(The) Primacy of the Ear

Saving Pretty Polly from the train tracks

I left my last post with a little cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

I’ve talked a lot about the pluses and minuses of going to music school and some of the pitfalls in being an autodidact, so I’m not going to talk about the big issues behind both of those approaches, but I do want to briefly outline what the great self taught players and great formally trained players have in common.

Ability to analyze.

Here’s a quote from my interview with Miroslav Tadic that bears repeating:

Understanding what you are playing while you are playing it puts you into a whole different place. This is extremely rare with classical players and this is what marks a great classical player and sets them apart from the other players. You have a player like Glenn Gould who had everything memorized and knew what was going on in every note that he was playing. After he stopped playing concerts he would go to the studio and everything that he recorded (and he recorded a vast amount of music) was all played from memory. The reason why you can have that kind of memory is because you understand what’s going on in the music. It’s not just having photographic memory or sitting there and having a technique for memorization it’s having the understanding of music. Even if you’re only going to play classical music, if you sit down and as you’re playing, go through the piece and ask yourself – what am I playing or what is this?

….You can really make it much more enjoyable and can really help you eliminate the dreaded memory lapses because you know what you’re playing. It’s not just this part that’s abstract to you. If you blank out all of the sudden and you have no idea of where you are. But you can always remember, oh that’s the F major part, before the cadence that takes us back to D minor or whatever. It’s not the theoretical knowledge of someone who’s a music student but the connection between theoretical knowledge and the actual living knowledge of music. The sonic knowledge. This is a really important thing. For example, you can know what a Neapolitan chord is – but you’ve also got to be able to spot it every time you hear it. Those guys who wrote that music – you can bet they knew what it sounded like. It’s not an issue of them sitting there and making calculations or something. It’s a flavor – like hearing a pentatonic scale. If you hear Pentatonic Minor riff, is there any question about what someone is playing? No. You can hear it and recognize it for what it is because it’s the music of our times. The same way, if you’re playing music from some other time well you should know it like the music of your own time.

This doesn’t mean that great musicians are in a perpetual state of constant analysis of everything, but if you have a deeper understanding of what is going on around you, you have a higher likelihood of being able to interact with it on a deeper level.   Some players have an intellectual knowledge of this, “There’s a minor vi to I in this part of the tune.”  some have a sonic knowledge of this (i.e. they hear the chord progression and know what’s going on in a deeper level.)

And here lies the other big similarity between the aforementioned players,

the ability to hear and listen

And, in my mind, there’s a big difference between the two.

Hearing is reactive – (“someone’s playing something”)
Listening is proactive (“the soloist is playing a line based in 4ths, I’m going to play something complimentary under that.”)

I may be in the minority for making that distinction but I think it’s an important one.

At Berklee, the classes that caused everyone to groan were the Ear Training (“Ear Straining”) classes.  The reason for this is because the classes focused on intervallic drills, the ability to hear chord qualities (major, minor, 7th chords in inversions) and transcribe melodies from ear.

In other words, all things that you need to be able to do in the real world – but a lot of the material was not something that would inspire you.

When I went to CalArts for my grad studies the only other school that I looked at was New England Conservatory and I looked at the Contemporary Improvisation program.  Ran Blake (the former chair of the program back when it was called Third Stream) and a current faculty member there has just released a book on the methods that he uses to teach there, called Primacy of the Ear.  It’s a thin book, approximately 125 pages of with 30 pages of indexes, sells for $30 and it’s a bargain.  It’s entirely possible that I never would have gone to grad school if I had this book back in 2005  (which would have been a huge mistake for me).

Having met Ran, I can guess that the book is a number of lessons, conversations and observations (you can read a very early pdf regarding this topic back in the third stream days that was substantially revised and expounded upon here) that co-credited author Jason Rogers edited together into a coherent guide-book for those people who want to truly own their music.  What’s interesting about the entire approach is how one he relates this process to creating an original style.

For those of you who don’t want to get the book, I’ll illustrate a process that Ran outlines in much greater detail that will help you with your hearing, phrasing and overall improvisation (I know I’ve done this before).

Step 1.  Pick a tune and a performance of that tune that inspires you.  Don’t pick something you want to learn because you think you should learn it.  You’re going to spend a lot of time with this process, so make it something that you REALLY want to learn.

