Keys to Creativity

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor Palmetto Music Institute 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Realistic Measures of Progress

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

A Secret Of Success

By Chad Crawford, PMI Blues Guitar Instructor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you see it yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

9 Not-So-Easy Steps to Guitar Mastery

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some keys to effective practice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Secret to Overcoming Fatal Guitar Technique Flaws.

By Guitar Teacher Chad Crawford

After a couple of decades of teaching guitar and interacting with other teachers and many clients, I can make a number of predictions on what any aspiring guitarist will struggle with and how the various responses to these stumbling blocks will either help or hinder progress. The guitar is a challenging instrument, and there are any number of areas where one might encounter a temporary roadblock. Of these typical areas, there is one I have enumerated in my previous “Top Ten” article that stands out above all others as the number one barrier to progress: not following the instructions.

Allow me to clarify this concept since the phrase alone may seem too broad and actually contrary to your experience. I doubt you have ever openly refused to learn a particular chord, for example, or a basic scale pattern. This is not the sort of thing I mean when I suggest that a significant percentage of guitar students often stumble in implementing course recommendations. It is not a matter of people intentionally side-stepping the instructions. Rather it is that certain aspects of optimum physical technique run contrary to our instincts. Most students tackling a challenge in physical technique tend to unconsciously default back to instincts rather than consistently apply good technique recommendations. For the record, I am guilty of this as much as anyone, although I have improved significantly over the years in applying what the guitarist community has found to be the most effective technique development methods.

Now let me narrow this down to the specifics items that I see over and over. If any of these seem to apply to you, keep in mind that I am not writing about any specific person or experience, but rather my collective experience as a guitar student and teacher. I assure you that although some of these may apply to you, they are universal themes in the guitar community, so don’t feel like I’m singling you out to give you a hard time!

  1. Tickle the strings rather than tackle them.
  2. For playing open or bar chord rhythms, use a wide, fast, and light-contact pick stroke.
  3. For playing individual notes or two-string intervals (fifth chords, double stops) keep the pick hand palm turned into the guitar so that the pick moves parallel to the plane of the strings with a mere flick of the wrist.
  4. Apply no more pressure to the strings/frets than necessary to sound out a clear note.
  5. Avoid grasping the guitar neck with the palm and thumb as if it were a baseball bat.
  6. Use your elbow to change the working range of your pick – not your wrist or your shoulder.
  7. When changing to an upcoming chord, avoid chopping off the last beat of the previous chord by releasing pressure too early.
  8. Unless you are practicing certain exercises specifically intended to develop speed, do not practice at a tempo faster than you can play with good note articulation and two-hand synchronization.
  9. When learning a new rhythm pattern, go slow and consciously count the beats and divisions of the beats, rather than trying to play the rhythm by “feel”. Once you have conscious mastery of the pattern only then should you work on keeping time by feel.

If you have taken lessons with me for any length of time, you will know that I teach these things routinely, so you may wonder why I am taking up a Newsletter column with this routine lesson fare. There is a reason I am emphasizing these things for you: between knowing good technique and doing good technique, there is a subconscious barrier that we all struggle with: instinct. As your teacher, one of the most significant challenges I face in helping you develop your skills is your own instincts. Your basic instincts tend toward moving the fingers as a unit, favoring the index finger, using much more strength than is necessary, and handling the pick as if it is a plow. Your secondary instinct is to do just the opposite of this. For example, when attempting to play scales for the first time, you will note that your fingers want to stay together and mute the string you are trying to pick, so you will then pull your other fingers way back from the fretboard. Then you have to slam the next finger down like a dive bomber in order to stay in time on the next note. This causes subtle delays that cap your top speed at limits far below your potential.

The first step in conquering this barrier is to be aware of these instinctive actions and over-reactions, so that you can be ready to spot them and counter with deliberate focused repetition of a balanced, optimum technique method that cooperates as far as possible with your natural physiology. Then, apply focused attention to repetitions of good technique. Repetition of good technique results in habits, such that good technique becomes increasingly automatic, enabling to you to move between chords and notes accurately with little conscious effort. Here is where the process breaks down: the focused repetition of good technique, and namely, the focus part. Your hands will constantly try to resort back to instinctive positions and motions, even though your conscious mind is well aware of these issues. You must pay close attention to these details of technique when you practice. This can be tedious at times, but the pay off is more than worth the effort!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Keys To Guitar Mastery: Focus

By Chad Crawford, Blues Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Managing Musical Frustration

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

The most significant barrier to eventual success with the guitar is not talent, time constraints, or the quality of a given program of instruction. It is rather this: giving up! There are many reasons why folks give up on a particular course of study, but we see that over time there is a short list that covers most aspiring guitarists who drop out. Of all the motivation killers that assail aspiring guitarists, frustration is the most deadly. Many is the unfortunate guitar gathering dust in the corner due to the catastrophic frustration of a promising student. Let’s take a look at how folks reach such a high level of frustration that they give up, and see if we can find solutions to ease the pain down to manageable levels.

