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

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!

-SC

A Few Connor McGregor Quotes To Consider

Right now some of you might be reading this and thinking,

“Oh Geez…what is up with this guy and MMA?  I just want to play guitar.”

But to me they’re related.  Completely utterly and totally.

Because what it takes to get on a stage and improvise is also what it takes to get in a ring with someone who wants nothing more than to knock or choke you out.

You have to prepare endlessly and ruthlessly and get yourself to the best possible place you can be in and even then, in your absolute prime, you might get caught and KO’d.

The fighters who quit at that point are the ones who look at the match and say, “All that work was for nothing.”  They’re wed to an outcome.

The fighters who stick it out are the ones who are wed to the process.  They know that sometimes you have a good night and sometimes you have a bad night but if your training and preparation is excellent, then there’s a likelihood that even on a bad night you might be better than your opponent is on a good night.

When asked, “Why would you post something about Connor McGregor after he just lost a fight?”  the above is the answer.  Everyone loses a fight.  Everyone gets knocked down but the question is what is it that motivates you to get back up again?

“There’s no talent here, this is hard work…This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equals as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that’s that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.”

and (Re: the Jose Aldo 13 second KO)

“To the naked eye it was 13 seconds, but to my team and my family it has been a lifetime of work to get to that 13 seconds.”

I’m going to be posting a lengthy description about what it really means to practice something as that relates to both short term skill acquisition and long term mastery.  It may provide you some solace that most people know nothing about practicing, because most people do the same thing over and over, make very little progress and assume that because they put in the time that they know how to do it.

And I know this because I’ve been there.  Heck, I spent most of my life there!  I’ve now been playing guitar for most of my life and I’m STILL confronting the differences between what I think and what I know.

A recent story from a recent gig

Last Friday, I played a gig with Korisoron.  It was our usual repeating gig with a big difference – we had a special flamenco trio playing with us and as my wife was the dancer, I wanted to make sure it went well.  (If you live in the capital region of New York and you’re looking for Flamenco dance lessons or someone to dance for your show you can find her here!)

So I was running around a lot.  There was a lot of pre show and packing and set up and I didn’t get to warm up before I played.

In the OLDE days, I would have an entire ritual that I’d go through running scales and whatnot trying to get my hands ready.  Eventually I figured out that those gigs never worked well.  The gigs I played the best were ones where I was very lightly wamed up and not thinking about it too much.

Instead of running scales, I’ll play parts of songs or, in this case, pick a slow tune to start of the set and warm up over a song or two.  By the second tune I was largely good to go.

Is that a strategy I’d recommend for other people?  Absolutely not.  It worked for me in that context because I’ve already put the work in.  The work happens in the shed.  If the prep is done then it’s just a matter of going out an executing the best you can.

In my experience there is no cookie cutter formula to gigs where you’re improvising a lot other than being able to gauge the situation, making yourself as comfortable as possible and working from there.  As a kid, i got frostbite in my hands and feet and now even on days with mild weather my hands need extra time to warm up.  If it’s a hot gig with a lot of sweat I have to make other adjustments for my hands.  If I’m in a room where I can’t hear that well – I have to adjust again.

That kind of self-awareness happens over years of playing and learning how you respond to things.  Of getting to the point where you know what works and what doesn’t for you.

If you put the work in, then 90% of what happens in the ring, on the stage, is mental.  IF YOU PUT THE WORK IN.  That’s an important clarifier I’ve seen a lot of people talk a good talk about the mental game and fall apart on stage because they thought something they didn’t know.

“To the naked eye it was 13 seconds, but to my team and my family it has been a lifetime of work to get to that 13 seconds.”

To the untrained ear, an improvised solo is just magic notes from some mystic place that flow out over a verse or a chorus.  To those in the know, it’s a lifetime of work to pull those notes from a very concrete place to then make that moment sing.

In the next post, I plan to outline a specific practice strategy for how I get something done on a deadline – but in the meantime I hope you’ll consider a few points.

  • You can’t get anything of long term value without putting in the work for it.
  • Focus on the process not just to the outcome.
  • It’s not just about mindless work.  Learn what works best for you and use that knowledge to make better gains in what you’re working on.
  • Talent is just practice in disguise.

Thanks for reading!

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For those of you in NYC this Friday (3/11/16) KoriSoron is opening for Persian Tar and Setar virtuoso Sahba Motallebi at le poisson rouge – 155 Bleecker Street.  Doors at 6:30.  Music at 7:30.  $15 in advance.  $20 day of show.  More information on the Facebook event page here!

An Update and Part 1 of a new lesson

One small step for man

I’ve been doing a LOT of research on pedagogy and rapid skill acquisition versus mastery in preparation for the new teaching project I’ve been developing.  It’s reinforced a lot of what I’ve learned through trial and (a great deal of) error, and it’s given me some new tools and insights for how to get people to learn new skills quickly and how to get people who want to go past competence to go past their current limits towards mastery.  The new project I’m working on is audacious and big and, to be candid, intimidating to try to develop, encapsulate and ship out to people, but it’s getting closer to being done!

In the meantime, it’s been a while since I wrote a lesson post.  Mostly, it’s because what takes 5-10 minutes to explain in person takes hours of work to explain to people in a way that you can learn from reading online.  With that in mind, I’m going to take a lesson regarding how to come up with your own licks and how to learn them efficiently and break it up into a multi-part lesson.  In this lesson, I’m going to give you an approach to generating new ideas and then in the next lesson, I’m going to take you through a practical application and show how I develop a new idea and get it under my fingers (and into my ear so I can have it at my disposal when I play).

