running in a panic all over the fret board and hoping a good phrase will come out.

Some of the most widely acclaimed guitar solos are also technically simple. Listen to B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, and similar Blues masters for abundant examples of phrasing that is technically simple, yet loaded with powerful emotional expression. While developing solo phrasing do not strive for maximum speed at first. Instead, strive for maximum impact of every note. Practice technically simple phrases with good timing relative to the song rhythm, deliberate note development, appropriate planned spaces, and a carefully controlled vibrato. Experiment with motive variation in order to cultivate a habit of achieving maximum impact from few notes. When you can do these things without being distracted by them then you will be ready to move on to more complex and faster phrasings. Until then … keep it simple!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

How to Develop Your Strumming Hand to Sing and Play at the Same Time

How to Develop Your Strumming Hand to Sing and Play at the Same Time Once my guitar students get into strumming and having fun with their guitar, the next question I usually get is, “How do I play guitar and sing at the same time?”

By the time students get around to asking this question, we are usually on to some syncopated rhythm patterns. This means there isn’t a down strum on every beat. When they go to sing, their strumming falls apart. This is because the student hasn’t trained their strumming hand to be able do both yet.

When playing guitar, it’s easy to think that we have mastered something when he haven’t really taken things out into the real world and applied them. Most guitar students try to sing and play guitar way before they have actually mastered the art of strumming.

In this article, I’m going to give you some tips for how you can develop your strumming hand to the point where you can sing and play at the same time.

 

Step 1: Simplify The Pattern

Let’s say you are working on the strumming pattern below:

In this strumming pattern, there is no down strum on the 3rd beat. That can really throw students for a loop. What I recommend is simplifying the pattern so that you can sing it. Maybe something like the one below.

This will allow you to play along with the song and sing while you continue to develop your strumming hand. I removed the syncopation to allow your brain time to place the lyrics better without the hand skipping a beat.

Step 2: Practice Mastering Your Strumming Hand

While simplifying the pattern does offer us a temporary quick fix solution, it does not solve the problem, which is the fact that your strumming hand is not yet on auto pilot. In order to do this, I want you to take a strumming pattern you know, maybe the first pattern we used in this article. It is a common one my students have trouble with and one that is used in many songs.

First, make sure you can play the pattern with your eyes closed. Once you can do that, I want you to stand up. Make sure you have a guitar strap for this next step.

Start playing the strumming pattern you ‘know so well’ and try to walk. Yes, don’t try to sing, try to walk and play that strumming pattern at the same time. When you do this, you might find it very hard to walk naturally. Maybe there are pauses in your steps, maybe there are pauses in your strumming.

Step 3: Slow Down

While practicing the above activity, go VERY slow. I mean slow. Almost like you are walking through wet cement. Focus on getting your strumming hand to work perfectly whether you are taking a step with your right or your left foot.

Once your steps smooth out, start trying to go faster and then try to run while strumming and even jumping around if you can. Once you have that down pat you can add even more syncopation like in the strum below:

Here we have three up strums in a row and that can be quite difficult for someone to walk and play never mind sing over.

Step 4: Chat It Up

Once you have mastered walking around and strumming or at least feel like you can walk at a normal pace, try and have a conversation. You can have it with someone else or on your own. Pick your strumming pattern and try to answer these questions with more than one word answers:

  1. How was your day today?
  2. What do you have played for the weekend?
  3. What your favorite song and why?

When you can talk and play at the same time without thinking about your strumming hand, then you are ready to strum and sing at the same time.

For some of my students, this process can take a couple months and others it can take a couple weeks. It really depends on how much you practice and how coordinated you are.

When singing and playing guitar at the same time, the guitar has to be on autopilot. You cannot be thinking about it at all. Muscle memory takes over at that point which frees up your brain to think about the lyrics and singing.

Believe it or not, our brains were not made for multitasking. So, if you are thinking about your strumming at all, you can kiss good-bye to your singing.

