About GuitArchitecture

GuitArchitect and Sonic Hooligan: Having received his undergraduate degree in composition from the Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree in guitar performance from CalArts, Scott Collins is a guitarist who performs a wide range of improvised western and non-western music on fretted and fretless instruments, he is a featured baglama (Turkish lute) performer on the Sony Playstation, God of War 2 video game and a soloist on the track “Come Alive” from the RedLynx Trials Evolution game. In addition to numerous live performances, he has toured in both the U.S. and Germany, performed in the world premier of composer Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City”, the U.S. premier of Composer Tim Brady’s, “Twenty Quarter Inch Jacks” and co-composed and performed the thematically improvised score for the About Productions stage adaptation of Norman Klein’s “Bleeding Through” with Vinny Golia. Scott is committed to an art of real time composition he calls GuitArchitecture. When not performing improvised loop based solo guitar performances, he can also be found collaborating with several projects including Duodenum, an improvising duo with Carmina Escobar that specializes in silent film accompaniment, OniBaba (with Daren Burns, Vinny Golia, George McMullin, Craig Bunch and visualist Kio Griffith), Rough Hewn Trio (with Warr Guitarist Chris Lavender and Craig Bunch) and Dumb and Drummer a guitar-drum duo with an ever changing line-up… Other highlights include performances with John French (“Drumbo” of Captain Beefheart), Vinny Golia, Wadada Leo Smith, Mia Mikela (Solu), (Butoh dancer) Don McLeod, Butch Morris, Sahba Motallebi, Ulrich Krieger, Susie Allen, Mike Reagan, Melissa Kaplan (Universal Hall Pass), Jeff Kaiser, The Bentmen, One of Us, Annette Farrington, Tubtime, Sleep Chamber and many more. He has performed and co-lead workshops on improvisation as part of the Imagniary Borders/Imaginarias Fronteras project at the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexicali, Mexico and performed/lead a workshop on “Structured Improvisation in Film Accompaniment” as part of the Cha’ak’ab Paaxil Festival at the Edificio de Artes Visuales – Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. An active guitar teacher and performance coach, Scott is the author of Symmetrical Twelve-Tone Patterns for Improvisation and The GuitArchitect’s Guide: series which includes: The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Melodic Patterns The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Harmonic Combinatorics The GuitArchitect’s Positional Exploration and The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Chord Scales and is currently working on additional books in the GuitArchitecture series to be released over 2012-2013. Scott is endorsed by FnH Guitars. He uses D’Addario strings, Planet Waves accessories, Scuffham Amps and Line 6 gear. In addition to his posts on GuitArchitecture, he had a quick lick lesson in the 2010 Holiday issue of Guitar Player Magazine, and has also had articles posted on Guitar Salon International, Live4Guitar and has a regular interview series on Guitar-Muse.com.

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!

-SC

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.

-SC

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!

SC

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.

-SC

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

A Lesson On The Lightbulb Moment From Andy Kaufman

What the heck does Gilbert Godfried have to do with playing guitar?

As many of you know, a key interest of mine involves exploring things that interest me and then adapting them to things that I do.

(I talk about how critical I think this is to developing an individual voice in this article (linked here) which manages to reference Ludwig Wittgenstein and my awkward exit from the guitar major program at my undergraduate institution all in same article.)

One thing I’ve been listening to every week has been the “Gilbert Godfried Amazing Colossal Podcast” (you can find it on iTunes or here).  Be forewarned while it is generally NSFW (the Danny Thomas stories alone are not suitable for any location outside of Gomorrah) – Gilbert and co-host Frank Santopadre’s encyclopedic knowledge of the golden age of television and film is endlessly fascinating and (to me at least) endlessly entertaining.

Recently the show featured Bob Zmuda, the comedian who started comic relief, was a writer for (and co-conspirator with) Andy Kaufman and often subbed for Andy as one of Andy’s most despised charaters – Tony Clifton.  On the show Zmuda talked a lot about the early days with Andy and revealed this story which sparked the fire for this blog post.

It appears that Andy was attending a two year college (“Grahm Junior in Boston – it’s not there anymore and it was the only one he could get into”) and was smitten with another student at the school.  She was in a bind and, having had another act back out at the last minute, asked Andy if he’d ever done stand up.  “Sure”, he said, “When I was like 11″. (Andy had been performing since he was 9 years old.)  She asked him to do it and at first he was resistant to the idea because he didn’t want to do the same set that he did as a kid.  Finally, he relented and was shocked that the audience loved the set.  It was the light bulb moment for Kaufman and Zmuda went so far to say, “Without that (moment) – you never would have had Andy Kaufman.”

So what’s the lesson here?

I think there are several.

