Tag Archives: attitude

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.

 

Can I Help You? – Part II

In part I of this two-part series we considered some generalities of how an aspiring musician’s overall attitudes about work and people affect musical accomplishment. In this part we will consider how attitude more specifically affects the technical details of cultivating music skills.

Review from Part I … (hint – I am reviewing this section because it is very important!)

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. Let’s look a bit at some examples of how attitude effects musical results.

Now, on to Part II proper …

Give Me the Giggles! – I have observed many instances, particularly with kids and their parents, of music students or prospects who approach learning music purely as entertainment, similar to sports. Professional athletes must of course work hard for many years to achieve a world class level of performance. However, much of the fun of sports for kids is simply running around excitedly on a field or court. A coach can train a kid in the basic rudiments of a sport within minutes and the kids can begin to enjoy the fundamental physical activity of the sport immediately, even if they are actually comically terrible at it in the beginning.

This is not so with music. While making music can and should ultimately be a very satisfying experience, reaching this level of musicianship is a process more along the lines of learning math, science, or language. No one expects to start a science class and be a functioning research scientist before completing the first class. For whatever reason, many people who have an interest in music lessons, and this is the worst with guitar in particular, seem to have some idea that it is something along the lines of an alternative to sports or watching TV, something that is purely a form of entertainment. I suppose this has something to do with so much of the advertising for guitar training that appeals to the quick fix – click here, or come take my lessons, and you will be playing your favorite songs immediately!

Let me be clear here that I am not suggesting it isn’t possible to learn to play some great music without submitting to twelve years of education. That would be one extreme. I am addressing the other extreme, where the prospect or client feels that the whole process should be an experience similar to sports – giggles out of the gate, with the real work required only for the elite. Well, it isn’t. For a typical hobbyist level musician with a good work ethic and a good teacher, pursuing fluency in popular music styles, it is going to be a multi-year process to get to a point of functioning predictably and comfortably in a group playing setting such as a band or open jam session. Up until that point, it is going to be like school. Go to class. Do homework. Repeat. When you get through first grade, then you go to second grade. There is no way to jump from day one to diploma, or third grade to eighth grade. It is a process consisting of many small steps, and if anyone is telling you otherwise, be sure to keep an eye on your wallet until you get clear of them, because they know better and they are only after your money.

If you are looking for giggles out of the gate, I can’t help you. If, on the other hand, you are willing to approach learning music as an educational endeavor with great rewards on the far end of some work, then I can help you a great deal!

I Can’t! – Yes you can, if you are willing to persist in an informed approach to working at it. There is no “I can’t”. There is only, “I haven’t yet”. Students of guitar all experience the same struggles with finger control, comprehension, and confusing the two issues. For instance, chord changing exercises can be quite frustrating in the beginning, and many feel that they will never be able to accurately and rapidly place fingers in the correct location fast enough to keep up with the rhythm. This is simply an illusion, arising from unrealistic expectations. Fluent chord changing requires a well-developed muscle memory for each chord, and that means lots of repetition over time. It is a process, and the desired results are inevitable.

Similarly, when I introduce students to the concept of resolving solo phrases to target scale notes, it is universal for students to struggle with tracking the chord changes while also trying to remember finger placements. With the introduction of each new level of complexity as we move through alternate resolving notes and various positions along the fretboard, it is a recurring struggle to get one’s mind and hands around the ability to accurately place the right note at the right time. This does not mean anything is wrong or that you have no talent. It is just something that you have to work at until you have cultivated the totality of it into your thinking, and then it will work.

Let me share with you an example of a common experience I observe in teaching. I was once teaching a teenage a girl who was struggling with her chord changes. She came in for her lesson one week and went through the exercises. She kept fumbling the chords, but I knew she had been working with them long enough to get them right. So we kept going over them with me leading her through a series of steps to get her reservations out of the way and let her muscle memory take over. Toward the end of the class she started playing through the exercises smoothly, to her great amazement and delight. However, what I remember most is the look of surprised understanding on her face when I pointed out to her that she was able to do those exercises well when she walked in the door that day. The only thing that was preventing her from peak performance was that her mind was closed to the possibility that she could do them well, and so she had been unconsciously choosing to perform habitually sub-par chord changes in fulfillment of her expectations.

Do you see how important attitude is? You can literally prevent yourself from doing something that you are in fact presently capable of doing, by convincing yourself that are not able to do it! This is what performance coaches mean when they speak of believing in yourself.  It does not mean some kind of voodoo such that you can wishful think yourself into doing something that you can’t actually do. Rather, it means you choose to be confident in your potential to do a thing, and you cling to that belief tenaciously through the struggles of the building process until the work finally delivers the desired results. It is not magic. You still have to do the work. But you can do the work and still suffer less than desired results due to a self-defeating, “I Can’t!” attitude.

Besides talking yourself out of doing something that you can actually do, an “I can’t!” attitude will also give you an easy escape when you are faced with some work. It is an unfortunate fact that all of us human beings are inherently lazy, and we will jump on any excuse that presents itself to get out of doing some work. If you can convince yourself that you can’t, well then there is no point doing all that work, is there? I can’t, so I won’t try, and then I won’t be able, and that will prove that I couldn’t, and then I can watch TV and eat marshmallows instead. See how that works?