Give these tips and tricks a try. They works wonders for my students and hopefully they will work wonders for you.

About The Author: Lauren Bateman is a successful voice and guitar coach in the Boston area. She and her staff have helped thousands of students learn to have fun with music. If you are looking for guitar or piano lessons in Medford, LB Music School is a great place to learn. Lauren specialized in teaching acoustic and rhythm guitar lessons and loves helping student strum and sing along to their favorite songs.

The Trap of Learning Songs

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

“I want to learn songs … now!”

This sentiment is probably the number one reason that most people who pick up a guitar never make it past a very minimal level of musicianship. It is not that wanting to learn beloved, personally inspiring songs is wrong in itself. Contrarily, learning specific songs is a great motivator, a useful learning tool, and is often the ultimate purpose of many aspiring guitarists. There is not a thing wrong with that. I enjoy coaching clients through the process of mastering songs they love. It is very gratifying and affirming for me to see them work through the process to the end and be able to enjoy playing their favorite songs. Like any teacher who is in it mostly for the love of teaching, students’ successes are the primary reason I do this.

As a teacher of completely voluntary students one of the roles I must reluctantly embrace is that I occasionally have to inform clients of things that they are not necessarily happy to hear, such as the amount of time and effort involved in learning their favorite songs. Sometimes it inspires the necessary results in their approach and all is well, and that is of course what I always hope for. In some cases it results in a client becoming discouraged over things that seem out of reach.

Of course I never wish to discourage my clients, but there is no other way than straight through to get results for a client who is caught up in one of these common self-defeating thought/feeling traps. I have to persistently confront the erroneous thinking as diplomatically as possible and hopefully persuade them to set it aside so we can get on with realistic approaches that actually work.

It is part two of the opening sentiment – “… now!” – that provokes many aspiring guitarists to pull their aim off target and instead shoot themselves in the foot. There is an implication in that latter sentiment that betrays a certain self-defeating misunderstanding.  Despite my ongoing efforts to steer people out of this trap, it persists in hindering the motivation and robbing the hard won gains of many otherwise promising students of music.

Let us then pull that lurking bit of thought poison out of the shadowy recesses and hold it up to the illuminating light of informed scrutiny. We will do so by adding the underlying implications into the original sentiment so that it is more apparent what it really means. Here is the revised statement, “I want to play songs just like they sound on the original artists’ recordings, and I thought the whole point of lessons was to show me how to make the songs fall right out of my fingers.”

If you are thinking in this way then consider these facts about the process of learning songs:

  1. Based on my own 40+ years of playing guitar, 19 years of teaching, and the collective wisdom of the musician community compiled since the days of ancient Greece: if you are in marginal or better health with a mind sound enough to read this and reasonably functional hands, and you cannot play a song that you wish to play, there is one and only one root cause for it: you have not yet applied yourself adequately to the work required to remember and execute the motions required to reproduce the song. Yes, it is that simple.
  2. Simple does not necessarily mean easy. So it further boils down to the idea conveyed in this Southern colloquialism: you either gonna do it or you ain’t. If you’re in the middle of the process, then you are doing it. Keep up the good work and be patient. The results you seek are inevitable.
  3. Once you get the first one done, the next one will still be challenging, but that sense of hopelessness will be greatly diminished and will continue to dissipate with each new success. 
  4. Regarding solos, you do not have to have it sound exactly like the original artist’s studio recorded version of a song for it to sound good. You would need to have the original artist’s gear, fingers, musical personality, and the studio enhancements to make it sound exactly like the original. In many cases the original artists do not even play the exact same thing live that they played on the studio recordings. They don’t even try, because they know it is going to be impossible to remember every single note from their entire catalog. There are exceptions … artists who play really simple songs, or else practice for seven hours a day seven days a week. They are notable because they are exceptions. For hobbyists in particular it is counterproductive to tie up huge amounts of time trying to learn and maintain exact replicas of songs.
  5. Learning songs involves a number elements that can present challenges. If you haven’t done the preliminary work in knowledge and technique, forget playing songs. Before even beginning to approach this, you need to know the required chords and scales, be able to finger them instantly, have a well-developed picking/strumming technique that is well-coordinated with your fretting hand, and have a sufficiently developed sense of rhythm and timing to be able to keep up with the song. Then you must study the song in order to learn and remember the chords, melodies, where they fall in the song, the rhythm, and if you want to learn the solo that adds another especially significant challenge to memory and technique. Study means just that: study! Listen, analyze, decipher. Then start performing repetitions. Eliminate mistakes. Repeat until you can play the song.