Step 2.  Passive listening.  Play a recording of the tune throughout the day.  The goal is to start getting the song form in your ears.  This is like when you hear a commercial over and over again and find yourself able to sing back the melody away from the commercial later.

Step 3.  Active listening.  Now you’re only listening to the tune in short intense stints.  This is sitting down at a desk with no other distractions and really listening to what’s going on.  Noticing nuances, inflections, that type of thing.

Step 4.  This is the actual bear.  You start learning the components AWAY from the instrument.  So you learn the melody by ear.  You learn each phrase away from the instrument and get to the point that you can string it all together.  You want to be able to pre-hear the melody in the song.  Once you have this material mastered (i.e. can sign any part of the melody from any point in the tune), then learn it on the guitar using your inner hearing to guide the process.

Step 5.  Repeat with the bass line of the song.

Step 6.  Repeat with the chord progression of the song.  LEARNING EACH INDIVIDUAL VOICING of the chords one at a time melodically.

I’m sure that some of you at this point are thinking, “this is insane.”  If you’re thinking, “Oh I could do that.”  it’s very likely that an attempt to do this at this level will have you also come to the conclusion that it’s an act of insanity.

But it’s not insane.

This is a DEEP methodology to get into what is really happening in a song.

This process basically ensure that you know the song at the microscopic level and have a much deeper likelihood to engage with it at a core level.

This process has been adapted to all kinds of music.  In this video, Ran combines the music and biography of Mahler with film Noir to create a performance that is a true synthesis of styles.

This is only possible with an intimate understanding of Mahler and film Noir music.  That comes from deep engagement and deep listening.

How would you do it now?

Coming back to the original cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

Knowing what I know now – if I didn’t go to undergrad –  here’s how I’d do this from scratch.

1. Get great teachers.  Yes plural – Teachers.  I’d take some classical lessons to get proper technique.  I’d take some lessons on theory to augment my own study.  I’d take lessons on any specific style I was interested in for as long as it made sense.  If I was interested in rock playing, I’d get some rock approaches down and if that got me what I wanted I’d move on from there.

2.  Take some classes at a community college.  College really isn’t for everyone at every time of their life.  There are people at 18 who are just not in the headspace to commit to full-time enrollment in college.  But try some courses in music theory or liberal arts to expand your horizons.   IN GENERAL – try a number of different approaches to learning and LEARN WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.  For me, being at a college surrounded me with other people and that immersive process was really important for me at that time in my life.  Now that I know how to teach myself, I can learn things on my own time and it’s more efficient.

3.  Get good materials to study on your own  I’d look on Amazon for the best reviewed books and order them through inter-library loan.  The ones that resonated with me I’d buy.

4.  Listen to as much different music as possible (preferably live music) and go out of your comfort zone whenever possible.  Expose yourself to things and find out what resonates with you – and more importantly WHY it resonates with you.  This is also where teachers/mentors/peers are critical because they can help articulate things going on in the music that will help you determine why something is cool.

5.  Perform in low risk setting at first to get your footing and play with people better than you.  As much as possible.  Determine from those experiences what you need to work on and work on them in a focused, deliberate way.  It’s a “7 times down 8 times up thing.”  Great teachers will help you here too.

6.  I’d learn as much music as I could by ear.  I’d transcribe anything that interested me.

7.  I’d continue to try to find favorite authors and artists and engage in their work in a deeper level.  Go deep with what you know and keep your eyes open for new things.

8.  Since this is about what I would do rather than spending 60k at a private undrgrad college – I’d go to a community college and get at least an associates degree in business and/or communication.  I would do this with the filter of learning anything that would help me become an independent musician.  I’d augment this with interning at a PR company or something similar to gain any insight on monetizing what I did, promoting it or drawing customers to whatever services (like lessons) or products (like mp3s, cds or dvds) I’d be providing

9.  I’d make connections with other people and connect with existing community or create new communities.  Find like minded people and develop an inclusive scene.  There’s nothing wrong with online groups, but if they don’t have a component (or at least the potential component) of engaging face to face it’s not going to help you in the long run.

10.  Don’t lose the forest in the tree.

There’s a teacher at CalArts that had my favorite quote about the biggest potential pitfall that students can engage in.

