The Perils of Panaceas and Instant Gratification

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This post has been moved to Get-A-Grip.com.

You can read it here.

Thanks!

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2012: How Not To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past (Or Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse)

(This is a repost of something I wrote for the end of 2010.  The dates and information have been updated, and I suspect this will be one of the few yearly repost traditions I indulge in.)

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I had hoped to get a few more things done before the end of the year, but decided instead to take the last week to wind down and center.  I find that this not only helps me take stock of what worked and didn’t work for me in 2011 but also helps me make sure I’m on track for what I want to get done in the new year.  As George Santayana said,

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“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

As 2011 draws to a close, I think back to many conversations I had with people at the end of 2009.  At that time, it seemed like everyone I talked to said the same thing, “2009 was such a bad year.  2010 has to be better.  It just has to.”

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Now it seems I’m listening to the same sentiment with the same people about 2011 and the coming 2012.  And in some ways they have a valid point.  Listening to their circumstances, 2011 certainly offered some of these people a tough blow – but regardless of their circumstances, I believe that, unless they experience a windfall of good fortune, I will hear the same sentiments echoed at the end of 2012.  There’s a reason for this:

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“If you always do what you’ve always done – you’ll always get what you always got” – anon

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While I fully appreciate the merits of planning and goal setting – life will throw you any number of curveballs that may make a meticulously laid out plan get derailed.

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A good plan has to be countered with an ability to improvise (as need be) to make sure that even if your mode of transportation is disabled, that you are still on the path to achieve your goals.

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“Improvisation as a practice is the focus of an idea through an imposed restriction.  This restriction could either be self-imposed or be imposed upon the improviser through other means. Improvisation as it relates to common experience can be seen in the example of the car that stops running in the middle of a trip.  A person experienced in auto repair may attempt to pop the hood of the car to see if they can ascertain how to repair the vehicle.  Or they may try to flag down help.  Or they may try to use a cell phone to contact a garage.  The point being that within the context of a vehicle malfunction, different actions are improvised based on the improviser’s facility with both the situation at hand and the tools at their disposal….life is essentially an improvisation.  As individuals we come into each day not exactly knowing what will happen.  We know that there is an eventual end, but we don’t know when or how it will end.  But we continue to improvise, because it is in both the active improvisation (the present), the skill set and knowledge of that improvisation (the past) and in the philosophical/worldview/goals guiding our improvisational choices (the future) that we create meaning.”

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If you approach life’s problems with the same mindset you’ve always had 

-and your new year’s resolution runs contrary to that mindset –

your resolutions are doomed.

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I say this as a seasoned graduate of the school of hard knocks and as a person who found that while success felt a lot better – failure was a much more thorough teacher.

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2011 had some great ups and downs for me and now there are a number of life and playing upgrades I’m going to put into practice in 2012 to address the things that didn’t work for me.  For those of you who are interested in making a real change the new year – here’s what worked for me going into 2011 that I plan on using this year as well:

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Know the big picture.

If you have a goal – know why you have the goal.  As Victor Frankl once said, “He who has a why can endure almost any how.

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Take stock of what you have done and identify what needs to change.

Have you done things that work towards that goal?  If so, what have you really done? What worked?  What didn’t work?  And what parameters can you put in place to make it work better?

What decisions did you make that set you back and how could you alter those decisions in the future?

Sometimes honesty is brutal but this isn’t about beating yourself up.  It’s about taking a realistic stock of what worked and what didn’t work for you in the year, reinforcing that things that work for you and discarding what didn’t work for you.

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Revolution not resolution

People typically make resolutions because they recognize a need for change in their life.  For me – it really isn’t about making a momentary decision as a knee jerk reaction to something (which usually lasts as long as the time it took to make that decision).  The long-lasting changes in my life have come from making lifestyle changes, setting priorities and working within those changes.  It’s a revolt against what was done before instead of a compromise for a current mode of operation.

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Positive habits

Making something a daily positive habit (like brushing your teeth) makes it easier to maintain over the long haul.

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“Don’t make excuses – make it right” –  Al Little

People make excuses for things all the time.  No one cares about excuses because nothing ever got done with an excuse.  People (typically) only care about results.