It is very important for every aspiring guitarist to recognize that we all grapple with frustration as we strive to improve our skills. This is a normal part of the process.

Defining the Problem

Let us start by considering what frustration is. It is a feeling of discomfort that arises when we feel what we want is being thwarted. With guitar in particular, we can get very frustrated over three things.

  1.  We are trying to improve on a certain skill or set of skills, and we do not feel we are making any progress despite persistent commitment of time and effort.
  2.  We feel that others are making faster progress and begin to question our “talent” for guitar.
  3. We compare ourselves to those who are more advanced than us and doubt that we could ever play at that level. Let’s discuss these individually and apply a dose of reality to counter the feeling of frustration.

 

Examining the Details

“I am not making any progress.” As a teacher, I can tell you that this is only true for people who are not studying and practicing. Anyone who is making an effort to improve is improving to some degree. I have students with a wide range of commitment levels, and even the ones who practice very little or none outside of my studio still make some progress over time. For those who genuinely follow my practice recommendations, they improve significantly faster than those who do not. As with anything, you will get out of it what you put into it.

Progress comes in increments, and we often do not see the progress because we wrongly measure our progress by how we feel about our playing. If last week it felt like we were not playing like we wanted to play, and this week it feels the same way, then we conclude we must not be making any progress. However, our feelings during the process of mastering skills are not a good measuring line by which to judge our progress. There are several more realistic ways to measure progress: metronome drills, comparison to what we were able to do six months ago, and frank feedback from a teacher or other ongoing observer. If you are measuring your progress by how frustrated or not frustrated you feel about your playing, you are setting yourself up in a Catch 22 spiral into quitting. So … stop doing that.

It is important to make note here about the phenomenon of “plateaus”. For most of us, including myself, a chart of progress would not show a straight upward sloping line. Rather it would show a squiggly line of ups and downs with a general trend upwards. On that line there will be flat spots … plateaus where it seems we have come to an end of our ability to advance any further. Sometimes these spots can be tenacious, lasting for months. These plateaus can definitely be a motivation killer, especially for intermediate level players who know that they know what to practice and how to practice it. Then we back off our practice routine, which causes our skills to fall off, reinforcing the notion that we have reached the end of our “talent”. Our thinking becomes a proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy, and next thing we know the guitar is in the corner serving as an expensive hangar for clothes that did not make it all the way to the closet. The important thing here is to be aware that these plateaus are coming so that when it hits you know it is just a passing stage. If you persist through this, the progress will show on the other side of the plateau.

“It seems to me that my abilities or progress rates are significantly below that of others.” There are a number of reasons why one may feel this way. It may be true, in which case you may need to make some informed changes to your approach, or increase the amount of time you are investing in practice. It may be that it is untrue in that you are making comparisons that are inaccurate or incomplete. For example, let’s say two students start at the same time, and after some period of time student 1 is more proficient in applying scales to creating soulful solos. Student 2 may look at this and think he is not doing well. However, it may simply be that Student 2 is more interested in playing chord rhythms with even flow and good timing, and so has spent more time on that skill, and is in fact better at it than student 1.

Assuming you are engaged in an effective practice routine, what someone else is doing is completely irrelevant to your goals. I don’t mind telling you that I am not the most naturally talented guitarist in my circle of musician friends, and I have observed many others over many years who make faster progress than I do. I have also observed many of those more “talented” guitarists quit, whereas I did not quit despite periods of frustration. Their seemingly superior natural abilities (which actually probably had more to do with greater practice time) lost way to my persistence. Now I can play rings around many of those folks. Not that I am interested in competing with anyone. The point is, their abilities did not intimidate me into catastrophic frustration, but merely served to demonstrate to me what could be done with the guitar if I was willing to do the work.

