"Everything I ever wanted to know... I learned from my guitar"
- Ethan Meixsell
Be The Worst Player In The Room:
We're guitar players. Let's be honest. We crave praise. We love being the best player in the room. It's a great feeling when all of the preparation you've done in your life brings you to that point of mastery...When you have the confidence to play without fear...it's a trap...
The need to achieve, to be the best player in the room can get in the way of real progress. We start avoiding situations that take us out of our comfort zone. We avoid the embarrassment of possibly making mistakes. Once this mindset gets a hold on us, it can turn into a narrowing of your playing experience. Slowly you start taking gigs that are only safe, and soon that feeling of being the best in the room isn't enough to satisfy you, and then the whole experience starts to suffer.
In my early 20's I started to actively seek out musical situations that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I showed up at a recording session with seasoned jazz players who had all been working together. I was the unknown player, and straight ahead jazz has never been my strong suit. I tried my best to not let that affect my ability to contribute musically to the situation, and I focused on enjoying the music, and the considerable skill level of the rest of the band.
On break, I asked a lot of questions about phrasing. I took the risk of being the annoying guy bugging everyone, because they had a skill that I wanted...I ended up making some friends that day, and my brain grew bigger, as did my vocabulary...by the end of my session, I was a shade more comfortable hanging with those guys, and that comfort level grew a bit more each time we got together...until the next left turn in my playing experience threw me into another arena.
If ever I want to shake up my playing I listen to music that intimidates me, and I break down what I can, starting with the lines that strike me as the most interesting. I always try to remember that, no matter how bad I may sound on that day, I still have all of the skills that I have worked on my whole life. One day of sounding bad does not negate all of that work, and it might be exactly the thing that pushes me to the next level.
So, find that guy whose playing intimidates you and talk to him. Jam with him. Let him embarrass you with his ability. If he's any kind of musician, he's listening intently to what you are doing to try to generate some new ideas of his own. We never know what is going to spark the next level of development.
As always, music is a language. If someone uses a word you don't use, or references a book you've never read, try to avoid that instinct to pretend you know what they are talking about. Ask questions. Be vulnerable and honest. Not knowing something doesn't make you less of a person, or less of a musician. Our experience is vast and very personal to us. See every conversation or musical experience as an opportunity to learn something new. Proudly be the worst player in the room.
Practice Makes Imperfect:
This year marks my 20th year teaching music privately. I've learned so much from the process, and watching my students go through all of the stages of development has helped to reinforce my own strengths along the way. I want this to reflect the many things my students have taught me about the process of becoming a musician.
Much of my energy with my students is spent trying to help them practice more effectively. Good practice methods helps us get the most out of any of the material we are working on. Conversely, bad practice habits will keep us from progressing to our potential, regardless of what content we work on. Here are some ideas to try to implement into your practicing.
Setting Up Your Environment:
We are busy people. Finding time to practice is frequently very difficult. When we do find the time, we want to be sure to make the most of it. I can't tell you how many of my students say that they would practice more if they had easier access to their instruments and their materials. This may seem like an obvious step to take, but we can lose 10 minutes of practice time just getting set up or looking for the music we're working on etc.
So, first off, I encourage my students to have a practice area that is set up with all of our materials readily available. I prefer to leave my guitars out on stands, although they are a bit more susceptible to the elements. If you do leave your guitar on a stand, make sure it is secure and try to keep the room at a reasonable temperature and humidity level. Guitars are best taken care of in an environment we are also comfortable in. Changes in temperature and humidity can damage our gear and impact our setups, so try to keep the temperature and humidity as consistent as possible.
If you are working off of written music or notes, keep them organized and protect them. I encourage my students to get a 3 ring binder and page savers to store notes and music that I print for them. This will protect your music for years to come. My first lesson notebook is incredibly valuable to me and is falling apart after 30 years. If I had just protected the paper in the first place it would be in much better shape. For those of you that want to take it a step further, organizing your book into sections focusing on specific techniques, and organizing transcriptions alphabetically may save you some time. Use a method that makes sense to you. Keep in mind that being obsessive about organizing your stuff can waste just as much time as being disorganized. Also, bookmark videos that you are working on so you can get to them easily. Keep your bookmarks in sub-folders to keep them in order.
Good playing technique requires that we support our body properly. Finding a good chair that allows us to sit upright with our shoulders slightly back and our feet on the floor sets us up for good playing habits. A bad chair can ruin our technique and it's one of the easiest things we can remedy.
I always play with a guitar strap, so having one that is set up to the right size is crucial. Setting up a strap so that the guitar is at the same angle whether you are sitting or standing helps to reinforce good, consistent technique. When I first started I didn't practice with a strap when I sat. Every chair I sat in felt uncomfortable and changed the angle of my wrist, which made it hard to develop a consistent technique. I was constantly shifting the guitar from one leg to the other, shifting the neck higher or lower. Very rarely could I stay in one position for very long. Finding the right height for a strap ended all of that for me.