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There will undoubtably be moments that you relapse into older habits.  Instead of making excuses for why it happened – just acknowledge it and move past it. When you fall off the bike, it’s not about sitting down and nursing your scrapes.  It’s about getting back up on the bike again.  As it says in The Hagakure, “Seven times down – eight times up”

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There is strength in numbers

Try to surround yourself with supportive people.

  • Not enabling people who will make changes more difficult for you.
  • Not negative or judgmental people who will scoff at your desire for change

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Talk to the friends and family who will give honest and supportive feedback.  Here’s another important tip – don’t burn those people out with your goals.  The people around you have their own lives, so if every conversation becomes about you and your goals, you’re going to see less and less of those people!

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In addition to (or in some cases in lieu of) that support, you may want to look into some free online accountability sites like Idonethis.com (post on this here) or Wunderlist.com which maintains a private calendar to help observe progress.

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Be motivated to do more but be grateful for what you have

In a final 2011 observation, I’d like to thank everyone who took a moment to come here and read what I was doing.  GuitArchitecture had a 800 % increase in web traffic this year!  It’s going to get even bigger next year and it would all be impossible without the people reading.  So thank you all again and I hope that 2012 is your best year yet.

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Don’t Be Afraid Of the Work

Hello!

Thanks for visiting this page!

This post has been moved to my other site  Guit-A-Grip.com.

You can read it here.

Thanks again!

-Scott

 

 

Some Observations On Inertia And A Cool Online App For Getting Things Done

A routine can be a powerful thing in productivity.  It helps instil a sense of inertia and, as I’ve talked about in posts like this, or  this one , keeping the ball rolling is usually a lot easier than initially getting it to roll.  The counter-intuitive reality behind doing things is that:

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Activity leads to other activity.  It creates its own inertia.

Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest.

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The counter-intuitive part of this is when you’re sitting on a sofa and think, “I’m really tired.  I  just have to rest for a second and mentally gear myself up for this”.  Inertia is working at keeping you sitting on the couch.  If there’s a TV on or an internet connection – it’s working double time.

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The reality is that just getting up and doing the thing actually takes less energy that expending the energy debating with yourself about whether or not you have the tools or the energy to do something.

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The caveat is that this assumes we’re talking about moderate activity.  If you’ve just run a marathon, I’m not advocating staying on your feet if you need to rest.  I’m talking about procrastination versus physical exhaustion.

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Procrastination is an energy suck

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Completing projects is invigorating.  It’s that energy that comes from getting something done and thinking, “All right – what’s next?” It takes way more mental energy to keep putting something off than to just deal with it.

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Here are some tips that may be helpful:

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  • Have goals.  If you don’t know what you’re trying to do – you’re not likely to figure out the how.
  • If you have something you’re procrastinating – try to tackle small parts of if consistently.  You’re going to get more mileage out of small daily improvements than trying to cram something into a marathon session.
  • Monitor progress.  This goes along with goal setting but it’s important to check back and see how you’re progressing.
  • Be accountable but pragmatic.  Either to yourself or other people, to get things done, it’s important to be held to your goals.  Along with monitoring progress, being pragmatic (rather than judgemental) about your progress will help as well.  If things aren’t progressing they way you’d like – beating yourself up isn’t going to help the process.  By monitoring things you can see what works and what doesn’t work and adjust as necessary.

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I Done This

Neither a typo or an obscure pop reference, I want to thank my friend Daren Burns for bringing this to my attention.  I done this.com is a cool free online productivity tool that combines some of the tips that I’ve mentioned above,  Here’s a quote from the web page:

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“iDoneThis is an email-based productivity log. This evening, you’ll receive your first email from us asking, “What’d you get done today?” Just respond to our email and we record what you wrote into your calendar. Use your progress from yesterday to motivate you today.”

By helping to monitor progress and helping keep consistency and accountability, this could be something to help get the ball rolling for you. If you have something you’ve been putting off doing (like practicing) try it for a week and see what happens.

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I hope this helps!  Thanks for reading.

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What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

A lot actually, because if speed is the only tool at your disposal you’re not going to be a working craftsman (or craftswoman) for very long.