“I am not able to play like (insert name of your guitar hero here).” I will share a personal story here that illustrates the point I wish to make. Back in my “bedroom warrior” days, I had a couple of friends who I used to jam with routinely. Back then I knew only a half dozen open chords and some popular power chord riffs. It so happened that one of my friends and I were hanging out on one occasion and he started giving me a hard time about his superior guitar skills. He was just cutting up, but in my youthful pride I did not like it. It was mid summer, and I rashly challenged him to a guitar duel around Christmas. In desperation, I went to a local guitar shop and picked out a book on music theory (just by blind luck, it happened to be a really good one). After digging a bit, I figured out that the Minor Pentatonic scale was the one I needed to play rock solos. So I bared down on that scale for six months. Come Christmas time, my friend was quite surprised when I unleashed a barrage of Minor Pentatonic riffage on him in front of our “judge” (another mutual friend). I won the contest. The moral of the story is, I could have achieved that level of skill years earlier if I had just made the effort. That was an important lesson for me. It changed my whole perspective on guitar, as I had believed I had little “natural talent” and would never play as well as my friends. I realized I had been in possession of the potential all along. I just needed to do the work to make the potential a reality. Now I am able to play advanced instrumental pieces from the guitar heroes of my youth. The frustration that accompanies wrestling with new skills never goes away completely, but it does not have to be an insurmountable barrier to success. Continuing on despite feelings of frustration is simply a part of the work that we must all do to succeed.

Conclusion

Are you struggling with catastrophic frustration? The kind that makes you feel despondent when you think about picking up your guitar? I have also felt that way at times, as do all aspiring musicians. There are solutions that will get you back on a path of progress toward your goals. Find a good teacher with a solid program and students who can actually play. Set up a good practice routine, follow instructions, believe in yourself, and be patient. If you do these things, your success as a guitar player is inevitable. Don’t give up!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Practicing Guitar vs. Playing Guitar

By Chad Crawford,  Guitar Instructor, Greenville Guitar Lessons

Practicing guitar and playing guitar are not the same thing, and it is important to understand the difference if you want to maximize your progress. While playing guitar is the end game of practicing, and we need to spend plenty of time playing, practicing is the means to the end of playing. It is essential to practice well and not allow playing to take over during what should be practice time. Although this may seem obvious on the surface, it is very easy to fall over into playing while trying to practice. Here we will look at the differences and consider how to avoid this pitfall.

So let us consider the differences between the two and how to avoid mixing them up. Playing guitar is the broad application of all our knowledge and technique skills into making music. Practicing guitar is deliberate focus on a narrow range of knowledge and technique skills with the specific goal of cultivating improvement in those specific areas. While playing, we focus on all that we can do. While practicing we focus on what we can not yet do, or do as well as we would prefer.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you are practicing instead of getting stuck in a rut by playing through your practice time:

  • 1. Consider where you are, where you need to be, and how to get there – if you have no master plan for reaching your musical goals then you can be sure that your practice time will consist of merely playing what you already know rather than making specific improvements in those things that will allow you access to the next musical level. To devise a master plan you should look to the music you wish to play and find out what kinds of chords, rhythms, and scales/arpeggios arise in that music. You need to master those things to play that kind of music.
  • 2. Define goals for every practice session – if you practice with no particular goal in mind then you will get exactly where you planned to get – nowhere. In every practice session you should have a plan to work on improving specific aspects of knowledge and technique according to your overall master plan. Committing your plan to paper will aid you greatly in keeping it in view as you practice.
  • 3. Focus on specific aspects of knowledge and technique during practice – when you are for instance practicing the scales you need for your preferred musical style, focus specifically on timing, note articulation, resolving notes, technique (relaxed fingers!), two hand synchronization, and eventually speed. You may have to break these goals down across several practice sessions per week so that you can devote adequate time and attention to each. Playing licks that you already know, or mindlessly wandering up and down through scales, is not practice. That is playing and it will not help you improve nearly as much as practicing.
  • 4. Push yourself to do better than yesterday – profitable practice does not come from merely repeating what you did yesterday. It comes from making it a point to do better than you did yesterday. Doing better than you did yesterday does not come from merely accepting the vague proposition that you will try do better today then you did yesterday. It comes from focused attention to the minute details of your playing, such as striving for better note articulation of scales, faster chord changes, or deliberately playing with less overall muscular tension than yesterday.
  • 5. Maintain your attention on the details – it is very easy to allow your mind to wander off when you are doing repetitive aspects of your practice routine. Focus yields much greater results, and focus is an ongoing choice because the mind tends strongly toward wandering off from one thing to another. Choose to keep your mind focused on the details of what you are working on.
  • 6. Include some playing time in your musical endeavors – it is pointless to pursue music if it is going to mean nothing but practice. Allow yourself some time within each practice session, or a few times a week if that works better for you, to just play without being overly concerned about the perfection of the details. Perfect the details during practice, and then relax and let your hands do their thing when you play. During playing time, do whatever is the best you can do and don’t allow mistakes to rob your enjoyment of it. Just play and enjoy what comes out well. As you progress through diligent practice, you will find that your playing includes increasingly fewer mistakes and more enjoyment. It is a process. Give it time.
  • Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