 

So the bottom line is, learning songs is not easy, not automatic, and there is no trick, method, or program that is going to make it happen without substantial effort.

The good news is that it is not nearly as hard as some folks allow it to be by allowing frustration to rage out of control. I read of a Civil War commander who continued to lead a battle from a horse after taking a shot in the leg. Then he got half a foot shot off, and continued to lead the battle until he took a body shot, fell off his horse, and slowly bled to death. That’s hard. Sitting comfortably in a quiet climate controlled room and rewinding to a chord change for the fifteenth time so you can figure out the chord and exactly where it is changing … not hard enough to be worth mentioning.

Are there any short cuts? Yes, much more so now than at any time in the history of music. Teachers, transcriptions, slow-down software, and free Internet videos. It is easier now than it has ever been to take a big bite out of the analysis and deciphering parts of the process by having either a person or a piece of paper show you what is being played. Nonetheless, you cannot get around study completely since you will still need to hear/feel the chord changes, melodies, and rhythm for yourself, and you will still need to listen, perform repetitions, eliminate mistakes, and repeat parts until you have the song memorized and physically under control. It is just plain work, and no person, method, or gimmick can do that part of the work for you.

I decided to tackle the solos for Sweet Home Alabama in my college days. At that time I was mostly self-taught as far as popular music styles such as Southern Rock. I was working full time in addition to school, so I had very little time to practice. The classical training that I had been through at that time did not help me with this type of song. I picked up a copy of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tablature anthology and started working on the parts. My fingers were up to it, but I did not have the musical context to see the scales, so I had to memorize the solos the hard way: one note at a time, stacking up one phrase after another until I had them memorized. This took me about a year to learn these solos to the point that I could get through them reasonably accurately and then I had to continue polishing the technique and timing details.

Since I had started learning at the age of six with a full size acoustic guitar that I could barely hold, I don’t have any memories of ever having any perspective about playing guitar other than that progress follows work. I found out only after I started teaching that many folks have terrific misunderstandings about the process of learning music, namely that it is supposed to be easy. Of course I would have liked to pick those solos up faster and moved on to other things, but it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it taking longer than I would have preferred. Yes, I did come up with some “creative improvisational lyrics” that I often inserted into those solos while repeating them over and over trying to get them to stick in my memory. Yes, I was often frustrated that I had to do schoolwork or chores rather than spend more time on my solos. But I kept working on them until I could play them. It never occurred to me to give up because it was challenging. And it was worth the effort.

Learning songs will never be effortless, but you can ultimately make it much easier and faster by buckling down in the beginning of your musical studies and mastering the basics of music theory and technique, so that the elements of a given song are not completely new to your ears, understanding, and fingers. This is why I refuse to teach songs outside the context of an overall approach to mastery in the basics. With the decades of experience I have at this I can pick up rhythms almost instantly, and chords/signature licks for most popular music take only a few minutes. I couldn’t pick them up that fast when I started playing guitar, nor even for many years after. If it is a really complex song like a lot of progressive rock, or a style I am not accustomed to, then I may have to spend more time with it, and certainly if there are long or high speed solos then it will take some time to decipher, memorize, and embed in muscle memory through repetition. That’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you are failing at music or suffering some unusual lack of talent. That’s just how being a musician works. There is a great deal of enjoyment, but there is also a lot of work and that’s just the way it is. It is worth it. The sooner you get the basics under control the sooner you can get on to playing your favorite songs, and the more time you spend transcribing songs yourself the better you get at it, just like everything else in life.