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Guitar-squid, (a cool user-generated content guitar site I really like and recommend you check out), recently posted a link to a you-tube clip of of John Taylor trying to break a speed record by playing along with a sequence of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the bumblebee at 600 bpm ( 11:48/12:26 in the video – note:  I think the math here is suspect – it may be 600 bpm if he’s counting it as 1/8th notes – but it sounds like 1/16ths at 250 bpm/300 bpm to me).

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For sheer technical precision you can also see this attempt by Tiago Della Vega at the same song here at a much cleaner 320 bpm. (7:38 or so)

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The Guitar-Squid post was asking the question of whether or not the performance was real or faked.  The real question however should probably be, other than the players themselves, does anyone care?

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Flight of The Bumblebee

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I’m not going to bag on either of these players because I respect the work that went into both renditions, but I am going to use this approach as a springboard for:

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Why I think trying to set Guinness World Records for speed is a musical dead-end.

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  • It’s not emotionally moving.  It’s hard for me to think of a worse piece of music to devote time developing than a solo guitar rendition of the main “melody” of Flight of the bumblebee.  It’s not a particularly memorable melody  and other than the initial exposure of – wow that’s fast – it doesn’t leave you with anything.

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One reason these particular arrangements aren’t moving is because there’s nothing to contrast the velocity of notes against besides a number of earlier renditions of the same arrangement.  Let me use another analogy.  Say you take a commercial flight somewhere and have a window seat.  Soon you get to cruising height and look out above the peaceful clouds and it feels very calm.  You’re actually moving at over 500 mph but since there’s nothing to contrast it against,  it just seems like a “normal speed”.  If, however, you were to fly at that speed about 20 feet off the ground you’d probably die of fear – because when you saw how fast you were moving past other vehicles and identifiable landmarks, you would understand just how fast you’re going.  When you play quickly, it’s only quick compared to the slowest note you’re playing.  Otherwise, you’re just playing a lot of notes and it’s perceived as cruising speed by the audience.

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  • It’s not musical.  Perhaps you disagree, and this would be why Flight of the Bumblebee is the number 1 song on your Itunes playlist. 😉 Other than musicians, practically no one listens to renditions of this song because (particularly as a solo guitar arrangement)  – it just isn’t a strong piece of music.

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In contrast to this, Hendrix’s solo on All along the Watchtower is something I could sing start to finish right now.  Paco De Lucia can play a million notes with every one of them will leaving you breathless – and I’m sure that he could care less about how fast he could play Flight of The Bumblebee. In these examples, both players left me with something even after I stopped listening to the recording, because there’s real expression behind it.  It’s hard to be play a lot of notes with meaning, but it can be done and when it happens – it’s done by people who are playing a lot of notes to get somewhere very specific rather than just to impress you.   I’d point to the best moments of Yngwie or Scotty Anderson as one starting point and Shawn Lane, Allan Holdsworth or Guthrie Gowan as three guys on the more extreme end of the spectrum of note density who have something to say.

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I’m not going to put all the fault on Rimsky-Korsakov either because the fault lies more in this particular arrangement and the parts people are leaving out as much as it is what they’re playing.  Below is a piano rendition by Maxim.  While it’s nowhere near the velocity of either of the guitar versions above, playing the harmonic component at the same time makes for a more nuanced (i.e.  to my ears – enjoyable ) rendition.

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  • As a career, it’s not sustainable and it’s not going to get you a gig.  This is a little misleading.  You probably  can get a gig from this.  If you make a world record attempt at something like this and you have a news worthy hook (like being particularly young for the child prodigy angle, or physically impaired in some way for the overcoming obstacles angle (yes – this sounds particularly harsh – but believe me, the healthy middle class 22-year-old trying for the record will have great difficulty getting air time)),  you might be contacted to do a version for your regional morning show.  You’ll get to the studio at some inhumanly early hour and (in a best case scenario) get enough time to run the piece and answer some questions.   You’ll be replaced the next day by the local pie baker with an award-winning recipe or the local author with a new parenting book out.

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If you do get gigs from it, they’ll be clinic type gigs where you play this and (just like the end of the first video) you’ll just getting people demanding that you play it faster.  Not “better” – just faster.  Because all this arrangement has going for it is velocity, and just like your news story will get bumped by other local news, your speed playing will get bumped by a cool extreme sports video or another video of someone wiping out trying to do a stunt.

