An Update And A Lesson On Technical Recycling

“It’s been a long…long…time”

I just realized that it’s been a while since I posted anything here.  Life has a habit of getting in the way of well laid plans.  So here’s a bullet point list to create a quick update.

  • Korisoron – We are currently working on a new KoriSoron recording and our most intensive material will be on this one!  Initial tracking is in progress and we expect to have the recording out in September.  I’m also writing new material for the project and-  Booking new gigs for the fall.
  • TEDx – Korisoron has been asked to perform at TEDx Schenectady this fall and I’ll be delivering a related talk.
  • Old Project  – I don’t want to jinx anything but I should be getting together with some former band mates of mine and putting some finishing touches on a project that was very near and dear to my heart (and that I’ve mentioned in prior posts).   Fingers crossed – that will be another EP out this fall.
  • “Eel-Ech!-trick-a-coup-stick” – is the tentative title of a solo acoustic recording I’ve been working on.  I had previously recorded some tracks but wasn’t happy with them so I’ve been cleaning some things up and moving forward with getting that out the door by the end of the year.
  • The new pedagogy approach I mentioned a while back – I’ve been working on this but, quite honestly, I seriously underestimated the amount of prep I’d need to do to make this work so I’m just rolling up my sleeves and trying to pull ahead.  I took some notes back from the presentation I did at the HVCC Guitar Festival and have been pulling the material together – but I’ve learned more in the last 6 months about how to deliver everything (and what to deliver) than I learned in all my previous years.  I’m super excited about what this is becoming.
  • The other things – I have a few other musical things in the works that are too tentative to discuss, but, well, let’s just say that it’s a lot of electric guitar in various fashions that will be disruptive.  Other things also include a lot of revision plans for this site as well.

A lesson while you’re waiting

One of the things that hold up posts are the fact that I don’t write them in an organized way.  I write them in real time based on a theme in my head because it makes the writing more immediate and (hopefully) engaging for the reader.  Good for the reader – bad for productivity.  A post with any kind of lesson content typically takes 3-5 hours but some of the mode ones took 10-12 hours in editing, layout etc. so that’s why the posts get a bit sporadic for actual lesson material.

The value of recycling

One trap I still find myself falling into is the trap of “short attention span theater” or playing an idea, discarding it like a child’s toy and then picking up another idea and doing the same.  Maybe it’s a little cultural ADHD kicking it – but it’s very easy to loose site of taking a theme and really developing it into something.  (A great example of this for me is Bill Frissell’s Nashville where you can really hear each of the players take care in developing musical solos based on the melody).

From a technical standpoint, this approach can also be really useful.  It can take a long time to really master technical aspects of performance (particularly at the early stages).  Finding new ways to utilize the approaches you’ve been practicing will dramatically reduce the time it takes to learn new things.  For example, alternate picking takes a long time to develop at the early stages of playing, but once you have it down it makes everything  you have to lean to play with alternate picking easier to perform.

Optimize

Let’s take an A minor pentatonic lick.

Pentatonic Lick 1

Let’s say that you’re using hammer ons and pull offs to create a more legato feel.

For me, the most legato part of this passage is the last three notes.  I’ll move the E on the B string to the 9th fret of the G string to put 3 notes to that string and make the pattern more fluid.

(Note the change in fingering)

Pentatonic Lick 1a

This is more of how I approach pentatonic fingerings so I adapted the first fingering for one that works better for me.  Here’s the first part of the lesson – assuming that you have a base level of technique acquired – find fingerings that make sense for you!

If this fingering isn’t one that’s common for you and you want to practice the approach.  Here’s how I would do it.

 1.  Isolate. There are two technical hurdles in this lick. Combining the 1 note per string and 3-note per string notes with picking

 Lick 1CAnd this:

Lick 1D

And the transition between the two:
Lick 1E
2.  Practice

The first step is to just get the initial fingering and picking down.

  • Set a metronome for 5-10 minutes.
  • Slow it down! Playing fast before you’re ready just adds tension and makes the lick sloppier and harder to play.  The goal is to take something you can play perfectly and effortlessly and then systematically develop it so you can play it perfectly and effortlessly faster.

Lick 1 Slow

  • Pay attention to the 3 T’s (Timing, Tone and hand Tension).  If you find your attention wandering this will get it back.  Are there any biffed notes? (Watch that pinky!)  Is any part of the hammer-on/pull-off uneven? (Bonus credit – make a video recording and listen back.  Pay attention to what both hands are doing.  Be critical but not judgemental.  Imagine you are watching a friend play this.  What constructive criticism could you add to help him or her play it better?)
  • Write down what you just did.
  • Adapt this to the second lick and the transitional lick if need be.  Get it to the point that the entire lick can be played without mistakes.
  • Repeat as long as time allows.  Do daily (and if possible, multiple sessions daily).
  • Typically with something like this, I’ll also practice it as sextuplets and a few other rhythmic variations to have those at my disposal if need be.

3.  Extrapolate.

This is something I improvised over a C minor-ish feel that uses the same technical approach that I used on the previous lick with a C Blues scale.

Cmin Lick

Click on image to see a larger version

From a technical standpoint – this is the same basic idea as the first 6 notes from the previous A minor example.

C min lick 1
(Ah – the fingering is missing here – I’m using 2-1-2-3 for each of these)

Sequenced here from the b7:
C Min Lick 2
And from the 5th here:
C Minor Lick 3

In fact the only new thing is the string skipping at the end:

(I got lazy here – I’m using the tritone F#/Gb interchangeably).

Cm String Skip
If the string skipping is unfamiliar to you you can just use the same approach to get it down outlined above.

(Yet another) Shawn Lane Observation

I was watching some footage of Shawn Lane that someone posted the other day and this technical recycling was VERY apparent to me in the footage.  From a technical standpoint, it appears to me that he took six or seven technical approaches beyond the realm that anyone else was willing to develop them to (fretting hand taps as opposed to hammer-ons, rhythmic groupings variations (5,6,7,9, etc), wide interval string skipping, Hindustani / Carnatic slide playing and blues phrasing) and adapted those to all of the different music he was engaged in.