In the words of that illustrious philosopher Larry the Cable Guy, like much in life it comes down to this: “Git ‘er Done!”

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Why Developing Your Strumming Hand Is Vital To Becoming a Good Guitar Player

No matter what instrument you play, rhythm and timing is vital to becoming good at music, especially if you want to play music with others. That is a why I believe it is truly important that guitarist focus on the fundamentals of rhythm and timing right from the get go. If you are already playing guitar, you have probably noticed that strumming is controlled by your dominant hand (right if you are a righty, left if you are a lefty). In the beginning, strumming can seem very foreign and awkward, but, over time you can develop your hand to the point where it had a mind of its own. Honestly! Imagine being able to strum along to a song without even having to think about it. Well that is totally possible.

All you have to do is take the right steps towards building up the muscle memory in your strumming hand. I have developed a step-by-step approach that has helped my students get rocking and rolling with their strumming hand very quickly. Usually in a matter of weeks. Here is an outline of the process I use:

  1. Focus on timing right from the get go

I put students on a metronome as soon as possible. This not only helps them track their progress, it helps them start to build timing skills. I will often play along with students so that they can work off my timing like they would have to do in a real life band setting.

  1. Start small

I start by focusing on whole note, half note and quarter note strumming patterns to develop coordination and build confidence in their abilities to strum along with various strumming patterns. We start by using one chord and then add chord progressions to the strums. You can see in the examples below that rhythm is kept very simple in the beginning.

As a guitar teacher, I know it is very important to build confidence in the beginning stages of learning the guitar. I have yet to meet a student I couldn’t help master basic rhythms skills in a relatively short amount of time.

  1. Build upon your foundation

Once students have mastered the basics and built a foundation for timing in their strumming hand, we then build upon that foundation by adding more complex strumming patterns that include up strums and syncopated rhythms.

The timing of up strums can be difficult for some students and is why it is essential for you to have a good foundation before progressing to the next level.

Syncopated rhythms are when you do not have a down strum on the down beat, meaning there may not be a down strum on the 1, 2, 3 or 4 count. This can really throw students for a loop and, again, is why I recommend getting a good foundation for non-syncopated eighth note strumming before progressing to syncopated rhythms.

Example of non-syncopated eighth note rhythms:

Example of syncopated eighth note rhythms:

   

                                                                       

  1. Mix things up

There are some songs that use the same strumming pattern for the entire song, but many songs switch between rhythms quite frequently. When learning songs with students, I usually keep them on one strumming pattern for simplicity and ease of playing. But, as I notice a student’s strumming hand relaxing and become more adapted to the different strumming patterns, we will start mixing up strumming patterns. Maybe the verse is 1 or 2 strumming patterns and the chorus is something completely different. We work on the skills required to fluidly move from one strumming pattern right into the next without pausing or stopping. I find that students who have moved through my strumming system don’t have much trouble applying this skill because in the foundational stages I build in this type of practice without them even noticing.

By the time students are done with the first 3 phases of my strumming program they can:

  • Count and play along in time
  • Read basic rhythm patterns
  • Know the different between quarter and eighth note strumming
  • Understand the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time
  • Change chords while maintaining rhythm
  • Switch between rhythm patterns without hesitation
  • Apply strumming patterns to the songs they love
  • Have more fun with their guitar and feel confident in their abilities

I have yet to have a student fail to learn rhythm while using my step-by-step rhythm system. People with no music experience were amazed that they could actually read music, understand it and play along to it.

Use this method when building your rhythm skills and I guarantee you will see success. Have patience and don’t rush any part of the learning process. Jumping ahead before you are ready can cause frustration and it why I set speed goals that must be hit before we move on to the next stage in the process.