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I’ve mentioned some elements of this here and  here as well, but being known as a really good guitar player who has the ability to chop out when you need to will serve your career in a much greater capacity than being known as the player with just a lot of chops.

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Please note:

I’m not bagging on having chops or trying to develop them (and to do so would be completely hypocritical in my case).    As a musician, you have to have enough ability to express yourself on your instrument and that requires technique.   But technique only exists to help serve the song and the musical moment.  Technique for its own sake is a musical dead-end. 

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Bonus quiz:

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Give yourself a B+ if you can name either of the names of the two guys playing the guitar videos above without looking them up.   If you can name either one two days from now without looking it up give yourself an A+.

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Be the person people hit the rewind button for.

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Marty Friedman once talked about how a really great solo is the one that you’d stop the recording for and rewind to hear again.

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We remember things that touch us.  We remember things that move us in some way. We share those things with other people.  People that get excited about the things you do, are more likely to see you perform or seek you out and if you can move them at a show, you’ll see them again.  That’s how you build an audience – one rabid fan at a time.  If you touch people as a musician, you’ll be able to sustain an audience (and a career) a lot longer than someone who merely impresses them.

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Thanks for reading!

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ps – if you like this you may also like:

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VISUALIZING VIDEO GAME LICKS OR AN INTRO TO SYMMETRICAL 12 TONE GUITAR PATTERNS

MAS MODELING!! POD FARM, POD HD, SCUFFHAM AMPS AND A WHOLE TONE LICK

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

KEEPING YOUR EGO OUT OF THE SONG’S WAY

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SURVIVING THE GIG

A Lesson In Improvisation And Jargon From A Cooking Show

WARMING UP: FINGER EXERCISES, THE 3 T’S AND THE NECESSITY OF MISTAKES

BUILDING BLOCKS – OR MORE EXAMINATIONS OF A LAPTOP GUITAR SETUP

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A QUICK LICK – AND A RIG DU JOUR UPDATE FROM HO CHI MINH CITY

“THE LIMITS OF MY LANGUAGE ARE THE LIMITS OF MY WORLD”

A BRIEF THOUGHT ABOUT MUSIC THEORY

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Books:

LESSONS

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Practicing:

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

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DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

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“When You Come To A Fork In The Road Take It”

A number of the motivational posts I’ve posted  here center around a few key concepts:

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  • Having a clear vision of what you want to do (goals)
  • Aligning perception with reality (having an honest assessment of what needs to happen to reach those goals)
  • Daily work on those goals
  • Limiting distractions, and obstacles in the way

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The reason I come back to these posts to the extent that I do (and why I address it with myself as much as I can), is because it’s incredibly important to make the most of your time and enjoy it because time is all you’ve got.  All the talent, skill, strength, brains or money in the world won’t stop you from dying eventually.  Since all those things (talent, skill, strength, brains and money ) are acquired over time, in the end all you have is your time and how you’ve used it.

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Life is short and the only thing of value.  Don’t waste it away.

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We live in the most technologically advanced era the world the world has ever seen, but despite (and/or because of) that technology we also live increasingly isolated existences.   As a society, we often equate texting with talking and surfing the web to connecting with someone (or something).

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All we’re really doing is staring at a TV with an infinite number of channels and typing.

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There’s only limited interaction and a one way transmission of data.   It’s  addicting, comfortable and seductive and brings about the complacency and relaxation everyone looks for at one time or another.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t relax, but I am saying that being sedentary in anything you do carries it’s own inertia (physical and psychological).  The more you turn off your brain, the more likely you are to turn off your brain – even when you don’t want to.

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My father’s grandfather worked coal for the railroad every day of his teenage and adult life.  It was long hours of backbreaking labor and by all accounts, he was an incredibly powerful man.  When he retired, he decided that he was going to retire from everything.  He sat in his favorite chair and went from someone who was active and engaged to someone with very minimal physical exertion and no real goals for the future other than not working.  He died a couple of years later. I can’t prove that they’re related, by in my mind they are.  By my dad’s account, he basically just decided to stopped living.