In Karate, it always comes back to the Kata.  In boxing – the basics, the jab, the hook, cross, the uppercut.  You can practice fundamentals your whole life and STILL find things to improve.  New techniques take a long time to get down.  Invest the time wisely to get the one’s you need REALLY down to help realize what you want to express and then explore your sonic world with the tools you’ve developed.  (and if you’re not sure which techniques those are – a good teacher can help!  You can email me at guitar (dot) blueprint at gmail if you’re interested in setting up skype lessons to help realize your goals.)

As always, I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading,

SC

 

 

Ask First “Why?” Then “How?”

HVCC Guitar Festival Recap

Recently, I did an hour long presentation on applying world music for guitar at the 2016 Hudson Valley guitar festival.

It’s a large and potentially overwhelming topic that would have (to me) painful omissions if taught over the course of a 15 week college term.  In an hour its more like Campbells Pepper Pot soup.  You dump the condensed mass of ingredients in the form of the can it came out of into a pot and you can’t make out the individual components right away.  You think, “Wow that cant be good” but after adding some water and heat and stirring you get a soup with surprising flavor out of it.  (The last I knew Campbells hadn’t made Pepper Pot soup in years.   Perhaps the main ingredient that added flavor, tripe, was off putting to some people.  My grandfather said it was the only good soup they made and when it was announced that they weren’t making it anymore I remember that he went to all the local stores and bought whatever they had of it in stock.  Strange that now in a celebrity chef culture people would probably seek that ingredient out .  As usual I digress…).

So in a best case you make something that people can digest.  In a worse case they get a mouthful of concentrate and spit it out or – if watered down too much they get something that has no content whatsoever.  The challenge becomes –  what’s the minimum amount of data I have to have present to fully represent the idea later?

Revise and shine

With a few of these more formal presentations under my belt I have developed a pretty consistent way of approaching them.  I’ll outline the topic and pull all the material together and edit and revise ruthlessly until I feel like I can move forward.  I’ll run multiple versions by trusted people and work on the cusp of a complete presentation and an improvised talk to keep it engaging.

For this specific presentation I ended up removing a lot of material in the interest of time.  This was unfortunate as one of the excised elements (the perspective / motivational aspect of practicing) is one that bears more discussion in general.

I’ve adapted some of that material for a post here.  You can read it in a TED talk voice if that helps but it into context.  In any capacity – I hope it helps!

Before continuing to the post I need to first thank Maria Zemantauski for having me present and play at the guitar Festival and thank the long suffering John Harper for his wisdom, guidance and editing chops.  Much of what is written below is a direct outcome of their involvement – so thank you!

Ask How AND Why

As a teacher, the most common question I get – by far – is some variation of the following:

  • I bought a book….
  • I watched some videos….
  • I took some lessons…

How come I don’t get better at playing the guitar?

Which is kind of like asking:

  • I bought a gym membership
  • I bought some muscle gainer
  • I bought a work out DVD

How come I’m not more fit?

My first question in response to this is always:

Are you putting the work in?

and the answer is always, “of course!”

My second question is then:

Are you REALLY putting the work in a focused and consistent way?

and the answer is usually, “well what do you mean by that?”

Are you REALLY putting the work in a focused and consistent way using proper technique AND monitoring and assessing your progress? i.e. are you working on this every day, writing down what you’re doing and actually monitoring your progress by keeping a log of what you’re doing and reviewing said log?

– that answer is always no.

We get better at things

  • by being clear about what we’re doing and
  • by doing them in a consistent and focused way.

Doing anything consistently (i.e. doing it day in and day out and making it part of the long haul) requires having a “why”.

Essentially you’re developing a new habit and you need to have a clear motivation to develop a new habit.

Often we don’t have a WHY for what we want to do.  Or we have the wrong why!

How not to learn Italian

Do any of you speak Italian?  I don’t – but I’ll share with you a brief story about my attempt to learn Italian.

In college I was madly smitten with an Italian goddess named Ada. She was smart and funny and beautiful and incredibly talented.

When I say she was Italian I mean that she came from from Italy versus she’s Italian from Utica, NY.

Now I am not a beautiful guy so since I didn’t have the looks to try to approach this woman  I tried to use my brains to get her attention. I asked another friend of mine who was from Italy, to translate a phrase for me:

It is a pleasure to bask in the beauty of your smile.

He asked me to write it down.

Admittedly, the word bask  (“To lie exposed to warmth and light, typically from the sun, for relaxation and pleasure or to revel in and make the most of (something pleasing).”) is a difficult word to translate. But he translated it for me. “E une piacare, bagnarmi nella belleza del tuo sorriso”.  I am NOT a natural language learner so I repeated it endlessly like a mantra and tweaked my pronunciation for a day or two.

My friend Linda formally introduced us. I said hello and as I shook her hand with both of my hands I looked her in the eye and said:

“E une piacare, bagnarmi nella belleza del tuo sorriso”. Which translates into:

It is a pleasure to bathe in the beauty of your smile.

While the sentiment may have been headed in a similar direction for intent it’s totally different in execution.

She blushed and then introduced me to the guy who (out of nowhere) suddenly came up behind her as her boyfriend.

Awkward pleasantries were exchanged and I made a quick exit.

The non-obvious question here is:

Why didn’t I get better at Italian?

The answer is I didn’t really want to learn Italian. I wanted to impress a girl.

I had a why for learning a phrase but I had the wrong “why” for actually learning the language.  So I never got any further with my Italian studies.

Here’s something that is also not obvious

Your success in an area will rarely be achieved by just mindlessly doing work. But it generally involves focused work in service to your goals.

  • WHAT you want to do will inspire you.
  • WHY you want to do it will keep you going.

This is a critical component to learning anything. To really learn something you have to have a strong reason why and that has to align with your goals.

If, for example, you want to be a great lead guitarist and you decide to work on adding some world music to your playing because you think it’s going to make you a better player – you now have a reason to practice that material and the time you spend practicing that material will be viewed as being in service to you goal rather than detracting from it.

This is why people start working on something like a melodic minor scale and stop – because (typically unconsciously) they haven’t figured out how this is going to serve them.

So going back to the beginning.  If

  • you bought a book….
  • you watched some videos….
  • you took some lessons…

and you understand how those things relate to your goals – you are more likely to put the time into working on them.