“CalArts….come here as a decent reed player and leave as a mediocre tabla player.”

The biggest challenge with self-study is that you need 3 things to ask a question:

1.  You need to know that something exists to ask about it.

2.  You need to know that asking a question is an option.

3.  You need to have someone to answer the question in an intelligent way.

When you self study, you’re often missing most (if not all) of these factors.  It’s the “You don’t know what you don’t know” paradox.  The last thing that I would do all over again if I could instruct an 18 year old version of myself, would be to tell them that learning is a process not a destination.  You will always encounter things that, at the time, will seem like things you should have already known.  Don’t get hung up on should.  Realize that you are on a spinning ball, spinning around another spinning ball that’s spinning around an infinitely deeper structure.  Where one is physically appears to be the same place but is always changing.  Understanding where you are in music or life is the same thing.  I’m always surprised at how different perceived knowledge is from real knowledge is.  Don’t let it beat you up.  Just re-assess, adjust and keep moving forward.

Now back to that ear training.

As always, I hope this helps!

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Practicing Performing

As musicians, we spend a lot of time practicing things but a lot of us don’t ask WHY we’re practicing.  We have vague notions of things like, “to get better” but nothing concrete.

This leads to things like shred guitar groups on Facebook where it’s a constant one-upsmanship of technical skill.  And while that’s a natural phase of skill development, it often doesn’t have a whole lot to do with making music or being musical in a band context.  Paul Gilbert once talked about how he had to completely change the way he soloed when he toured with Mr. Big because the highly technical things that blew people’s socks off in 500 person clubs in LA were completely lost in arenas with cavernous reverbs washing everything out.

Why we do something can inform both what we’re doing and how we’re doing it as well.

Last night, I played a gig with KoriSoron, the band I play in with guitarist Farzad Golpayegani and percussionist Dean Mirabito.  The money was negligible and the audience was small but that gig was more informative that a month in the practice room because I had real time analysis of what worked and what didn’t work in a live setting.  Furthermore, when I looked back at my improvisations I could determine what I thought I was playing versus what I was really playing.

If you want to play live music, you should play live shows as often as possible and see live music as often as possible to see what works.  I’ll add much better clarification of this idea with a quote from what I would say is a must-read  interview I did with Miroslav Tadic:

Performing has both a physical and the mental aspect to it. They’re connected but people have different levels of reactivity to each of them that can only be tested in performance. The good news is, you don’t need to be in a club or a concert hall with a bunch of people who have paid for tickets to see you to develop that skill. All you need is for a couple of people to actually sit down, listen and pay attention to what you do.

Most people, including myself, have found that there is really no difference in playing for ten people in your living room or playing for 2,000 people in a concert hall you’ve never played before. Mentally it’s the same thing and in both situations you go through the same kind of reactions. Once you learn those reactions and observe yourself in that situation, those reactions are not going to surprise you when you’re on stage and this is the most important thing.

For example, lets say the physical reaction is that your hands are sweating, shaking or cold. These are all physical reactions to this mental state of performing for people. You don’t experience that in the practice room, but if you go in front of people and all the sudden your hands are sweaty and you’ve never played with sweaty hands, it’s a terrifying experience. But if you know that your hands sweat when you go in front of people and you know how that feels you will know that you’ll still be able to play. It’s not going to be as enjoyable as when your hands aren’t sweating, but you’re not going to be completely thrown off by that because you’ll have already had experience with that. Eventually they’re not going to sweat, because what’s making them sweat is going to go away. That terror of being in front of people will turn into inspiration.

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

As always, thanks for reading!

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Owning What You Do

Getting Past “Jazz”

A friend of mine posted something about working on the changes to “Giant Steps” the other day, and all I could think of was, “man better him than me…”

There was a long time that I lived under this weird misconception that I had to like jazz. That if I just listened a little deeper and learned a little bit more that there would come a moment that “stella by starlight” was going to speak to me.

And so I listened to a lot of jazz and spent some time on II V’s and other related jazz theory items and I came to some realizations.