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“When You Come To A Fork In The Road  – Take It”

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And this brings me back to meaningful living and navigating the overwhelming number of options available to us.   Indecision is a natural byproduct of being overwhelmed.  While I’m all for making an informed decision before taking action, if you spend too much time informing yourself, you won’t have any inertia to carry out what you initially wanted to do. The unexamined life may not be worth living – but the over-examined isn’t either.

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In any battle with indecision, at a certain point you have to punt.  If you get overwhelmed with options, pick one and run with it until you have to switch to another.  If you have a good grasp of what it is that you want to do, you’ll make changes in direction as you require to get back on track.

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It’s less important what thing you do first as long as you do something.

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Thanks for reading.

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A Lesson In Improvisation And Jargon From A Cooking Show

Improv lessons from a cooking contest show

If you’ve ever watched a cooking competition show – you’ve probably seen some real world improvisation.

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The Challenge

  • Contestants have an imposed time limit
  • They have an ingredient(s) they have to use
  • There is a mandated outcome – something that has to be done

How is this not improvisation?  You have a skill set that you need to employ to navigate a series of changes that may or may not be unfamiliar to you.

So how do they get through it?

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The Approach

  • Emphasis on fundamentals.  The chefs have the confidence to execute because they have the basic skill set to do what they need to do.  They have a command of knife skills, cooking techniques and have a developed palate to work from.  These are basic things – using a music analogy – there’s no obscure chord scale or advanced reharmonization happening here – just using the fundamentals as a basis to establish an area of comfort and familiarity from.
  • Emphasis on repertoire.  They have a number of other dishes that they’ve mastered to serve as a template for what they want to do.  If you’ve cooked several thousand past dishes and someone says, “I need you to make me a pasta dish” you’re not going to freak out because it’s in a comfort zone.  If you quote tunes in your solos or comping – you quote tunes that you know so well that you can adapt elements of them at will.  Those trills you use on that klezmer tune you play every set – works their way into a phrase, etc.
  • Adaptability and creativity.  This is really a combination of the two points above.  There’s a constant stream of  plays on things, “This is my play on mac and cheese.”  Previous dishes that are mastered are used as launching points for new innovations.  From a guitar standpoint – maybe those string skips you developed to get that piano solo under your fingers you liked are now being used in a different context for your thrash solo.
  • Being in the moment.  They taste their food.  They monitor multiple components and adapt as necessary.  It may be the closest analogy to improvising a solo over a rhythm section for a tune you’re unfamiliar with.  You listen to the drummer, and the bassist and whoever else is playing and while you create music that enhances that.

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What the unsuccessful chefs have taught me, is that an approach that works for one thing may not work for everything.   “Oh I want to wow the judges, I’d better use Truffle oil.”  which may or may not work in an ice cream.  I heard an mp3 of Eddie Van Halen jamming w. Holdsworth once and it was grim – because he was just doing the Eddie thing over Holdsworth’s comping and it didn’t work at all.  It sounded like the bleed through of two guys in adjoining practice rooms working on something different at the same time.

When you’re in some kind of timed artificial event (i.e. they’re forced to improvise) – this approach makes sense.  When dealing with something unfamiliar you go with what you know.  You pull out the well-worn licks that have worked their way into your vocabulary. That’s also when you find out just how well you know something.

It’s not just about learning licks to play over ii-v->I’s – improvisation is a mindset as well – if you look for it in sources outside of music – you will find things to adapt and bring into your musical improvisations. It  brings something different to the table than someone who’s learned every Coltrane and Bird lick and nothing else.

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And now as an example of what not to do: A drinking game

I don’t drink – but if you do and you’re looking for a drinking game here it goes.

  1. Turn on the Food Network.
  2. Take a drink whenever someone says , “Big Flavors” or “Flavor Profile”

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You’ll probably be drunk in an hour.  It is basically impossible to watch the Food network and not have someone talk about the merits of “Big Flavors” or on some dish’s flavor profile.

And what do these terms mean?  Is there anyone out there trying to cook with small flavors?  And “Flavor profile”?  Really?  How about just calling it “taste” instead?

The thing is, this jargon has been hijacked by foodies and now it’s difficult to watch anything regarding cooking and not hear those terms.  My beef with jargon is that it should serve the function of simplifying a process through language and instead typically acts in an exclusionary manner.