If you REALLY put the work in a focused and consistent way using proper technique AND monitoring and assessing your progress (i.e. working on this every day, writing down what you’re doing and actually monitoring your progress by keeping a log of what you’re doing and reviewing said log and adjusting when necessary based on that assessment of data)

you will get better at guitar. (Or whatever else you do!)

That’s it for now!  Hopefully this helps you with your own goal setting!

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

The Accidental Path To Authorship – Part I – Angry Guitar

Recently, I had a Facebook Memory that came up from 2011.

Facebook Memory

 

This prompted a question from a friend of mine.

“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”

My reply is long and probably will never be read by the people who want to learn more about retro-fitting Steinberger tuners on their guitar but it may be of interest to those of you at crossroads in your musical development as the path to learning guitar at a deep level in my case was not a straightforward journey.

Ultimately, it speaks more to:

  • having a deep seated “why” and a desire to learn
  • adaptability and having an ability to create opportunity rather than waiting for one to happen
  • simple endurance.  Being too pig-headed to refuse to give up and keep going despite not having any kind of external support structure.

 

Part I of my revised (and greatly expanded) reply is below.  I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I’m posting it with the knowledge that there’s much to be gained in examining what to do as well as what not to do.

The short answer is no, I don’t miss it.

I have another book that could have been edited and released 2 years ago and I decided to hold off on it, because at a certain point the inertia of writing was easier than playing – and playing was an important part of what I wanted to do. The more I was writing, the less time I had to actually play and the longer it was becoming before I released something.

Thank you!  Good night!

For those of you who want the MUCH longer answer, here you go…

My entire path to guitar started in anger.

I was in middle school and studying drums with Rex, who was a notoriously difficult teacher.  He would brag about having 20 people sign up for drums and only have 2 complete the program.  It took me years to realize that difficulty is not an indicator of the merits of an educator’s program, but instead an admission of an inability to engage students at a deeper level.  I would come to see this again with some of the faculty at Berklee when I went there years later.  It took me a long time to realize that truly great teachers (like Henry Tate, Mitch Haupers, Jon Finn, Stephanie Tiernan or Rick Applin at Berklee or Susie Allen, Vinny Golia or Miroslav Tadic at CalArts to name but a few) have an ability to explain things in an accessible way and draw students in rather than setting up artificial obstacles to knowledge to see if you were “worthy” of receiving it.
Anyways, back to drums.  I had done rudiments with the sticks and practice pad I got, but it was deadly dull and, as no one could explain the tie in to this and making music, I had no educational buy in.  So I decided to quit.  My friend Chad told me to check out this guy named  Jimi Hendrix and I taped the local classic rock station playing “Are you experienced?” on my boom box and that just burned a hole in my head.  I played that tape over and over again listening to the sounds he made on the guitar.

When I decided to drop out of the drum group, I said, “I think I’m going to learn guitar” and my classmate (and eventual high school band mate) Jeff said, “You’re never going to play guitar.” – and that’s all it took.  That one moment of, “I’ll show you!” fueled much of the rest of my life.

Lesson one – change can happen in an instant and one moment can affect the rest of your life.

My parents got me a beat up 3/4 size acoustic guitar that one of my cousins didn’t want to play anymore to play.   I liked it – but with approximately 1/2″ action at the 12th fret it was largely unplayable so with much cajoling, my parents bought a guitar.  I wanted a name model and what I got was an acoustic that my high school shop teacher Jeff Chappel made.

(Lengthy side note for you guitar geeks still reading this, my Chappel guitar is also one of the weirdest guitars that I own in that the scale length is completely non standard – something like 24.70″.  This in and of itself isn’t a big deal until you’re working at Sandy’s Music years later and have to reset the neck.  In doing so you realize that Jeff employed a furniture builder’s technique of doweling both sides of the dovetail joint for increased glue space after you DESTROY the heel of the guitar trying to get the neck out of the pocket.  This then requires getting Sandy’s guitar repair guy (and future FnH Guitar’s design guru) John Harper to rebuild the joint and ultimately employ a Taylor style screw system to keep the neck in place, reset the neck and create a new fingerboard where – lo and behold – the scale length becomes an issue when figuring out where the frets go.  All this took place over the decade long debacle that became the first of several guitar repairs on that instrument.)

At the time, owning a guitar my shop teacher made was unbelievably geeky – now it’s the coolest guitar that I own.  It was also geeky as I wanted to play electric.  At the time the acoustic in comparison just seemed lame and  much harder to physically play than electric. (This is more amusing as all the gigging I’ve done in the last 2 years has been on acoustic!)

Lessons

My parents insisted that I have lessons so I studied with the only guitar teacher in the area, a lovely older lady named Flora who taught piano and guitar out of her house and basically had me play out of the Mel Bay book series for much of high school.  This curriculum was not super inspiring to a guy who wanted to play rock guitar.

One of her other students was a classmate of mine named Yio.  One day he heard me butchering a version of “Paranoid” that I got out of the Guitar For The Practicing Musician magazine I picked up at the local news stand and had me play in his parent’s garage.  I lugged my Pro Co Scamp amp and whatever mongrel distortion pedal I had at the time to Yio’s house and we played a couple of tunes.  Our friend, Vince, was playing drums and we tried to plow through the Scorpions “Rock me like a Hurricane”. After I tried to play the first lead in the beginning solo and just played as fast as I could, Vince said, “Scott Collins – lead guitar!” and from then on that was kind of my role.

Lesson one revised.  One positive comment can affect you forever.

Yio and I formed a band, part of that band became another band and I played in those groups all through High School.  What I remember about that time was taking it VERY seriously.  I spent every hour that I could with a guitar in my hand.  This was pre-internet so I spent a lot of time learning things from records and tabs from Guitar For The Practicing Musician. I didn’t have videos to watch or people to study with I just tried to learn with whatever was nearby.