  • Informed Aesthetics are defined Aesthetics.  I credit Susan Allen at CalArts for really making me think about my aesthetics in a deeper way.  It’s not enough to simply be dismissive about things.  When students tell me that something “sucks”, I force them to explain to me 1.  What sucks means and how this sucks and 2.  what about it they don’t like 3.  what about it could be better?  Sometimes they can really articulate something substantial, but a lot of times it’s a knee jerk reaction and diving into what is aesthetically displeasing about that yields some deeper insights.
  • Related to that examination, I tend to follow musicians more than genres.  I don’t like a lot of shred guitar but I’ll stand behind Yngwie’s work with Alactrazz (or the first Rising Force record) until the end of time.  I don’t know that “autumn leaves” will ever be a song I want to listen to but I can always find a reason to seek out recordings or performances by players like Ornette, Trane, Bird, Monk, Frisell or a couple dozen other musicians that are lumped in that category.
  • A lot of the music that moves me is melodic and rhythmic rather than harmonic.  I find myself going back to the melodies of favorite works from traditional Arabic music or traditional music of Japan, Korea, Turkey or Iran.  I’m sure that it’s been done, but I have yet to hear one of those songs performed with ii V I’s superimposed over them that made them any “better”.

You might play what you practice but you perform what you know.

At Berklee, there was a lot of pressure to become a Jazz guitarist, and I felt like a failure for a long time because it seemed beyond me.  Eventually, I realized that the issue wasn’t that Jazz was some pursuit that was intellectually beyond me, it was that I had no interest in Real Book tunes so there was no fire inspiring me to learn the vocabulary or put the time in to developing those areas.

While classical music was interesting to me, I realized that I am never going to out perform the recorded works of Bach interpretations from the guys who lived breathed and ate that music 24 hours a day.

I doubt that I’ll ever have the passion necessary to be a traditional jazz guitarist any more than to be a traditional classical guitarist – but realized that there was a lot from both disciplines that I could integrate into what I’m doing.

As guitarists, we talk a lot about skill sets (both physical and mental) but we don’t talk a lot about passion and at the end of the day that’s the thing that really matters the most.  People don’t buy into your performance based on the number of notes that you play, they buy into how it makes them feel.  If you’re not passionate about it, they never will be either.

What are you doing to achieve your goals?

If you’re having trouble reaching your musical (or other) goals – take a moment and examine what you’re actually doing to achieve them. 

If you feel like you’ve hit a rut in your playing, take a hard look at what you’re actually doing to get out of it and readjust if necessary.  For example:

  • Did you just buy a book or did you actually read it?
  • Did you really sit down and work on your picking or did you just play the same thing that you always play?

Like I’ve said before, It’s easy to confuse doing something with getting something done, but if you don’t feel like you’re making progress taking a close look at what you’re doing an excellent place to start.

(A teacher can also help you get get on track to get where you need to go.  If you need help in this area, feel free to email me for in person lessons or Skype lesson information!)

As always, thanks for reading!

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Teacher’s Circus And The Seeming Disconnect Of Events In TIme

Hello all!

It’s been a bit since I’ve posted anything.  KoriSoron has been more active and we’ve been playing more shows and working on new material and it’s been great for my acoustic playing.  Working with players like Farzad Golpayegani and Dean Mirabito lights a fire under my seat because if I’m coasting on something – they’ll run right over over me.

I find that pushing myself live and coming to gigs without preconceived licks or approaches and trying to make something happen in the moment brings out the best and worst moments in my playing.  Typically it either sounds great or I wipe out and have to try recover as quickly as possible.  It highlights the chasm between the things I can imagine and the things I can execute in a live setting and gives me a lot of things to add to my “to do” list of things to work on.

I found myself getting frustrated with one particular idea that wasn’t coming together this evening and I thought of a particular event from my wayward youth that reminded me of a lesson I learned about the perceived disconnect of events in time.

Teacher’s Circus

I went to a small town high school.  I think this happend whenI was a sophomore….maybe a junior.  We weren’t seniors so we had some status in school but we were pretty far down in the pecking order.  There was a lot of trying to look “cool” around the “cool” kids.

We had a small computer lab at the school.  I don’t remember the deal, but if you took a programming language or a class that involved the use of said computers, you could get a pass that would allow you to hand out in the computer lab with your friends rather than study hall, which was just a large room with everyone in it.