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Music and jargon

When I did my undergraduate degree I had to take several classes that dealt with post tonal theory.  As a starting point, what does “post tonal theory” mean to anyone other than a composer or an improviser?  Can you imagine seeing a CD cover with a label on it that says, “Now with Post tonal Theory!”?  In terms of accessibility to the layman, it goes radically downhill from there.  Where some of the music created with this mindset is vibrant and exciting, the language and jargon around it explains what’s going on only to those in the know.  It makes no attempt to make inroads to the causal listener, and statistically there are way more music listeners than post tonal theorists.

Music is a language and like any language if you break away the accessibility of it, you doom it to oblivion.  In the 1950’s people still actively studied Latin – it was even taught in high school until it was pushed further and further into the realms of academia (I know Chronicle of Higher EducationAcademe is the new preferred jargon – but academe is a poor shell of a word), and now is only taught in a increasingly fewer places.  It transitioned from a vibrant language to a patchwork of quoted phrases thrown out as part tricks.

The same thing happened to post tonal music.  Inside the hallowed halls of academia, there is a compositional indoctrination that occurs; a self-congratulatory high-five for music that is performed in student recitals to crowds of 10.  The theoretical language that is posted to describe these works often reads like a combination of a repair manual for a 1950s radio delivered with the melodramatic sincerity of an adolescent journal.  Taken on its own merits, it reads as intellectually aloof and emotionally underdeveloped and seems to be defensive before anything has even been sounded.

If the first thing people are exposed to is inaccessible, why would they take the effort to go on?  True, academia tends to support projects and approaches that reinforce the need for academia (i.e. peer reviewed journal entries that are so topic and jargon specific that only other academics will bother to read and understand (read: scrutinize) them); but this doesn’t help make the music more accessible.  It brings up the question of,

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Is it music if no one hears it?

Sure it can sit in a drawer or live on a cd.  But if no one is listening to it being played is it music?

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Music requires a performer and an audience.

Like any conversation it requires a speaker and a listener, and the magic is neither in the speaking or the listening – but in the communication itself.  If there’s no listener, there’s no communication, and no music.  This doesn’t mean that quantity equates with quality (it’s not a contest about how many listeners you have) iit’s about being inclusive rather than exclusive.

Just a thought…

Thanks for reading.

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2011: How Not To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past Or Nothing Ever Got Done With An Excuse

I had hoped to get a few more posts in before the end of the year, but decided instead to take the last week to wind down and center.  I find that this helps me not only take stock of what worked and didn’t work for me in 2010 but make sure that I’m on track for what I want to get done in the new year.  As George Santayana said,

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“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

As 2010 draws to a close, I think back to many conversations I had with people at the end of 2009.  At that time it seemed like everyone I talked to said the same thing, “2009 was such a bad year.  2010 has to be better.  It just has to.”  Now it seems I’m listening to the same sentiment with the same people about 2011.  And in some ways they have a valid point.  Listening to their circumstances, 2010 certainly offered some of these people a tough blow – but regardless of their circumstances, I believe that, unless they experience a windfall of good fortune, I will hear the same sentiments echoed in 2012.  There’s a reason for this:

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“If you always do what you’ve always done – you’ll always get what you always got” – anon

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While I fully appreciate the merits of planning and goal setting – life will throw you any number of curveballs that may make a meticulously laid out plan get derailed.

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A good plan has to be countered with an ability to improvise as need be to make sure that even if your mode of transportation is disabled, that you are still on the path to achieve your goals.

“Improvisation as a practice is the focus of an idea through an imposed restriction.  This restriction could either be self imposed or be imposed upon the improviser through other means. Improvisation as it relates to common experience can be seen in the example of the car that stops running in the middle of a trip.  A person experienced in auto repair may attempt to pop the hood of the car to see if they can ascertain how to repair the vehicle.  Or they may try to flag down help.  Or they may try to use a cell phone to contact a garage.  The point being that within the context of a vehicle malfunction, different actions are improvised based on the improviser’s facility with both the situation at hand and the tools at their disposal….life is essentially an improvisation.  As individuals we come into each day not exactly knowing what will happen.  We know that there is an eventual end, but we don’t know when or how it will end.  But we continue to improvise, because it is in both the active improvisation (the present), the skill set and knowledge of that improvisation (the past) and in the philosophical/worldview/goals guiding our improvisational choices (the future) that we create meaning.”