I still took weekly lessons up through my junior year of high school but my teacher didn’t really know how to help me.  She was a piano teacher who knew how to read and play chords from the Mel Bay book – so I had to learn for myself.  What strides I made as a player just came from being willing to do what other people were not willing to do – namely sit down with a transcription of something like Mr. Crowley and play the parts over and over again until I could get them under my fingers.  As I didn’t have a lot of social obligations for things I needed to do if I wasn’t in school or working on jobs my dad gave me,  I had a guitar in my hand and played a LOT of guitar (and picked up every bad habit a self-taught player could learn).

During this time, I organized Battle of the Bands through the Yorker club, the New York State historical Society, partially as a way to play but more because my dad was a faculty adviser for the group and would be there to see me play.  He didn’t go to any of the performances I had outside of those events and always assumed I’d grow out of the guitar thing.  He was bitterly opposed to me going to school for music. To give you some perspective how deep this ran, two years ago we were talking on the phone and he said, “You know I finally realized that you’re really serious about this music thing.  You’re probably never going to give it up are you?”

I get it now.  He wanted the best for me and in his mind the best for me was a stable job, home and family – none of which he saw in a career in music (looking back at this today I would say he’s 99.9% correct about that as well.  If those things are of value to you – you will have to make them work despite a career in music not because of it.

My mom on the other hand, was the one who championed what I did.  She supported me and told me that I needed to try to do my best at whatever I did.  In the end, my parents were there when I needed them and I couldn’t have gotten into Berklee without them.

Lesson two – No person is an island.  You need to have at least one person to help champion your decisions while you establish your path.

I wasn’t able to play guitar in high school bands because there was only one guitar chair and it went to the older players there.  I finally got to play in the Jazz band in my senior year (Yio was in concert band that year.  This is what happens when you’re in a school with 800 students K-12 – you get hand-me downs until your last day).  I was given charts for things like Chick Corea’s “Spain” with no explanation of what to do for rhythm (“How do I play this chord?”  “I don’t know”, the band teacher replied, “you’re the one who plays guitar.”) or lead or what was expected of me in the band.  With no information at hand,  I had to try to figure it out on my own.  Again – this is pre-internet – so my days were spent at the library trying to find out what a 7b9 chord was.  The Grove music dictionary I had access to wasn’t particularly helpful in this area.  This lead to a nightmare concert, and a feeling that Jazz was somehow beyond me.

Lesson three – mindset is everything.  If you don’t believe you can do something, you’ll never be able to do it with that mindset.

Somewhere in my Junior year, I picked up a copy of Musician magazine because my guitar god at the time, Yngwie Malmsteen was on the cover, and saw an ad for Berklee School of Music.  “You can go to school for music?”  I lead a sheltered life.  If you removed our cars, electricity and rotary dial phones we would have essentially been Amish.  I didn’t even know that going to school to play guitar was a possibility.   That became etched in my brain.  Again, since this was pre-internet you couldn’t go any look at something online to get a sense about it.  I sent away for some admissions material.  I took a trip and visited my friend Bob who was going to school there and we ended up seeing the midnight screening of an epic of American Film making, “Street Trash”.  Man was I sold!!  Sign me up.  This is the school I need to go to and the city I need to be in.

My high school wouldn’t release a transcript to me (and I didn’t know enough to fight it) so I had to give my Berklee application to them and they sent it off with the transcript.  I got a rejection letter in the mail.  It turns out the high school guidance office didn’t include my senior classes on the transcript, so Berklee rejected my application and said I’d have to re-submit.  We resubmitted and Berklee said that they’d already accepted too many guitarists into the program.  I’d either have to take the 5-week program or audition.  Well, my dad was violently opposed to me paying money to “take a God-damn summer music camp”, so I had to audition.  (Note:  auditioning now is the norm but at the time NO ONE auditioned to get into school.  Once I got there I found only 3 other people in my time there who had to audition to get in).

Again this is all pre-internet so there were no online resources to determine what Major 7 chords were.  There were chords, sight reading and a performance piece.  I went to the library and looked up all the information I could.  I created a book of my own chord voicings based on what I found there and learned Steve Vai’s final portion of “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for my audition piece.

Lesson four – when you face what is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle you can either make excuses or make it work.

I had a meeting with an admissions counselor at 9 am in Boston (a 4-hour drive away) and my performance audition at 10.  I stayed up until about 1 am working on the piece and my mom said, “You better get some sleep we have a long drive tomorrow.”  I went to bed.

I was laying on the bed and it took a while to go to sleep.  I remember waking up and my underwear were soaked.  “Did I just pee myself?”  Nope.  The heater for the waterbed heated through the liner and now the bed was leaking all over the floor (and precariously close to the power strip).  As I got out of bed, I also got the single worse charlie-horse I’ve ever gotten in my life.  I was pounding on the walls trying to get my parents to help, dancing around in a desperate (and futile) attempt to walk off the charlie horse for the better part of 5-6 minutes before they finally heard me.

My parents woke up and we ran a garden hose down the front set of stairs and out of the house.  My mom started to siphon the water at the bottom of the stairs and got a mouth full of bed-water which included the chemicals they use to prevent algae build up.  This resulted in chemical burns in her mouth which had to suck on the 4 1/2 hour drive each way to Boston.

We finally drained the bed around 3 am and I had to take a shower and go to the audition.  I slept a bit on and off on the way down.  The pressure was on.  In a bid to not leave myself an out – I didn’t apply anywhere else.  If I didn’t get into Berklee, there was no plan B.

I went to the admissions interview.  I remember the admissions counselor was cute and I tried to impress her with a number of books I read but (again) growing up in a vacuum, I didn’t know how to pronounce Sarte (“Nausea” and “No Exit” were two pretty influential books for me), Camus or Kierkegaard.  At the time I’m sure I thought I was being smooth, but now years later thinking about the 5-6 random long hairs that were passing as a mustache, my mispronunciations and awkward mannerisms I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up over my head as I type this.  I went from there to the audition in the 1140 Boylston building by walking down a flight of stairs that felt much longer than they were.

When I got to the audition there were awards and accolades for the man I was meeting with all over the wall.  It was more than a little intimidating.  He was perfectly nice and had me run through some chords (“We don’t get a lot of people coming in with drop-4 voicings” –  I had no idea what he was talking about.  There were just the voicings I figured out based on that I could get out of the Grove dictionary.)  some scales and then my prepared piece.  Which I hacked my way through as best I could.