Are you inclined toward believing that lying internal voice that whispers, “I can’t!” Well, if you do give in to that suggestion, then you will choose to make it so, and then I can’t help you. If you will instead choose to believe, “I can!” regardless of the struggles of the moment, then I can help you a great deal!

When Does it End! – I get all manner of people with all kinds of ideas about music coming to me for lessons. I conduct pre-enrollment interviews with all prospects for a number of reasons, one of which is to identify what they may be thinking in regards to how long it takes to learn music. The answer will vary a great deal depending on goals, but some folks have really unrealistic ideas such as a few weeks or a few months. I never let these folks enroll thinking it is going to be a few weeks or months. Some of them do not enroll, either because they think I don’t know what I am talking about, or else they are just not willing to commit a realistic amount of time to it.

Then I have prospects who enroll and get started. Some of them come in with a great attitude driven by a passion for music, and they stay enrolled for multiple years and become potent musicians. Others stay for a few weeks or months until they realize I wasn’t exaggerating about the commitment required, then they give up and quit. Unfortunately those folks are a lost cause before they even start, not because of their inherent potential but rather because of their attitude.

Then there is the mid-range group. They get off to a good start and make rapid progress, but then get bogged down somewhere between six months and a year. They may continue with lessons, but they get stuck at a certain level, often with learning improvisational soloing. This is where the weight of a self-defeating attitude begins to take its toll. They fall into a habitual routine of practicing the same mistakes over and over rather than truly applying intense focus to solving problems, and then they get stuck. It feels to them as if they have reached a limit they can’t pass, then they either resign themselves to current limits, or else give in to frustration and quit.

This is where attitude becomes the critical factor in success. When you reach that point where you feel you are stuck, you can do one of three things. Quit, keep doing what got you stuck, or do something different that delivers better results. I can tell you from much experience that the thing you need to do different is to focus more closely on the details of the specific problem you are having, rather than simply practicing the same mistake over and over and hoping it will resolve itself. I can also tell you from experience that most folks won’t do the extra work most of the time. They will instead either go on repeating the mistake or else give up.

When does it end? When you choose to focus intently on correcting the details, conquering the problem instead of letting it conquer you. If you choose to give up, or try to side-step the work necessary to succeed, then I can’t help you. If you love music enough to commit up front to working at it until you can do it well, then I can help you a great deal!

The Grass is Greener Over There! – Question: “When do I get to stop practicing all the time and just enjoy playing?” Answer: “The instant that you stop thinking in terms that ‘real music’ is limited to stuff that you can’t already do.” Music has been around since the dawn of time. You are not ever going to run out of “stuff that you can’t already do”. If you learned every song that has been played in the history of Western civilization, then you would have just got started with the possibilities. There is always going to be some new hill to climb. You will never get past needing to practice, if for no other reason than to maintain your technique. However, this does not mean that you are not in fact a capable musician. The first time a student plays through my first exercise, they are in fact making real music. Consider that if you know your open position major and minor chords, power chords, and command basic rhythm skills, then you can play literally thousands of popular songs. Maybe tens of thousands. But for some folks, they tend to set the bar of “real music” or “good music” so arbitrarily high that they can’t ever just relax and enjoy what they can already do, even if it is songs that are literally million-sellers.

Here’s the hidden source of this attitude problem: vanity. A lot of aspiring musicians, especially guitarists, are more interested in acclaim than self-expression. I have had prospects at pre-enrollment interviews outright tell me that what they most want from lessons is to impress others with their guitar playing. I don’t enroll these folks if they can’t also express some other more substantial goal, because I know that if this is their sole motivation then they are wasting their time and mine.

There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to move others with music. But there is wanting to reach people through music, and then there is wanting applause for musical accomplishment – two different things. The former is the core of what the phenomenon of music is, the latter is empty egomania. Folks in the former camp will be quite happy to see folks enjoying their simple 12 Bar progressions and Blues phrasing as much as they will enjoy ripping out some Dream Theatre symphonic rock. Those in the latter camp will always experience music as something along the lines of eating burned oatmeal, because they will always be consumed with the feeling that others are not impressed with their technical prowess.

Let’s not go to either extreme. As with all good art, you must achieve pleasing quality, proportion, and symmetry for beautiful results. Of course you need to be in time and on pitch if you wish to make music that is “good” by any reasonably objective criteria, and that means there is some work to be done. The farther you want to go, the more work you have to do. At the same time, if you can’t enjoy the plateaus on the way to the peak, you will probably not be able to keep up enough steam to make it to whatever the peak is for you.