    Mastering Musical Memory

    By PMI Guitar Instructor Chad Crawford

    One of the greatest areas of struggle for most guitarists is remembering the numerous chords, scales, chord progressions, and other odds and ends that we must employ to reproduce our favorite songs or to improvise. While there is no way to make memorization of large amounts of information easy, there are things we can do to make it more predictable and consistent and thus produce better results and faster progress in our playing.

    Psychologists advise that lifestyle greatly affects memory. While this article is specifically directed at musical pursuits rather than memory in general, it is worth mentioning that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep allow our memories to function at their maximum potential. If you want the best results from your musical endeavors, take good care of yourself!

    For us musicians, we need to focus specifically on two components of memory: procedural memory and declarative memory. Procedural memory, for our purposes, refers to that aspect of recall pertaining to executing physical tasks. In musician lingo we often refer to this as muscle memory. Declarative memory is that aspect of memory that allows us to recall facts and figures, such as chord shapes, scale patterns, and the intervals of the root notes of chord progressions. So now that we have a view of the two aspects of memory we need to master, let’s look at some specific strategies.

    Improving Muscle Memory 

    1. Repetition – there is no substitute for repetition. You may have heard something of the old adage among guitar players about “playing until my fingers bleed”. While this may sound like a ridiculous hyperbole, I have in fact literally practiced extreme bends for certain licks to the point that one of my fingernails began to separate from the nail bed and seep blood. While I don’t recommend this, it does illustrate the point that repetition is the key to muscle memory. The more you repeat good executions of a given technique, the better you will play it. This is also incidentally one of the keys to overcoming “stage fright” – embed your skills so deeply into your muscle memory that you can execute them accurately regardless of any distractions.
    1. Consistencyyou will get much better results from your muscle memory by practicing a moderate amount of repetition daily as opposed to trying to cram in a large block of repetitions on the weekend or the day before your next lesson!
    1. Focus – repetition of slop leads to playing slop. It is extremely important to pay attention when practicing scales, for instance. Be sure that you are relaxed and using the most efficient motions possible for each note. When you are learning something new it is important to practice it at a speed that will allow you to play it accurately and efficiently. That often means “excruciatingly slow”. If that is what it means then do it that way. You will never have speed without slop until you thoroughly train your muscle memory to execute the required motions as efficiently and accurately as possible. Then gradually increase speed, maintaining a balance between speed and accurate execution.
    1. Test – it is critical that you push the limits of your muscle memory by testing it routinely. Once you have learned a scale pattern then work on playing through it without looking at your fret hand fingers. Likewise, once you have learned a new chord then get started with applying the chord in a chord progression without looking at your fretting hand. Observe mistakes, correct them, and repeat. This will greatly increase your speed in mastering technique.

    Improving Recall

    1. Focus – as with muscle memory, focused attention on the details of new information will greatly increase your ability to recall that information. While this may seem obvious, it is important to be aware that we all have a tendency to allow our thoughts to drift randomly. For maximum understanding and recall it is imperative to willfully interrupt the random flow of thought and focus your attention while trying to digest new information.
    1. Focus – see item 1. This is so important that I am repeating it to help you remember it!
    1. Relation – as often as possible, try to relate new information to things that you already know. For instance, if you know the first position A Major chord shape then it is not so difficult to recall that the A7 is simply A Major minus the middle note. Likewise, all of the A form bar chords are an offshoot of the A Major chord shape, so if you know the A Major well enough then the various bar forms are not so hard to remember.
    1. Isolation – break complicated sets of information into parts and memorize the individual parts first, then assemble them into the complete set. For instance, with a new scale pattern memorize the notes on two strings. Then move to the next pair of strings, then the next. Then go back and put them all together into the complete pattern. For a tablature score, learn one line. Then move to the next and learn that one. Then play the two together. Then learn the next line, and then add that to previous two. Repeat until the song is complete. Then repeat until your fingers bleed!
    1. Consistency – as with muscle memory, recall responds well to repeated exposure to the same information. This is why it is much more productive to practice a half hour a day than to run practice marathons on the weekends.
    1. Vocalize – where feasible, find some way to say out loud what you are trying to memorize. Speaking things aids the memory in storing them. Example: when trying to memorize notes along the fretboard, say the notes out loud as you are playing them. This will greatly speed up your ability to recall the names of the notes.