1.  He had guts.  Not having been at the event, I can’t speak with certainty, but I think that it worked for Andy because he did everything all in and completely earnestly.  I think that Andy Kaufman was one of the few people who could pull off making an audience buy into the idea of an adult doing an infantile act without it being creepy.   What was great was that he had the guts to be willing to take a risk and look foolish but had the sincerity to (somehow pull it off).

2.  He saw opportunity.  It takes a person of vision to see beyond an audience reaction and see opportunity.  I think where he succeeded artistically was in recognizing how to leverage his delivery with material and ultimately create a completely unique voice artistically.

3.  He took it all the way.  I think Andy’s genius was in taking his ideas and pushing the boundary of them to the point of breaking.  Just as important,  every when he did break it he continued on and rolled with the punches.

You never know when or where a light bulb moment is going to come from but it’s never going to happen if you don’t step out of your comfort zone and leave yourself open to experience something new. 

It’s like the Tom Robbins quote,

“I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 A.M. every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn’t, but she always knows where I’ll be.”

(The podcast also features a story about the lengths Jim Carey went to to get the Kaufman role in Man in the Moon which is pretty much a master class in what it takes to be competitive at that level in Hollywood (or anywhere).)

That’s it for now!  As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

Doing Something Versus Getting Something Done

Has this happened to you?

One thing I run into with students very often is a common sense that while they’re playing a lot or have played for years that their playing never got any better.  Perhaps some of you have come across the same thing.

Generally they’ve confused doing something with getting something done.

Here’s the difference:

Buying a gym membership is doing something.

Going to the gym and getting a good work out accomplished is getting something done.

A golf story:

I’ve only been to a golf course once and I didn’t like it so feel free to take the following observations with a grain of salt.

One thing I noticed on the course was that most players weren’t very good. (I’m being kind in my description here – awful would be a more appropriate term for what I saw.)  We’re talking about players that couldn’t approach par – but – and this was the part that was shocking to me – some of these guys had been playing for 20-30 years!

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but eventually I figured out that they were following Einstein’s model of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  For example, let’s say one player learned a basic stroke from another player.  Well, what had happened was this player never examined what they were doing.  He simply learned the stroke and then repeated it over and over with the assumption that since the stroke must be “right” that it was simply a matter of mastering it.  So he went out and hit thousands of balls for hours on end over the course of years using the same poor stroke over and over again and then wondered why he wasn’t getting any better.  A lot of these guys there talked about new clubs and more expensive gear – but the issue wasn’t the gear – it was poor muscle memory that came about from ingraining a bad practice model!

There are a number of things that separate professional and amateur players – but here’s a big one that I’ve noticed in a lot of pro (and pro level) players that isn’t intuitive:

Pro players don’t tend to operate on some of the assumptions that amatuer players have.

For example – Many times when I’m teaching a lesson to a beginning or intermediate player who wants to get into lead playing I’ll bring up the major scale and nine times out of ten, they’re completely dismissive and say, “Oh I already know that.” and proceed to play it in one octave in position.  I’ll start taking the student through the paces of the scale, “just humor me…” and within 5 minutes or so most of them realize that they don’t know the scale as well as they thought they did.

“The tyranny of the shoulds”

One related lesson I had to teach myself involved getting rid of the “shoulds” in my thinking.  Should is an amateur concept.  “I’ve been playing arpeggios for the last day, I should be able to play this other form ( even though I haven’t practiced it before) because it’s also an arpeggio – and I know those!”  “I can play sextuplets at 120 so I should be able to play this sextuplet at the same speed.”  Pro players move away from should and focus on can.

Can I play this?
If not, why not?
What do I have to do to play it better?

Pro players examine WHY something isn’t working and then address it.

The dojo story

I saw a Karate demonstration once.  While the young guys were showing off the flashiest moves they had, the master was in back doing Kata – which (in a reprehensible over simplification) are the basic starting points for the style.  in other words, fundamentals.

Guess what happened to the flashy kids in the demonstration?  Strewn all over the place.

Everything you do on guitar is based on cumulative development.  The better you can execute basic techniques, the better you’ll be able to adapt to new techniques as they’re thrown at you.

That means really being present in practicing.  Really focusing on hand tension, timing and tone and using the “Do – Observe – Correct” model to make sure you’re practicing it the right way.  Pro players do what it takes to make things better.  Sometimes that’s practicing something at a VERY rudimentary level to make sure that it’s  fundamentally sound before trying to get it up to tempo.  In other words, they’re willing to humble themselves and do some (often) unglamorous work that other people aren’t willing to do.

A lot of players who play guitar have been playing the same tunes the same ways for the last 30 years and then never wonder why they don’t get better.  If you’re one of those people, don’t assume that a new guitar will make it better.  It might be as simple as taking a lesson and getting a handle on what you’re doing wrong and developing a proper methodology and practice schedule to get something done towards achieving your playing goals.  It may require getting out of a comfort zone – but that’s where the rewards are!.