I thought I blew it.  I remember sitting there thinking, “I didn’t get in.  My dad is going to kill me.  What am I going to do now?”

“I hear some promise in that.  I think you could probably figure it out and get tings together here.”

“Does that mean I got in?”

“Well, I have to give the recommendation to admissions but yes – you got in.”

“Oh my God!  I could kiss you.”

“Please don’t.”

Somehow, I made it through the audition and I got in.  We called my dad from a pay phone in Boston and drove back.

Lesson five – when your back is up against the wall you’ll find out very quickly just how bad you want something. 

In this case, I wanted nothing more than to play guitar.

I was incredibly excited.  I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, but anticipated learning a lot as well.

In Part II –

  • From the Farm to the Fusion Farm.
  • What’s it like to go to a music college?
  • Working for a livin’ – Band(s) in Boston.
  • The Escape Plan.
  • Books and life pre-and post music grad school
  • The Escape plan Part II

I hope this helps – or is at least amusing!

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

New Lesson Part III – A Process To Get Better

Case Study

In part one of this series I laid a some ground work for the idea that improvisation can be utilized for a practice and compositional tool.  In part two, I showed how I used that approach to write a song and develop a lick for the solo .

Here in Part III of this series, I’m going to use the lick I came up with to show how I approach practicing.  While I’m demonstrating this to show how to get a specific lick under your fingers, this approach can be used for more rapid skill acquisition in any area.

Step 1: Separate A Specific Goal From A Desire

A lot of times, people will say they have a general goal like, “I want to get better at guitar” and then buy a book that they read a bit of any perhaps play something for a minute or two in an unorganized session and then play the same licks they were playing before and never open the book again.

“I don’t know why I don’t get any better.  I practice all the time and have dozens of books but I keep playing the same things.”

It’s because you have a desire but you don’t have a specific goal.

Desire is important.  It’s a motivator.  It’s the why behind the things that you do.  But desire doesn’t get things done.

“I want to be a jazz guitarist” is a desire.

“I’ve adopted a daily practice of learning a new standard in every key and transcribing my favorite artists soloing on those tunes.” is a more actionable goal that works in the service of the desire of becoming a Jazz guitarist.

Goals address what what and the how of the things that you do. The specific mentioned above  is important as:

Specific Goals Get Specific Things Done.

Depending on the thing you’re working on, a setting a realistic time frame for the goal might be make it easier to achieve as well.

In this case, my goal is to try to get this lick:

32nd Note Lick Revised

up to the tempo of the song I want to use it in.

Step 2: Identifying The Thing(s) To Work On

In my example above, my goal is very specific so in this instance that’s the thing I’m going to work on.

It’s important to note that in going through this process you will very likely realize that what you’re working on uncovers all sorts of other areas that need to be developed to achieve that goal.

For a non-musical example, if you made a New Year’s resolution to loose 50 pounds by summer you might have identified working out at a gym as one of the things to work on but actually getting to the gym consistently might be a bigger problem in realizing that goal.  So you’d have to address things like willpower / motivation or other issues in addition to the initial area identified (the need for more exercise).

In the lick above, there might be a whole host of technical issues (sweep picking, string muting, etc.) that needs to be addressed in order to be able to play on the lick.  That aspect of it can become very frustrating if you didn’t anticipate it.  Just be aware that working on one thing will often mean working on multiple things.

Step 3: Contextualize And Analyze

One common mistake that I see people make is learning a lot of licks and then not knowing how to use them.  By understanding what you’re playing and how it works in a harmonic context, you can then take that information and re-contextualize it – (i.e. use it for soloing in other songs).

I already did a lengthy contextualization and analysis of this in part two of this lesson.  But here’s a cliff’s note version.

In this case:

32nd Note Lick Revised

The lick is a diminished lick that I’m using as a solo over an ostinato.

Ganamurti Ost

Step 4: Deconstruct

So when faced with a lick like this:

32nd Note Lick Revised

many players will just set a metronome and just start whacking away at it to try to get it up to speed.

This is NOT the best way to address something like this.

I recommend breaking it down into components.  So if I look at the first two beats and slow them down – essentially I see:

four four sixteenth first
Which is just the same fingering repeated at the 8th fret:

four four positional sixteenth two

and the 11th fret:

Four Four Positional three

So if I look at that first lick again:

four four sixteenth first

I can see that it’s the same basic idea on three strings in terms of picking and fingering – a minor 3rd on the same string, a single note on the next string and a minor third on the third string.

Or isolated further essentially this.

Diminished 7th quint

While the fingering might be adjusted slightly for the note on the middle string,  the first thing to do is address this initial shape.  Because if I don’t have this down then the rest of the lick won’t come together.

Step 5: Refine

If the lick features something really unfamiliar to me – I’ll break it down even further.

  • My initial focus is to just make sure I get the right notes.  Rather than even looking at 1/16th or 1/8th notes I might break it down to this:

D Dim 7 to octave

or even this:

5 Note half Note

  • The first thing to address is the fingering.  I’ll use the 1st and 4th fingers for the notes on the outer strings and the 2nd finger on the inner string.

5 note fingering

This will keep the fingering the same on the D-G-B strings:

5 Note fingering-2

And when I get to the G-B-E strings the only finger I’m changing is the note on the B string:

5 Note fingering 3

  • The next thing I’ll address is the picking.  Note that I’m going to pick the form in a semi-sweep pick that might seem unusual:

Initial Picking

The reason for this can be seen better when you look at the lick in full position:

16th Note Initial Picking

The reason I start the lick on an up-stroke is to create a small sweep going between patterns:

Picking Excerpt

But this solution is just what works for me.  You could use hammer-ons to play the whole lick as downstrokes and that would work as well:
Hammer On Lick

The point here is to find what makes the most sense to you to play the lick to make sure that you’re playing it properly.

Step 6: Measure

Tim Ferriss has frequently thrown out this quote (proper citing needed)

“That which gets measured gets managed.”

When I go on a trip, my sense of direction is typically terrible.  If the sun is out I can work out “the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West” to at least get my general bearings but at night – left to my own devices without a GPS of some kind – I will typically go in the wrong direction.