(Materials you want to have easy access to: computer, speakers, metronome, recorded music, pen, paper, extra strings, capo, tuner, music stand, tablet, water, snack, comfortable chair, guitar strap, guitar stand)
Prepare For Practice
Practice Slowly, But Not Too Slowly:
One of the classic adages in practicing is that we need to play slowly before we can play up to tempo. While this is very true, I've had many students take this to an extreme. If you practice too slowly there are some potential issues. First, if we practice too slowly, we lose our perspective and musical context. It's easy to get lost at extreme slow tempos and then we are missing out on the benefits. So, instead of playing extremely slowly, I suggest playing at a slow tempo where the feel of the song is still intact. We are looking for a starting tempo that allows us to play each part cleanly, and connected. If you are having to slow down to the point that the phrase is unrecognizable, try practicing a smaller piece of the phrase and working that up. Usually, there are one or two spots that require us to go extra slowly, and the rest is playable at a faster tempo. Instead of playing the larger chunk slowly, focus on just the trouble spots. You should see faster improvement this way.
Another thing that many of my students have done is that they practice at slow tempos for too long. If you are playing a passage consistently cleanly, it's time to bring up the tempo. As an experiment, try playing the section 20 BPM faster than you've been practicing. Try to observe where you have trouble. While you wouldn't want to practice like that consistently, it gives us very useful information. If your brain is having trouble keeping up at that tempo or you are forgetting where you are, then you know you haven't fully internalized it yet, and that's where you need to put your focus. If you are tripping over the picking coordination, then put your focus on evening out the picking motion for a while. If your left hand can't get there fast enough, focus on lightening your touch and trying to make sure that you are being as efficient as possible. Sometimes multiple things fall apart, and it's hard to know what to do. In that event, try to pick one element to work on. If we don't play up to the point that things fall apart from time to time, you won't know where your weakness lies, and as a result you won't break through to higher tempos.
We are anxious to play on the master level. Frequently, that anxiousness makes us play a whole song up to tempo with 70% accuracy, instead of slowing it down and playing it with higher accuracy. We don't like to encounter our practicing mortality.
The most productive musicians know how to quickly diagnose trouble spots. When doing this, usually we are struggling with small elements of our technique that require more intense focus. It's sometimes tedious, but a few minutes of this kind of hyper focus can yield more results than playing a whole passage hundreds of times. For example, try upstroking the open G string, and downstroking the B string. This is sometimes called "inside picking". The pick feels trapped by the surrounding strings. This is one of the harder coordinations we run into, and it happens all the time in melody lines. If we spend a few minutes going back and forth between those strings, it will help to even it out. When we run into it in the melody we are working in, it should be less of a sticking point. We need to route out spots like this. We are all different players with different strengths, so you have to be your own guide with this. Practicing techniques that are already strong won't improve your technique nearly as efficiently as working on the hard stuff.
There is a lot of anxiety connected with making mistakes. For professionals it feels like a comment on our character, our profession, our self-worth. Mistakes are necessary! It's important to start to just observe our mistakes and not assign too much judgement. Make note of it and on the next repetition, put a little more attention at that spot, or slow down a little. Mistakes are there to guide us in the right direction. They shout to us, "Hey! Work on this!". When we make peace with our mistakes it becomes much easier to improve. Anger at mistakes is wasted time and energy. It pulls your focus away. As ridiculous as it sounds, try to be grateful for your mistakes. They are telling you important things about our playing, and are the only way we improve. Someone who plays only passages that are comfortable, never risking mistakes, will never advance. Mistakes are the byproduct of progress.
The Ear Is The Instrument:
In the last ten years we've seen an explosion in tools available to the developing guitarist. You can easily find a transcription or video demonstration of any song you want to learn, backing tracks to play along with, even phone apps with lessons embedded. There are tons of technique books available addressing every aspect of playing. Many of these are incredible resources with great potential, but the one thing that is the same is that we still have to understand how to practice well in order to access all that these resources have to offer. The instant availability of anything you want demonstrated has a negative effect, too. So much of my musical development came as a result of trying to figure out records by ear. Sometimes I did so inaccurately, but that was part of the process of development. Other times I'd come across a challenging technical passage that I just couldn't play the way it was originally performed. I had to come up with my own way to play it. I grew immensely as a result of this process. So, I suggest spending some time trying to figure out these songs by ear before rushing to a transcription or a video demonstration. It might take longer initially, but by learning by ear you are exercising skills that are of immeasurable importance to a musician. Great musicians need to know how to listen to the details of what other musicians are playing to properly interact with them. This process needs to be practiced and honed. Often we think we know what other people are playing and then we break it down and discover much more than what is on the surface. The more music we can decode as it happens, the more we can respond to our musical environment, and the experience becomes richer.
Remember Why You Play:
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