That’s it for now!  I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading!

-SC

Practice The Way You Want To Play

Recently I had a Skype lesson with someone who wanted to learn more about practicing and while we talked about a lot of different elements of things to work on I forgot to mention one critical thing (that may be a good reminder for you):

When you’re practicing you should practice material the way you ultimately want to play it.

(Be forewarned – this simple sentence requires some context.)

When I was living in small apartments I was really mindful of other people and not disturbing them and made sure that when I practiced that I was really quiet.

Guess what happened when I went to play live?  You couldn’t hear me or make out a single thing I was playing.

You can’t practice something in a passive or lethargic way and expect to play it aggressively /dynamically / with conviction / in a way that creates a moment in a live context.

This is one reason I recommend that people work on specific licks or approaches for short periods of time as a big part of practice is examining nuance and attention to detail.

Here’s (one way) how I approach something new I need to learn in a practice session.

1.  Figure out what I’m playing (and why I’m working on it)

Even before I go to a metronome, I make sure I understand what I’m playing.  If I’m going to add it to my musical vocabulary – I need to understand how it fits in a context.  Examples of this would be:

“Ah..it’s a pentatonic based lick”
“It’s an arpeggio pattern based on harmonic minor chords”
“It’s a scale I’m not familiar with” (Then I need to learn that as well).

The why is generally, “it sounds cool.” but usually it’s tied to a specific song, solo or approach for something I’m going to play in front of people or record.

2.  Figure out where to put all my fingers

Again, still no sign of a metronome yet!  Here I’m looking at the fretboard shapes involved and make sure that I understand what I need to do physically to perform it.  Recently, I was working on a descending scalar pattern for an original tune and realized that the fingering I was using was really difficult and didn’t sound that great.  Even playing it at the slowest possible tempo, it was difficult to get the articulation I wanted.  After about 5 minutes of running options, I discovered a string skipping shape that made it much easier t play and (more importantly) sounded better.

Included in this step is also  addressing what the fingers of the picking or tapping hand need to do.

3.  Understand the phrasing

Usually I’ll try to sing along with the line to help internalize it.  I’m not a vocalist.  You’ll never hear me on American idol.  I don’t do it because it sounds good, I do it so I can really internalize the rhythms and the phrasing.  Tapping my foot helps a lot with that as well…..

I heard a guitarist of some renown play recently and I was shocked at just how bad the phrasing on his tunes was.  Every note was played in the right order but it just didn’t sound musical at all.

4. 
Set a metronome marking

There are a couple of ways I’ll do this but in general I’ll find the fastest tempo I can perform the idea following the 3 T’s (Tone, Timing and hand tension and by “perform” I mean playing it totally in the pocket and every note jumping out at the listener.) and then move it up a few metronome markings until it starts to fall apart.

One place where I think some people get hung up on this is (on the physical side of practicing) equating playing with conviction = playing aggressively = playing with excessive tension.  As the saying goes,

“Tension is trying to be where I think I should be”
“Relaxed is being where I am”

Take your time getting to this step if you need to!  I might be practicing the idea for a couple of sessions before I even get to the point where I can play it in time.  I work on playing the phrase with conviction and intent and then worry about tempo.  Playing all the notes on the guitar quickly doesn’t mean much if you can’t move listeners when doing so.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your overall level comes up and you can start playing things closer to the tempo you hear it.

5.  Do.  Observe. Correct (if necessary).

That’s the crux of it right there.  Not getting emotional about what you’re doing or getting hung up on where you should be – just performing it.  Observing what worked.  Correct if necessary.  If I can play something 3-5 times without a mistake – I’ll generally bump up the metronome a few markings and try it again.

(Make sure to check out The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner for more on this.  I had another descriptive but I liked his description of “Do Observe Correct” so much that I use it in my own teaching now)

6.  Keep track of what I’m doing and work on it daily

This is an old topic for me but daily focused work makes the difference.  Writing it down let’s you see what kind of progress you’re making.

As a shortcut think of it this way (I stole this from a book that is definitely worth reading – The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremo)

You want to practice like you’re the number 2 player in the world and have something to prove.  Practice with grit and drive and instead of being totally focused on the end goal – try to be engaged in the process of what you’re doing.

Having said that, when you play or perform – you want to do so like the #1 players in the world.  Those players play with no tension.  Their hands are lose and relaxed and they’re focused but not over-focused.

If you practice in an engaged manner you’re more likely to perform in an engaged manner and that’s a good thing.

There’s a lot more to practice than what I’ve outlined here (If you check the blueprints page you’ll see a lot of material specifically related to guitar practicing) – but I really think that the steps I outlined offer a reasonable starting point and (perhaps more importantly) can be applied to any skill set you want to achieve.

That’s it for now!  I hope this helps and as always thanks for reading!

-SC