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If you approach life’s problems with the same mindset you’ve always had – and your new year’s resolution runs contrary to that mindset – your resolutions are doomed.

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I say this as a seasoned graduate of the school of hard knocks.  As a person who found that while success felt a lot better – failure was a much more thorough teacher.

2010 had some great ups and downs for me and now there are a number of life and playing upgrades I’m going to put into practice in 2011 to address the things that didn’t work for me.  So for those of you who are interested in making a real change the new year – here’s what worked for me going into 2010:

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Know the big picture.

If you have a goal – know why you have the goal.  As Victor Frankl once said, “He who has a why can endure almost any how.

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Take stock of what you have done and identify what needs to change.

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Have you done things that work towards that goal?  If so – what have you really done?

What worked?  What didn’t work?  and just as importantly why did or didn’t it work – and what parameters can you put in place to make it work better?

What decisions did you make that set you back?  How could you alter those decisions in the future?

Sometimes honesty is brutal – but this isn’t about beating yourself up.  It’s about taking a realistic stock of what worked and what didn’t work for you in the year and reinforcing that things that work for you.

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Revolution not resolution

People typically make resolutions because they recognize a need for change in their life.  As I said before, if you approach life’s problems with the same mindset you’ve always had – and your new year’s resolution runs contrary to that mindset – your resolution is doomed.  So for me – it really isn’t about making a momentary decision – the long-lasting changes in my life have come from making lifestyle changes, setting priorities and working within those changes.  It’s a revolt against what was done before instead of a compromise in a current mode of operation.

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Positive habits

Making something a daily positive habit (like brushing your teeth) makes it easier to maintain over the long haul.

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“Don’t make excuses – make it right”

– Al Little

People make excuses for things all the time.  No one cares about excuses. They only care about results.  Nothing ever got done with an excuse. There will undoubtably be moments that you relapse into older habits.  Instead of making excuses for why it happened – just acknowledge it – and move past it. When you fall off the bike, it’s not about sitting down and nursing your scrapes.  It’s about getting back up on the bike again.

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Be motivated to do more – Be grateful for what you have

In one last 2010 observation – I’d like to thank everyone who took a moment to come here and read what I was doing.  This month had almost twice the number of hits I had in November – and fifty times the number of hits I had this time last year.  It’s going to get even bigger next year.  So thank you all again.  I hope that 2011 is your best year yet.

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Warming Up: Finger Exercises, The 3 T’s And The Necessity Of Mistakes

Pedagogical Errors Were Made

One of the first lessons that guitar students are taught is the 1 note per fret 1-2-3-4 chromatic alternate picking exercise.  While this is typically presented  as an initial exercise to gain coordination – it has a very limited long run value.  As a static exercise, it  should be discarded from your regimen immediately because

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you play what you practice

If you want to play semi-chromatic ideas at high speeds moving in 4ths – this is a great exercise to use.  But it’s a boring sound, a boring exercise and doesn’t translate well into everyday performance.

“But Scott”, you might posit, “it’s just  a warm up exercise.  It isn’t something to play at a gig.”  Then it’s a further waste of time as

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everything you play should be something that translates to live performance

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The Physicality Of Practicing or How To Lose A Gig

Here is a gig nightmare story that illustrates the point of proper technique versus strength.  Since the embarrassment here is all mine, all of the names will be on the record for my moment of shame.  Years ago when I was working at Sandy’s Music, one of my co-workers “Skinny Mike” Feudale wanted to see if I could play a gig with his rockabilly/psychobilly band – The Speed Devils. Mike is a great songwriter and the songs on the Speed Devil’s cd were really strong and lot of fun to play.  The Speed Devils had a gig come up in NY and needed a lead guitarist to sub in.  If it worked out – it could be a regular gig – but there were some rules.

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1.  I had to look the part – fortunately the drummer Judd had a vintage bowling shirt I could squeeze into

2.  I had to play a vintage amplifier.  Fortunately I had just gotten my vintage Gibson amp back from Tom at AzTech electronics (truly an amazing amp guy) – which sounded and looked great.