I mention this because past experiences have shown me that using perception without any kind of concrete markings is a terrible measure for how I’m progressing on something.

In my case, I do several things to help measure how I’m doing.

  1.  I use a stop watch.  I’ve been practicing for a while so I can sit for longer periods of time and generally stay on task, but for the beginner I’d recommend a 5-15 minute block.  If I only have an hour to work on a few things, I’ll take 4 15-minute blocks and really focus on only one thing for that interval.  That’s why the stop watch is so important because it allows you to focus on the task at hand without spending any mental bandwidth on how long you’re working on something.  (Bonus tip – 4 FOCUSED 15 minute sessions over the course of a day will get you infinitely further than one unfocused 1 hour practice session at a time).
  2. I use a metronome or a time keeping device.  If I can play the lick at the beginning of the session at 100 and end at 105 I’ve made progress.
  3. I write it down and by that I mean I (generally) keep a daily log of whatever I’ve practiced for whatever length of time I practiced it for and make any notes of things I addressed.

    Example:

    “3/13/16:  5-Note Diminished run- 15 mins @160.  Work on articulating middle notes.”

    That’s really important.  So many of my students who say that they’ve never made progress before become VERY surprised when they have to write something down and REALLY see exactly how much (or in most cases how little) time they’ve actually put into something.

Step 7: Play it (or perform it, or do it) and observe it

Okay – we’ve covered a LOT of preliminary groundwork but the reason for that is because practicing something wrong will only make you better at playing it wrong and you will plateau at a much lower performance level.  Playing it correctly (i.e. with no tension, proper form, timing and phrasing will take longer in the short run but will save you insurmountable time in the long run.

I hope you’ll take this advice from my own experience.  I have had to start from scratch – from the beginning – TWICE – because of all of the bad habits I picked up and had to get rid of.  Had I know what I know now, I could have gotten where I am now in 1/4 of the time.

Here’s the trick to practicing this.

You need to really focus on what you’re playing and pay attention to how you’re playing it.  But you need to do this in an impartial way.

This means divorcing yourself from the outcome and just focusing on the moment.  The way I do this is somewhat schizophrenic in that when I practice I almost view it as if someone else is performing it.  While I realize that this may sound insane –  the point for me is to not get caught up in judging myself (“that sucked” doesn’t help you get better) but instead to focus on the process (i.e. the physical mechanics of what I’m doing. “Is it in time?  Is it in tune?  Am I playing that with minimal hand tension?)  The goal is to be as impartial an observer as you can be and just focus on the execution.

To do this, you’ll want to perform it at a level where it’s engaging (don’t make it too easy) but not so difficult that it’s overwhelming OR where you’re bringing in bad practice habits. 

When I was in high school I used to just practice everything as fast as I could and then use a metronome to try to make it faster and all that did was had me play with a lot of tension and not in a rhythmic pocket.  I could never figure out how people could play effortlessly and smoothly and it was years later that I realized that they played that way because they practiced that way.

Step 8: Correct

This is where the adjustments happen.  If my hands are tense, I adjust to play with less tension.  If my rhythm is off, I adjust to get back in time.  If other strings are ringing out, I adjust my hands to mute the strings better.

Step 9: Isolate the problem area(s) – Deconstruct Again

If I’m working on a big lick and have a problem switching position – I’ll apply this entire process to just that one problem area and correct that. Don’t spend 15 minutes playing 100 notes if you’re tripping up on 4 in the middle.  Get the problem area sorted out and then (once that’s worked out and smooth) work on playing the areas immediately before and after the problem and ultimately playing the whole thing.

Step 10: Play/perform/do it and observe it again

So I apply the correction.  When I get to the point where I can play it 5-6 times in a row perfectly, then I’ll adjust appropriately.

This Specific Lick:

Here’s how I tackle this:
32nd Note Lick Revised

  • Since it’s a repeating 5-note pattern, I start with the first 5 notes and establish a fingering and picking pattern.  I practice that with proper technique and timing and get it to where it’s smooth and effortless at a tempo.
  • I repeat this process with the 5-note pattern on the D-G-B strings and on the G-B-E strings, again getting each individual pattern smooth and effortless.  Spending more time on the first pattern gets these patterns under my fingers more rapidly.
  • Once I have the three patterns down I’ll focus stringing them together in position.16th Note Initial Picking
  • Once that position’s down I’ll do the same thing in the other positions:
    four four positional sixteenth two

and
11th Fret four four revised

  • Then I’ll focus on tying them all in together and look for trouble areas.  One issue I had with this pattern is making the switch from the high E string to the first note of the next pattern on the A string.
  • In this case, once I could play the full pattern with 16th notes at 160, I cut the tempo in half and started working on 32nd notes at 82.  I typically raise the metronome marking anywhere from 2-5 bpm when developing something like this until I get to my desired tempo.  The end tempo is typically 10-20 bpm above where I’m planning on playing it as playing it live with adrenaline kicking it in, we always play things faster so I like to be prepared (or at least more prepared).

That’s the process in a (rather large) nutshell!

My recommendation is to give it a go with something that you’re specifically trying to learn and see how it works for you.

  • You may find that it takes you longer than you expect it to
  • You may find the process uncovers a LOT of other things that need work

Those are both okay!  They come with the territory.  The good news is once you start doing this consistently, you’ll find that you make REAL progress in the things you’re working.

 

Here’s the big secret no one is probably telling you:

Practice requires practice!

Just like anything else, you actually have to practice practicing to get better at it (practicing).

The good news is you CAN get better at practicing and in doing so you will find that it actually takes LESS time to work on things because you get more efficient at what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it.

As I mentioned before, I am working on a whole new pedagogical model that uses this methodology as it’s core to get better playing results in a shorter period of time.  I’m just about through the development stage – but if it’s something that interests you – please send me an email at guitar (dot) blueprint @ gmail (dot) com – and I’d be happy to send you more information once it’s ready.

Finally, consistent and steady wins the race

To get better at something isn’t any secret at all.  It’s putting in consistent focused time, day after day.

  • Be clear on what you want to do
  • Be clear on HOW you’re going to do it
  • Do it every day until it’s done

Move on to the next thing and repeat

I hope this helps and, as always, thanks for reading!