     

    Following these recommendations will greatly increase the rate of speed of your mastery of all things guitar. We all struggle with memory, but these strategies will assist you in increasing the rate at which you conquer various elements of musicianship. Remember this: never give up!

    Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

    The Guitarist’s Best Friend (and worst enemy)

    By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor Greenville Guitar Lessons by PMI

    Aspiring guitarists grapple with a number of challenges in perfecting the craft. From memory failure to reluctant hands, we all struggle with predictable challenges along the path to mastery. Some of these issues are inherent flaws in the human machine about which we can do little but struggle. Others are more within the realm of our choosing, and choose well we must if we wish to have the best possible results for our efforts.

    Among the numerous assets we have to help us overcome barriers to progress, none is more potent than the power of habit. Mastering the guitar is very much a matter of cultivating good habits, both mentally and physically. Contrarily, allowing bad habits to persist will torpedo our efforts. Unfortunately the default setting of the human machine is toward counterproductive habits. On the other hand, through exercise of our will we may choose to cultivate good habits that support musical excellence. So we must persist in a productive practice routine with various repetitive mental and physical exercises such that basic skills like chord changes, scales, and rhythm patterns become habitual. Once these things become habitual we can then keep them habitual with only a bit of routine maintenance, and then we are free to focus on the more exciting and gratifying subtleties of making good music.

    So let’s take a look at a list of techniques and strategies that will assist you in cultivating good habits. These are not randomly selected tidbits, but rather key areas of fundamental knowledge and technique where I observe students struggling time after time. You can use the power of habit to help you get these fundamentals out of the way as soon as possible so you can move on to more interesting things.

    1. Practice Scheduling – set up a designated place where you will practice. Keep your guitar handy on a stand and your practice materials and metronome already out or readily accessible. Make an effort to practice at the same time of day as much as possible so that it becomes a habit, where you then feel uncomfortable if you don’t get started at the appointed time.

    2. Fretboard Note Recognition – set aside some time each time you practice to target some area of the fretboard for note memorization. Break this formidable task into small chunks according to various schemes of dividing the fretboard such as notes along one string, one fret, etc. Make it a habit to memorize the notes along any one such scheme every week.

    3. Chord Changes – changing chords quickly and accurately is the most significant barrier that beginning students struggle with, and one of the more frustrating. It is one of the keys to making really satisfying music, so it is important to get this under control as quickly as possible. Many students tend to develop a habit of stopping at chord changes and allowing themselves ample time to change chords. While this is impossible to get around at first, it quickly becomes a habit that persists long after the student is actually able to change chords without losing time. Avoid this trap by always making the effort to target the first beat of a measure for having your chord change complete. Be there on the 1 count!

    4. Chord Strumming Technique – while focusing on changing chords, many students fall prey to a weak pick attack consisting of a half-hearted push of the pick through the strings along a short pick stroke. Cultivate a habit of starting each downstroke at the top of the guitar body and follow through to the other side of the guitar body. Then reverse this for the upstroke. Do not push the pick through the strings as this sounds harsh and unpleasant. Perform the pick stroke with a lively snatch of the forearm, allowing the relaxed hand/wrist to follow along, and drag the pick quickly and lightly along the top of the strings. This is not going to happen by accident. Force it until it becomes automatic.

    5. Playing Scales with a Legato Feel – when practicing scale patterns always allow the previous note to run into the next note with no silence in between. This means you must maintain pressure on the previous note and snap your fingertip onto the upcoming note while simultaneously making the pick stroke for the new note. Pay attention to this important detail and keep paying attention to it until it becomes a good habit!

    6. Playing Phrases in Time – to get started with solo phrasing, always play your scale notes on the beat and resolve on the first beat of the underlying chord change. This may be obvious to the mind, but getting the fingers to cooperate does not happen automatically. It is very easy and very common to get absorbed with fingering notes and lose track of the timing. Make it a habit to pay attention to the beat while phrasing, and play your notes on beat.

    Habits can work for you or against you. Ensure that they work for you by diligently following the tips above every time you practice. Cultivating good habits will greatly increase your rate of progress.

    Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.