3.  I had to play the Speed Devils guitar.  This was a hollow body that Mike had fixed up and completely vibed out (full flames and dice for volume knobs) with heavy gauge strings and high action to push the volume a little more.

We rehearsed the set once or twice and then went to the gig a couple of days later.

On the way from Boston to NY, I didn’t have time to warm up so I was doing some finger exercises to limber up my hands.  I was experimenting with a lot of grip master type things to strengthen my hands and try to fix my pinky (which was really quiet with hammer ons).  We got to the club and  I found out that there was no mike for my amp.  The only thing going through the PA was the vocals.

This is the point of the story that I should mention that while everything was fine when we had rehearsed at low volumes; my 15 watt amplifier could not compete with the rest of the band in a club setting.  As I was inaudible I started strumming louder, and with the live adrenaline kicking it, I started fretting harder as well.   Between the heavier string gauge, the higher action, the underpowered amp and the over-tensed playing- I blew my hands out by the second tune.

My hands were so shot that chording was difficult and soloing was all but impossible.  I limped through the rest of the performance – but nothing came out the way it was supposed to.  Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig – a sound decision by the band – but I was really angry with myself because I had unknowingly sabotaged myself before I even got there and had I taken a different approach – I would have been able to play the show much better and not let the band (and myself) down.

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The Physicality Of Practicing (slight return)

Playing an instrument is a physical endeavour.  You can push your muscles too hard and hurt yourself badly playing the same things over and over. (Trust me – performance related injuries are not fun).

Having said that, this isn’t weightlifting.  You don’t need muscular hands capable of cracking walnuts to play guitar well – you need hands that can move  fingers quickly and independently –  a fast twitch muscle versus a slow twitch muscle. This leads to a little secret that students generally don’t get exposed to in rock guitar lessons

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hammer on volume comes from the speed the fingers strike the string not the force

In terms of volume, the most problematic finger is typically the pinky.  One habit that I had to fix (and that I continue to see in a number of players) was the improper attack of the fret hand pinky on the strings. (In case you’re wondering about proper form, I’ve reposted some of the information from the Glass Noodles arpeggio post below).

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Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for:

Put the palms of your hands on a table.  Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index.  You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping.  This motion is what you’re looking for in this process.  Notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.

The concept of building up your hands like biceps – is just ridiculous.  The goal of guitar performance is to keep your hands relaxed so you don’t blow them out in a gig or on a session.

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How I warm up now

When I warm up now – I play scales and arpeggios, switching between chord voicings of tunes I’m working on and improvising around various patterns at low tempos and paying strict attention to

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The 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension

(remember these – this awareness could save you untold time and pain later!)

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In general –  you just want to make sure that all of your fingers have had a little blood flowing in them before you begin to play for any length of time.  I do this with a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on how my hands feel).

External warm up devices are kind of goofy to me.  Have you ever seen a runner go into a gym and max themselves out on a legpress before they went for a long run?  Do you really think that putting mechanized unfocused tension on a finger is going to make it play a musical passage more efficiently?

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The necessity of making mistakes

Along with the forthcoming GuitArchitecture books, I have also put substantial time into  a general book of guitar technique.  In addition to discussing specifics of practice and performance methodology – I also took the 1-2-3-4 exercise and broke it down into every possible positional variation as a way to develop technique.  The book is currently 256 pages.  The majority of which are the 864 individual graphics that had to be created and placed in the text.

Midway through this process I started to question the mistake of basing any technical study on such an exercise – or the concept of musical exercises in general.  (Again the point isn’t to have svelte waistline or huge muscles – the point is to be able to play melodic and harmonic ideas more readily.)

I came to the conclusion that if the 1-2-3-4 example could be approached as a way to develop a systematic approach to generating both melodic ideas and melodic variation it could also benefit readers as a technical study as well.

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Mistakes are teachable moments

It’s easy to see a mistake as something to learn from in a practice room session but harder to see it at a gig. If I walked away from the Speed Devils show and just said, “That gig sucked – so I must suck as a guitarist” I would have missed a great opportunity to see there was something very wrong in what I was doing. The gig taught me in addition to making sure that I had proper preparation and the right tools for the job that tension does not equal volume – and that lesson has been more beneficial to me than any lesson I could pay for.

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I hope this is helpful to you!

Thanks for reading.

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