It was a status thing and, it’s worth mentioning that the administration hated the computer room.  They didn’t hate the room itself but they recognized that the people that were hanging out there were going to be the type of people that were smart enough to clean up after the mischief that they created and make it more difficult to catch them in their troublemaking.

So one day I, again wanting to be cool and being one of the people who thought he was funny, went on the computer and in about 10 minutes wrote up a little ditty called, “Teacher’s Circus”, which invited people to come out to an imaginary circus featuring several faculty members, the superintendent and a fellow student engaged in unnatural and illicit acts for public amusement.  One of the older students thought this was hilarious (as did my friends) so she asked me to print out a copy.  No problemIt’s funny right?  We all had a good laugh.

Fast forward to about 2 months later.

I’m in a choir rehearsal on a Friday afternoon just waiting for the day to end as I have some friends coming over later to watch horror movies.  In the middle of the rehearsal, the superintendent comes in and says he needs to see me.  I walk out with him and ask what’s wrong.  I didn’t do anything wrong that Friday, so I figured whatever the issue was –  it wasn’t something I did so it would get resolved.  He doesn’t say a word until we get to the office.  He closes the door and pulls out a well worn and wrinkled  piece of computer paper and starts to read, “Come one come all to the Teacher’s Circus….” and I feel my heart sink to the floor because I’m busted.

I try to interrupt him (and avoid further humiliation) by saying, “You don’t need to read anymore – I know what it says.”  but he reads the entire page and concludes by saying, “We know you wrote this.”

I should mention a few small facts here:

1.  My school size was something like 800 students K-12.  Our graduating class had over 90 people and some of the staff were freaking out and wondering how they were going to graduate a group that size.

2.  The town I grew up in had about 2,000 people.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business.

3.  My father was a teacher in this microscopic public school system.

4.  My love of books had, at this point in my life, extended to philosophy.  In particular, I was reading what I could about Stoicism and somehow (probably through a comic book) got very interested in the code of ethics surrounding the Samurai.  I had read the Book of 5 Rings and the Hagakure and there were a lot of thoughts in my head at the time about concepts like honor.

So, I didn’t deny it.

“We know you wrote this.”

“Yes I did.  I wrote it.”

At that point my dad was brought in.  He wasn’t sure why he was summoned to another building in the middle of the working school day but when he head the thing I wrote he slapped the glasses off of my face.  Then he backhanded me and I saw the superintendent smile, and I was enraged that he was taking delight in my misfortune.

The rest of the story I’ll leave out here.  Let’s just say that the situation deteriorated from there and after I got home, certain disciplinary methods were employed that he’d likely be arrested for employing today.

In the recovery period from said discipline, it was then revealed to me that my punishment would be my dad driving me to each one of his co-worker’s houses that weekend where I would then apologize to all of them in person.  That was done on Saturday.  We spent about 4-6 hours driving in the car over that day and not talking.  Finally, at one point he said (in complete seriousness), “Well I guess it could have been worse…you could have murdered someone.”  In his mind, that was the enormity of the crime that I committed. I was embarrassed and felt dumb and was also well aware that if this was anyone else – they would have been suspended and that would be the end of it – but as my dad taught there – well – we had to make a Federal case out of it.

Now let me tell you something.  That experience really screwed me up for a while.

The big lesson that I learned at the moment was that I needed to be paranoid   because there was a complete disconnect in my head from the thing I did and when I got busted for it.  Whenever someone asked me a question after that day, the first thought that went through my head was, “What did I do now?” and then a running inventory of any real or imagined thing I did would cause extreme nervousness.  This went on for decades…

Now perhaps I’m just rationalizing a pretty horrific memory with my dad, but this event may have been one of the first things that got me to start to think about long term implications of things.

So what does this have to do with guitar playing?

As the thing I was practicing this evening was getting frustrating I thought about this story and my perception of disconnect of events in time.  You don’t always get rewarded now (or punished now) for the things you’re doing right now (unless you post them on YouTube).  Those things generally happen later.  Sometime, much later.

The things you play live don’t just magically happen.  They come from years of concentrated work to develop the skill set to a level where the execution is innate.  The gigs that people get generally start with connections that have been developed over time and are kept based on the well honed skills that have also been developed over time.  Yes – sometimes there’s luck – but the purely lucky fade almost instantly.  The overnight success is a myth that usually built on a foundation of years of work that seems fruitless and unfair at the time.