Consider an artist like B.B. King. He does not play technically complicated music, but what he is really great at is expressing himself with his library of simple Blues licks. If you watch him play you can see it on his face quite plainly. People do not go to see B.B. King perform because they want to hear someone rip scales at supersonic speeds. They enjoy B.B. King because they connect with the feeling he is able to convey through his simple music. That is what music is all about, and he is a master at it. Artists like Yngwie Malmsteen need much more technically complex music to fully express themselves, and that is also perfectly valid. What is not valid is to suggest that one is “better” than the other. Those kinds of arguments are a waste of time.

Many widely acclaimed musicians moved millions of people with relatively simple music. Johnny Cash. Kurt Cobain. Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton. Tom Petty. I could go on and on listing names. The point is, as a student of guitar you are not doing yourself any favors by refusing to allow yourself enjoyment of the music that is currently accessible to you. Of course keep striving for that next level, but at the same time give yourself a break and allow yourself to enjoy what you can already do!

Let me clarify that I am not meaning to express contempt for those who are suffering inability to enjoy their music due to vanity. We all suffer from it a bit, myself included. It is a major barrier for many aspiring musicians, and one of my goals as a teacher is to talk people off it, not because I have contempt for people but because it hinders their realization of their musical goals. Indeed, there is a certain level of musicianship we need to achieve before we can do anything more than annoy others with our guitars. Once you reach the level that you can change chords quickly and hold a rhythm through twelve or sixteen bars, get busy making music and enjoying it while you continue climbing toward the next plateau!

Do you find that when you play music you are more involved with what others are thinking of your performance than you are the music itself? If so, and if I can’t persuade you off that approach, then I’m sorry to say that you will never enjoy music enough to persevere, and so I can’t help you. If you will instead recognize that music does not have to be “impressive” to be good, then I can help you a great deal with both simple and complicated music!

Show me the Low Road! – We speak of “taking the high road” as a colloquialism for doing the right thing or doing the better thing. The idea is based on the understanding that taking the high road will be harder, but there will be a reward for it at the end of the road, so it will be worth the trouble. This is certainly true in music training. Choosing the low road might be easier in the present moment, but in the long run it is going to lead to frustration, and drag the process out longer than it has to be.

So what does it mean to choose the high road in music training? I will give you an example that illustrates the concept. Every student of guitar reaches a point of wanting to play scales much faster. There is a process for this with predictable, guaranteed results. The process starts with slowing the scales down to very, very slow speeds and working with painstaking attention to detail on perfecting technique. It is very tedious and requires a great deal of sustained mental focus on multiple aspects of technique. Very few actually submit to this part of the process and see it through, but rather try to push through it as quickly as possible. This renders the exercise useless or far less effective than it could be.

I have seen this over and over. A student tells me they want to play faster. I lay out the exercise. I follow up later only to find that they haven’t done it. What would you think if you put a hundred dollar bill on the table and told someone they could have it if they would just pick it up, and they told you they really wanted it bad, but would not reach out and pick it up? This is what students of guitar do with developing speed. They tell me they want to play faster. I tell them in great detail exactly what to do. Then they don’t do it.

Does this mean they don’t really want to play faster? No. What it means is that during the exercises, they repeatedly allow themselves to fall apart over maintaining sustained mental focus. They take the low road.

This sort of thing comes up in numerous ways, anytime there is a decision to be made over doing the harder thing or the easier thing. Another good example … experimenting with new phrasing paths rather than just rehearsing paths you already know. Are you guilty of this? Playing phrases in straight time rather than making a pointed effort to mix up the timing across a phrase. Guilty? I bet you are. I am, although more so in times past than recently.

There are a hundred ways in any practice session that you can take the low road. I won’t take time to present an exhaustive list here, but generally you probably know if you are doing this. It is very simple to see if you pay attention to it. Are you avoiding the harder thing and doing the easier one instead? If so then you are taking the low road. Though it might make your practice seem more entertaining, it is slowing down your overall progress rate by multiples.

I can help you learn to play guitar even if you insist on taking the low road, but what I can’t do for you is help you achieve the maximum results you are capable of in the shortest possible time. If you want that, then you will have to take the high road, and in that case I can help you a great deal!

Conclusion – I could go on and on with this matter of how attitude translates into results, but as you can see it is already quite a bit longer than my usual articles. Hopefully I have got the point across enough to help you identify ways in which you might be harboring some kind of attitude that is hindering your progress.

Please bear in mind it is not my intent with this article to beat anyone up. It is difficult to speak on the subject of attitude without stepping on some toes, but it is such a critical component of success with music that I feel an ethical obligation to address it, even it makes some folks mad or costs me some clients. If you are one of my active or former clients and feel like I wrote this thinking of you, I assure you I didn’t write any of this article, or part 1, with any one person in mind, except the one illustration with the teenage girl struggling with chord changes. This is all about generalities from my overall experience as a developing musician, and observations as a performer and teacher. If you do feel that any or all of this applies to you personally, well, then it probably does. Don’t give in to “an attitude” about it. Instead, take the high road and use it to identity and eliminate any such hindrances, so you can get on with that which works. To that end I wish you the best.

Can I Help You?

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. 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 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 from a jerk.  

Here are some of the ways I avoid being a jerk and instead demonstrate 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 they 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 demonstrate 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.