About The Author:

Lauren Bateman is a successful guitar teacher and voice coach living just outside of Boston. She owns and operates two successful music schools and enjoy working with beginner guitar students and rock vocalists. Lauren was told at a young age that maybe music wasn’t her thing. This is why she is passionate about making music accessible to those who never thought playing music was possible or were told they could not do it. You can learn more about Lauren via her website www.laurenbateman.com or her music school at www.lbmusicschool.com

Reviewing Review

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Insrtuctor

 

Retention of knowledge and technique is high on the list of challenges to aspiring guitarists. 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 are 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.

Repetition is the obvious bedrock of retention, but failure to incorporate other available retention strategies will result in a predictable consequence: review. While review is an essential and unavoidable component of learning, excessive review is counterproductive, frustrating for students and teachers, and inherently robs aspiring musicians of invaluable time that could rather be invested in growth. So our goal should be to maximize every available retention opportunity in each lesson and practice session.

Beyond the obvious need for repetition, retention is a function of a combination of predictable and controllable factors, such that the aspiring guitarist can choose (or not!) to greatly enhance progress rates by consistently implementing a few simple but powerful strategies. Though these may seem like common sense, I routinely observe generally intelligent, talented, and ambitious students slipping in these elements of retention, so do not assume that you can’t benefit from a self-check in these details. The very core of the problem is that these things operate below our conscious view if we do not intentionally choose to give them attention.

  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 complete explanation before attempting to apply it.
  1. 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 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, coordination of the picking and fretting hands, and management of excess muscular tension. 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!
  1. Maintaining focus – Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to retention, but repetition without deliberate focus on details can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to allow the attention to wander off, and thus sustained focus on one thing or group of things 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 reward in exchange for the extra effort. However, both science and common experience reveal that all types of memory, including muscle memory, achieve their peak power in response to sustained focused attention. So for maximum retention choose to stay focused during your practice!
  1. Context development – Memory responds well to organization. It is therefore important to recognize at the outset of our musical endeavors, or as soon thereafter as possible, that all of music is one total phenomenon rather than a host of tiny parts to remember separately. For example, our big three pitch relationship tools are chords, scales, and arpeggios. While we study these individually for clarity, they are in fact all a single scale or defined subset of the scale. If we recognize a major chord or arpeggio as a subset of intervals from the major scale then it is easier to see the overlap between the chord tones and potential resolving notes from the major scale, major pentatonic scale, or a major arpeggio. If additionally we can look at the fretboard and simultaneously visualize a major scale, a corresponding major chord and inversions, and the major arpeggio, all superimposed over one another, then it is relatively easy to move between playing a chord and applying a fill or solo from the major scale or arpeggio. Likewise, if we can perceive a given rhythm as a subset of divisions of the main beat then it is relatively easy to feel out the main beat and then fill in the divisions. So it is very helpful to retention always be plugging bits of new information into the scheme of the overall context.
  1. Choose the high road – with life in general we often refer to taking the high road as a colloquialism for doing the right thing. I am appropriating this idea for application to the study of music, and I mean it in this way: when you are practicing guitar and you run into a choice between doing the less comfortable but more beneficial thing or the more comfortable thing, do the less comfortable thing. For example, when practicing phrasing with a backing track it is very easy to just settle into playing positions or licks you are already comfortable with rather than experimenting with unknown territory. Likewise, some things on your practice schedule will be more interesting or enjoyable than other things, and it is very tempting in the privacy of your practice space to take the easy low road by minimizing or altogether avoiding the more challenging parts of your practice routine. This is how people stop progressing and get into ruts. Don’t let it happen. When you have something new to work on and it is harder to do relative to just doing further repetitions of things you already know, take the high road by investing yourself in the new material. Half effort will not yield half results. It will yield no results, and you will have to keep going back and reviewing this material until you finally get sick of review and invest the effort you could have in the beginning.

You don’t have time to waste on this cycle of stagnation. Save yourself the trouble and frustration, and invest the necessary effort up front. You will proceed must faster through practicing and will get on sooner with actually playing.

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

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.