So the reminder to myself?  Don’t get frustrated.  It’s a temporary setback.  Show up.  Put the work in now and see the benefits later.

It’s good advice.  (I’d also recommend not saying or putting anything in print that you wouldn’t want to be quoted on later. If something you say can be taken out of context and used against you – be prepared to address it later on.)

Back to the shed.  More things coming soon and, as always, thanks for reading!

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Make Sure You Have Your Bionoculars If You Want To Visualize Something

Hi Everyone!

For some reason, a number of feeds have been popping up in my viewer that talk about the importance of visualization.  I believe in visualization – it’s going to be much harder to get to a specific destination without a goal in mind – but I also think there are two very important aspects to visualization that often get overlooked.

1. Skill set

It’s important to have an end goal but it doesn’t matter that you can see something on the horizon if you don’t have the tools at your disposal to get there.

That’s not to say that it’s hopeless, or that you can never develop the tools that you need.  You absolutely can develop your skills and realizing that (AND ACTUALLY WORKING ON developing those skills/tools in a consistent and incremental manner) is a critical part of that process but I have heard a number of people talk about actuating change in some bizarre adaptation of “The Secret” where they honestly believe that if they can just visualize whatever their goal is in a clear way that it will then manifest itself.

In my experience, this is not the case in playing guitar.

Playing guitar in a live setting (or engaging in any endeavor that requires having to perform in a high pressure situation) always involves a balance between mastering the mental game and mastering the physical one.  I’m a big proponent of overcoming the mental obstacles that hold many players back from reaching their potential, but that has to be balanced with having the physical foundation to support what’s going on mentally.

2.  Visualizing the smaller steps

It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to be a great guitarist.”  but the critical thing after that realization is to answer the question of, “What do I need to do to actually become a great guitarist?”

To reach any goal, it helps to visualizing it but you then also have to visualize the steps to reach that goal, take action on them and adjust your trajectory accordingly.  The process itself is actually very simple but maintaining it is a whole other thing entirely!

This is just a friendly reminder.  And with that, I’m back to the wood shed!

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading.

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Passion Vs. Obsession

Bobby Fischer’s Chess Game Vs. The Cuban Missile Crisis

There is an apocryphal chess story involving Bobby Fischer that I find myself reflecting on often.

As the story goes, in 1962 a number of high ranking American chess players had gathered to strategize and practice for an upcoming international chess tournament.  This happened to be during what would later be know as “The Cuban Missile Crisis”, and everyone on hand was sitting around watching the events unfold on television and talking about what the possible outcomes would be.  Many people thought that we were going to have a nuclear war and, in retrospect, we came very close to having that happen.

Everyone, that is, except Bobby Fischer who was looking at a chess board and getting increasingly annoyed until he couldn’t stand it anymore and finally yelled out, “Can anyone tell me what this has to do with chess?”

Obsession vs. Passion

By their nature of practicing the same things over and over again, many guitar players are obsessive about all aspects of what they do.  Non-guitarists will often laugh as players get into endless arguments about who the better player is, or the better guitar or the better amp or any other aspect of minutiae that is lost on non players.

When you start off playing guitar – you have to have some element of this going for you because the discipline it takes to get calluses, much less get the finger strength to play the dreaded first position F Major partial barre chord, is not something that comes natural to some people.

For myself, I engaged in everything that I did at 100%.  When I was at Berklee, like many players I knew at the time – iit was difficult to find me without a guitar in my hand but if you did – it was when I was looking for new music, reading a book, watching a film or going to the gym – all in service of making me a better player.  For example, I went to the gym to increase my stamina and try to look better on stage.  And there wasn’t a plan – beyond a general desire to become a “professional guitarist” – it was just a series of events and occurrences that came about from having poor impulse control (“Go to a film?  Sure! Let’s go!”) and following things through to some kind of end that either came from boredom (aka the goldfish mentality – “I’m tired of working on this – OH THAT’S a cool Lick!”) or actual completion.

As my life after my undergrad went from months to years to decades after I stopped going there, a strange mid-life crisis came about.