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New Lesson PT II – Improv(e) and Applied Theory

Case Study

In Part I of this lesson,  I laid some ground work for the idea that improvisation can be utilized as a tool for practicing and composition.  You might want to read that post here.

In this lesson I’ll use a real world example to demonstrate how improvisation and applied theory led me to develop a lick.

Ganamurti Melankarta

I’ve written before about how theory can not only help you understand what you’re playing but can also expose you to new sounds you never considered before.

I was fortunate enough to have some studies with Aashish Khan at CalArts in Hindustani (Northern Indian) Music – the Carnatic (South Indian) has been of interest to me as well.  In South   I have a photocopy of L Shankar’s 1974 AWESOME Wesleyan dissertation, The Art of Violin Accompaniment in South Indian Classical Music (typically available through interlibrary loan – Reminder – SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY) but as that text is not accessible to some people I’d recommend fellow Berklee alumni Charlie Mariano’s An Introduction to South Indian Music as a really good source for making South Indian melodic material accessible to people who wish to adapt the music.

One Melakarta (this is an oversimplified definition but for discussion purposes here – a 7-note scale) I got exposed to was called Ganamurti

(scale formula: Root, b2, bb3, 4, 5, b6, 7)

or with A as a root:

A Bb Cb D E F G# A  (aka A Bb B D E F G# A).

I feel the best way to internalize new scale ideas is to write a new tune with them.  Here’s an excerpt of a new tune based on this idea I’m playing with KoriSoron.  You’ll be able to find it on our next EP.

What’s notated below is what I wrote for Farzad’s part on the A section of the tune.  I’m playing a counterpoint line and doubling some parts of the tune.

Ganamurti A section

So this gives you a basic idea of the melody and vibe of the tune.

Han(d) Solo

There are a few other sections of the piece and then some sections to solo over.  One of those sections has a repeating pattern like this.

Ganamurti Ost

Now this is the basic form.  There’s a lot of melodic variation and fills thrown in on the last beat so it’s not played robotically but you get the general gist of one of the ostinatos being soloed over.

So what I’m going to do now is walk you through the process of how I approach improvising over something like this and how I generated a new lick to add to my vocabulary.

To review the process from Part I of this lesson:

  • Improvise. (Create)
  • Record everything.
  • Listen back and find the new things that you improvised that you like. (Assess)
  • Learn (and when possible improve upon) the best ideas you came up with when improvising.

Here’s the ostinato.

Ganamurti Ost

Thought Process #1. 

I start negotiating the scale looking for melodic fragments to utilize.

I see D F G#

D F G#

aka D, F, Ab

D F Ab
which I recognize as a Diminished triad.

The scale also has a Cb (B) (This is going to be referred to as B from here on out for simplicity.)

D F Ab Cbb

Which makes it a Diminished 7th.

Thought Process #2:

This means I can play dimishished arpeggios over the ostinato.

As diminished arpeggios are made up of all minor 3rd intervals, the notes repeat over the same string groups every three frets.  This is useful information because whatever I come up with melodically here:

D F Ab Cbb

Can be played at the 8th fret:

8th fret 4 note

And the 11th fret:

11th Fret 4 note revised

And so on to create a melodic sequence.

What’s your Position on That?

Before I look at developing a multi-positional lick I’m going to look at it in position.  Since the intervals are made up of all minor thirds – this arpeggio:

D F Ab Cbb

will have a D on the G string as well:

D Dim 7 to octave

Thought Process #3.

THIS is useful information because if I have an arpeggio that’s contained on three strings (in this case using 2 notes-per-string, 1 note per string and 2 notes-per-string which I think of as a 2-1-2 form) then I can take whatever I’m using as picking and fingering for that shape and (with slight modifications to the fingering) apply the same basic idea (more or less) positionally.

So this:

D Dim 7 to octave

Becomes this:

Positional Ab

And this:

Positional D

**Note on playing with patterns:  I find pattern playing to be extremely useful when improvising because it makes modifying those patterns (i.e. making music from them) in real time feasible.   Having said that playing this as quintuplets (i.e. 5 notes to the beat)

Diminished 7th quint

will give you a very robotic feel.  (This IS a really good way to practice getting quintuplets under your fingers but that’s another discussion).  With arpeggios like this I typically play them as 1/16th notes to alter up the feel a bit.

With all this in mind – here is the lick I improvised initially:

four four sixteenth first

It basically involved:

  • Seeing a diminished shape
  • Seeing it on three strings
  • Manipulating it in position

While I’ve detailed a lot of the thoughts out BEHIND the scenes here,  Once I saw the initial shape I arrived at this intuitively.

Then I just moved it up 3 frets:

four four positional sixteenth two

And three frets more:

11th Fret four four revised

Once I saw the whole thing – I tied it together into this monstrosity:

Ganamurti Diminished lick full

News Flash!

We play this tune around 100-110 BPM on acoustic guitars.  What looks like a pristine metronomic moment of perfection in the example above was a train wreck when I first tried to pull it off.

In order to have it under my fingers (and at my disposal) when we play live I’m going to have to practice it and in Part III of this series, I’m going to show how I’ve been practicing this to get it up to tempo.  If you’ve ever felt like practice lessons are not fruitful for you or wondered if you’re doing it the right way – Next week’s lesson will be an awesome one for you!

A call to action:

As always – thanks for reading.  I hope that this helps!

I’d like to continue to keep the lesson content I put up here for free but, in addition to the amount of time it takes to generate lesson content this in depth, there are also expenses associated with putting any content online.

If you like this lesson, or the other material on the site, there are a number of ways you can contribute (and enrich your own quality of life) and help keep the information here free.

  • You can schedule a private lesson.  You can email me at guitar (dot) blueprint at gmail for information on skype or in-person lessons.

Any and all support is appreciated.  As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

 

The Gig As A Teaching Tool And Evading The Black Hole

My relationship to gigging has changed a lot over the years.

For many years, a gig to me was only as good as what I played.   If I didn’t feel I played well, then the gig was bad and if I played well then the gig was good.   During that time, at best, I didn’t feel that I played any gig particularly well.