Stage one was, “You’re not going to be a rock star.”  That was okay, because I knew this early on and I also had no desire to be a rock star.  I always wanted to be in a band rather than a solo artist and when I imagined what I wanted to do ideally – it was playing in something like Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds where they could play theater level shows anywhere in the world and make a comfortable living.

This was less of an issue for me than it was for other people.  In other words, as the years went on and I got better as a player and a teacher the people around me (who really cared about me but didn’t understand what I was doing), started pushing the whole, “So since this music thing isn’t making you any money perhaps its time to move on and do something else.”  See the rock star thing wasn’t interesting to me, but being able to devote myself to something I loved was interesting to me.

Stage two was, “You’re not getting any younger and the music business isn’t getting any better.”

The first step of this involved taking a series of gigs that I didn’t like just to keep playing guitar and feel that I could call myself a professional musician.  This was basically letting the judgmental nonsense of other players I knew infect my head and drill down into my feelings of self identity.  This lead down a very dark path that took me a long time to understand what was going on and to swing out of.

The second step was just seeing all of the traditional paths that I knew worked vanishing in front of me.  In hindsight, not a bad thing but that was pretty scary writing on the wall for a while.

So everything was an end to a goal.  I’d take a day job to pay bills and do whatever I had to try to advance myself at the same time.

But a lot suffered because of it.  Because of this self added pressure – I was always wrapping my head around what the next step would be.  Everything was goal and task driven which was great for goals and tasks but not so great for everything else.

And life is mostly everything else.

I’d go on vacation and get really tense because I wasn’t getting anything done.  I’d watch TV and run scales because at least I was “doing something”.  It was crazy making and while it was supposed to be self-empowering it just became self defeating because no matter what was done – there was always more to do.  Literally everything became, “What does this have to do with guitar?”

And I burned myself out.  With so many things fighting for attention and fighting for mental bandwidth the circuits just fried.  And getting back up on that horse and engaging again was BRUTAL.

Doing anything at a high level requires some level of passion in either the thing being done or in the person doing it.  Obsession is a common side effect of diving full in to something but – trust me here – in paraphrasing Socrates, the obsessed life is not worth living.  Not if it’s at the extent of something else.  You’ll either burn out everyone around you, burn out yourself or both.

Bobby Fischer was a brilliant chess player but there’s nothing else in his life you want to model yourself on.  Be passionate and be engaged but keep an eye out for your Cuban Missile Crisis freak out as well.

I hope this helps!

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Respect The Process (Effectiveness and Efficiency in Practicing)

Efficient Vs. Effective

We live in an era of tricks and hacks and workarounds all in the name of efficiency.

Being efficient can be a very good thing but doing effective things is (IMHO) even better.

Most people equate the two terms but I think that’s a mistake.  Here’s a shortcut to differentiate between the two:

Efficient means doing things better.
Effective means doing better things.

You might be able to learn every trick in the book to be able to analyze a spreadsheet as fast as you possibly can (i.e. be as efficient as you can) by hand, but if you have an app that can interpret the data in the same way (and that is also working in an efficient manner) – that app will do it faster than you regardless of whatever steps you take to be efficient.

Ideally, it’s good if you can do things effectively and efficiently because that maximizes what you can get done but determining what is effective and efficient in practicing is often counter intuitive.

Effectiveness and Efficiency in Practicing

Many players I come across equate skill set with mastery.  Particularly for lead playing, the concept seems to be, “Here’s this lick.  I’m going to get it under my fingers and then it’s going to be something at my disposal when I play.”

In context, it’s akin to saying, “I’m going to lean every chord voicing I can on guitar so I can use them live.”  You can learn a few voicings for a 7(b5 b9) chord but if you don’t understand how to use that chord in the context of a song knowing some fingering isn’t going to help you remember to actually play that chord on a gig.

In other words, mastery is also contextual.  If you don’t have a specific reason why you are trying to play something then it will be much harder to be able to access it when you really want to.

So what’s effective practice material then? 

Well – it’s an elusive question as what’s effective for players changes over time as their ability level increases.

For example, I think developing aural skills (be that formal ear training or the ability to really listen what is happening in a musical context and know how to engage with that in a musical manner) – is a critical skill regardless of how long you’ve been playing but if you don’t have any technical or theoretical skills at your disposal it’s going to take even longer to utilize that ear training and be able to translate that to your instrument.