Mostly I would just beat myself up after a gig and disparage what I did as a musician and as a human being.  Because (the faulty logic went) if the gig sucked then I sucked at the gig and if I sucked at a gig then I must suck as a guitarist – and how could that be after all the time put into it to not suck?

That’s an amateur view of gigging.  It took me a while to realize  I was using bad logic and taking the wrong lesson away from what I was doing.  (You can read another post of mine here that goes into much more depth about the amateur mindset and how to discard it.)

All guitarists still play mediocre gigs….it’s just that great guitarists play them less often, and a great guitarist’s mediocre gig is still at a higher level than a great gig played by an okay guitarist.   Additionally, professional guitarists disconnect from gigs when they’re done.  They might struggle after the gig, but they let things go because there’s another gig on the horizon to focus on.

But mostly what changed my relationship to gigging was the audience.

I started realizing that my own self assessment was really secondary to what the audience got out of it.  If I didn’t care about what the audience got out of it, then there was no point in playing to an audience.

The weird thing is that the audience got VERY different takes on the gigs than I typically did.  The gigs I hated were gigs the audience members often dug… and he gigs I liked?  By and large the audience was apathetic.  Eventually – between the audiences assessment and my assessment – I learned how to really gauge the temperature of the gig and how it really went.

The real question here is – Why does that matter?

If you’re asking yourself that question to puff yourself up and convince yourself how great you are, being able to gauge the success of the gig is not helpful at all.

For me, the importance is that being able to gauge what happened more objectively is an opportunity to learn.  What worked?  What didn’t work?  What should I do again?  For the things that didn’t work, how can I prepare myself better to get a better result?  As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Case in Point:

Last night I played a benefit gig at a place called the Linda in Albany, NY.  It’s the performance arts studio for WAMC radio and a very cool venue with a great staff and cool eclectic booking.  We were playing a benefit for WAMC with three other bands.  Our soundcheck was scheduled for 5.  Doors were at 7.  We got there early but assumed we’d probably soundcheck at 5:30.

The Linda had put a new sound system in that day that they were trying out so the staff had already been on hand for most of the day.  Two of the groups were going to use a backline (i.e. have guitar and bass amps and a common drum kit for use by multiple bands) to save time both in sound checking and switching between bands.  We got there around 4:45 and soundcheck was running behind.  The two bands before us had a number of things that had to be checked and we ended up loading our stuff onstage to soundcheck at about 6:45.

So the event began with a little stress but, truth be told, most events work on a “Wait – wait – now Hurry UP!” cycle.  We got our things on stage and worked out a few things with percussion mics and ended up running a few bars of a few tunes.  The house sound is LOUD and the monitors in front of me are on the brink of feeding back.  The tone I hear coming back at me is MEGA treble so I try to adjust with my own eq but its still jarring to me and LOUD.    I ask to be pulled out of the monitor directly in front of me as  I figured I could just use the house sound as a monitor if need be.

We left the stage around 7:10 – feeling really bad that this essentially screwed Bryan Thomas, the opening act, out of any kind of a proper soundcheck.  We talked to him as he was setting up and he said he can work around it (and he certainly did – Bryan pulled off a really cool loop based solo singer set)!  We then walked over to Van’s (a great Vietnamese restaurant in Albany) to get some pho before the set, and literally get back for the last tune of Bryan’s set and then have to load on.

While we were gone, unbeknownst to me, the overall house sound system volume dropped.  We got on stage, said a quick introduction and launched into the first tune.

At this point I couldn’t really hear myself so I started picking harder.  A lot harder.  Like bluegrass hard.  It was way too much excess tension and my hands were not responding the way I wanted them to.  We get through the piece.

The audience applauds and I introduce the next tune.  We only have a 1/2 hour and have already cut one tune from the set to get in under the time limit so (in a bad judgement call) I’m more focused on trying to get through the gig than taking the 30 seconds it would take to fix the problem.  Tune 2 – my hands are not responding at all the way I want them to.  I’m playing and they’re losing synchronization.  At this point, I become mindful of the fact that in addition to being too tense that I also have some adrenaline going and that’s pushing me beyond what I should be doing – hence the lack of synchronization.  I take micro breaks where I can to make sure I can pull off the unison line at the end.  We get through it.  The audience applauds again.  I take a breath and address the issues.

I try to joke with the audience to build rapport and keep them engaged.  I ask for some of myself back into the monitor.  Tune 3 is a slower tune.  I scale back and try to play less and continue to rest my hands where I can.  I try to balance being engaged with the music with doing what I need to do to technically get through the gig.  We get through the rest of the set.  It’s not one of my better performances – but it’s the best I can do in the situation.

I’m bummed because I know that this performance is being recorded for a future broadcast and I’m not super psyched about all of my mistakes being experienced over and over again but on the plus side, the audience is awesome.  They’re kind and super receptive, really giving us something back and really digging what what we’re doing.  The Linda staff is great and super supportive and John Chiara did a great job We make some new fans and some new friends.

I don’t play particularly well – but it’s a good gig for us.

This is one of those situations where my problem easily could have easily trainwrecked the gig.  You ever have that moment where you wake up and something bad happens when you get out of bed and that sets off a whole series of chain reactions in place (like tripping over a laundry hamper, cutting yourself shaving and/or burning yourself with spilled coffee)?  I call that entering the black hole.  Once you get sucked into a bad moment, it’s easy to get caught in the inertia of that energy (the  gravitational pull of the black hole) and just have compounding errors that spiral out of control.

There are two ways out of the black hole – and both involve mindfulness.

1.  Don’t go into the black hole.  If things go wrong, be aware of what’s happening and make mild adjustments and try to stay on course.

2.  If mistakes are compounding – take a breath.  Observe what is going on and make necessary corrections to get back on track.

This doesn’t come naturally.  You can’t learn it in a practice room by yourself.  The only way to be able to do this mid-gig is through a lot of practice and (un)fortunately, I’ve had numerous opportunities to practice this in a live setting.

Gigs are valuable opportunities to gain insights about what you do and the best ways to do it and (without getting to wu-wu here) no matter how many gigs you play, you will always learn something if you’re ready for the lesson.

As always, I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading.

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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.