Effective practice requires reflection and analysis.
It requires the ability to look at what’s going on with your playing and make it better. You don’t get that from learning lick #4 from someone’s YouTube channel. (p.s. there’s nothing wrong with that either – but interacting with someone else’s material in a vacuum generally won’t reveal what you need to work on in your playing.)

The easiest way for most people to understand what will be effective to practice is to take a private lesson with a good teacher.  Mind you I am fully aware of just how difficult that can be.  There are a lot of bad teacher’s out there – but finding someone that can look at what you’re doing in an objective manner makes it easier to diagnose what’s really going on.  The internet makes it possible to take skype lessons with players all over the world.  While not ideal, it’s probably going to get you further than taking a lesson with the 17 year old kid in the back of a music store who is trying to show you how to play the intro to “Sweet Child of Mine” – in response to a generic question of wanting to get better at playing guitar.

Since what I’m saying means that every player will have to tailor what they’re working on to meet specific goals – I’ll throw out one suggestion that I think is universal.  I’ve never once regretted taking the time to learn something aurally.  Whether transcribing it or just being able to play it back – the biggest stylistic elements in my playing came from learning licks from other instruments on guitar and adapting that material to songs I was playing on.
Yes you might get a lick under your fingers faster if you find a tab for it, but you’re more likely to be able to pull that lick out of your hat on a gig if you’ve internalized it and the most effective way to do that is to learn it aurally.

With that in mind, here’s a recommendation that I’d make to anyone that’s practicing anything or trying to gain any kind of skill set:

Respect the Process – Not Just The Product (Result)

So much of what is “sold” to guitarists in instructional material utilizes the concept of a trick or a hack to be able to play something faster – but most players only have a profoundly general idea of what they are trying to achieve on guitar.

If you don’t have a specific goal for what you are trying to do, what advantage is there is getting there faster?

So yes, you have thousands of videos out there now of people playing a lot of notes very cleanly but for many of those people – that’s the extent of their skill set.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but having sat in auditions and rehearsals with players that just didn’t have the ability to play anything other than those riffs and solos that they worked out, it became a problem in a larger context of – what are you trying to do musically?

I’ve met many, many players (and former players) who were frustrated because they didn’t reach some arbitrary goal in an equally arbitrary time frame.

“Yeah….I’d love to be able to sweep and I practiced it a bunch for like a month but I just can’t do it.”

When it comes to practicing, perhaps the best advice I can give anyone is to try to surrender to to process of developing a skill set and not get hung up on the end goal.  Players who get hung up on the final product of what they’re doing (like being able to play a certain lick at a certain tempo by a certain time) are typically the ones who reach a frustration threshold and bail on it.

For example: I’m about to record some more solo acoustic material.  Originally, I wanted to track these tings as quickly as possible, but instead I decided to just work on the pieces consistently and adopt the motto of, “It is what it is. – Whatever rate I progress at this is the rate that it progresses.”

By taking away a strict time frame of when I “should” have everything down – I started focusing much more on the nuances of each piece an the things that actually made the pieces more musical.  Now, quite a bit later, the pieces have all developed and matured in ways that I could never have expected and I can communicate them in a much more sincere manner to a listener.  That sincerity is the most efficient way to make that communication with the listener which is the end goal.

Was it the most efficient manner to get the notes under my fingers?  Probably not.  Was it the most effective way to reach my end goal?  Absolutely.

So if you’re someone who gets frustrated with practice, try to think about this idea of enjoying the process of learning something new and being as musical in each moment of practice that you can be.

You play what you practice – so if you can practice in a musical way, you’re much more likely to play in a musical way as well.

Also, one thing I’ve been really focused on in the last year is gratitude and not taking things for granted.  I am so grateful that I can make music and in being grateful that I can do something it makes it a lot easier to approach practice in that mindset as well.  It might be a little woo-woo for some people but – believe me – audiences pick up on it as well.  For a number of years I practiced in a pissed off manner and played that way and let’s just say it didn’t make for a lot of repeat customers. ; )

So there’s a rambling post reflecting on last night’s gig on a Saturday morning!  Hopefully it’ll be of some help to you!

As always, thanks for reading.

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Addendum: for some of the deepest wisdom about this and related topics check out part 2 of my interview with Miroslav Tadic here.