Where do licks come from?

In my experience there are two primary ways to develop your lick vocabulary.

  • Learn licks from other people and make them your own.
  • Discover licks on your own.

Improvisation

There are several ways to discover your own licks but a the one I invest the most time in myself is improvisation.  When I’m really improvising (and not just sticking licks I already know into things I’m playing over), I always find some new angle or approach that I never expected.  But if you’re really in the moment, it’s impossible to keep of all those ideas afterwards using only memory.

Let’s talk about improvisation for a moment.  As even Derek Bailey couldn’t really encapsulate it over a hundred or so pages it’s not something that I’m going to be able to do here in a few sentences, but I’ll do my best to give you some thoughts on improvisation.  I’m going to use language as an example as we improvise when we speak every single day and generally do so quite naturally without a great deal of stress or worry.

Let’s say you’re going to give a speech.  You want the speech to be professionally delivered and polished so you write it in advance, edit and revise it endlessly and practice giving it over and over again so that when you go in front of a room full of people you can execute it in a perfect manner.  This is kind of  a classical music approach to having every performance be perfect.  It’s like working out a solo and playing the same solo every night over a song.  There’s nothing wrong with that, you may need to be that comfortable with the material to get up in front of an audience and speak.  But over time, you’ll probably find that it will be difficult to maintain the passion in performing the same material exactly the same way every time.

As an intermediate step, you might find yourself interjecting some new observations into the speech on the fly.  Perhaps someone asks for a clarifier about something you said and you need to come up with a more detailed explanation or an analogy.  Maybe a Q&A is added at the end of the speech.  It becomes a “thinking on your feet” moment.  Now you’re improvising a little.  Maybe you add little flourishes in a pre-written solo, or throw some licks in between a vocal melody if you’re playing guitar on something.

Now you know the speech (and the subject matter) thoroughly.  You don’t want it to be stale, so you have a series of talking points on an index card.  You know how you’re going to start the speech and how it’s going to end, but you just have a few bullet points on an index card to use as a launching point for talking about them in more depth.  This is how many people approach jazz/rock improvisation.  They know the material enough to be comfortable, they’re going to start with a lick or two – develop a few ideas and then target specific things to happen at certain points in the solo with an end in mind.

Then you have the next level.  You walk into an unannounced meeting and have to make an impromptu presentation on something. Now you’re REALLY improvising.

In my mind, improvising in any capacity involves some level of working without a net and limiting yourself to specific approaches.

For example: If I’m improvising on a tune I’m practicing –   I’ll pre determine things like:

  • I’m not going to play any licks I already know.
  • Perhaps I limit myself to a scale or hand full of tetra chords
  • I’m only going to solo on certain strings or solo in certain areas of the fret board.

Save it for the ages

One thing I recommend doing is dedicating at least one part of your practice session to developing new ideas and recording it in some way, shape or form.

In Korisoron, we have an inexpensive Tascam recorder that doubles as a live mixing desk that we use to record shows just so we can do pre-production for tracks we’re working on – but you don’t need anything fancy.  I picked up a ZOOM mini recorder used for well under $100 that just sits on my desk top for this exact thing (or when inspiration strikes) but an iPhone of android device would also work just fine.  Whatever you use – just make it something that is easy to access and works for you! 

Assess and Analyze

Now here’s the part a lot of people don’t want to do.  You gotta go back and listen to what you recorded and find the things you like.  Since you’re improvising a lot of these things won’t be pristine ideas, they might have mistakes or only be partially formed ideas.  The process here is two fold:

1.  Really assess where you’re at with your playing to determine what you need to work on.  If you find that your time is all over the place – that’s something to work on.  If you find yourself going back to the same rhythmic approaches for every phrase – that’s something to work on.  You want to be detached in this process.  This isn’t about beating yourself up over what you didn’t do well or giving yourself a pat on the back for something you did.  This is about coming up with an accurate assessment of where you are really at.  One way to detach yourself is to go into third-person mode and listen to the recordings as if someone else made them.   You don’t listen to it directly as a measure of what you did but as what happened musically.   One way to do this is to listen to the recordings a few days (or weeks) after you record them.  I’ve come back to recordings I did months ago and have no memory of any of the ideas that happened there.

2.  Find the diamonds in the rough and clean them up.  This is where the vocabulary part comes in.  For me, when I improvise my ideas and approaches are not often pristine.  So when listening back, I’ll take a little fragment of something I like and practice it and try to add it to my repertoire.  By practicing it – I mean:

  • Getting the lick under my fingers and being consistent in picking.
  • Working the lick in a variety of harmonic and rhythmic contexts.
  • Expanding the lick.  So if it’s an intervallic lick from a scale moving that interval up and down the scale to see what else it yields.

Get Swoll

Doing this consistently can not only add new ideas to your playing and writing (I can’t tell you how many of the things I improvised and recorded became songs at some point), but it can radically improve technical aspects of your playing.

To Review:

Here’s part one of the plan:

  • 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.

In Part II of this series, I’m going to use a specific example from my own practicing to show how I generate ideas by:

  • Creating.
  • Deconstructing.
  • Refining.
  • Executing.
  • Observing.
  • Correcting (and)
  • Executing Again.

You might want to write that down somewhere you can post it.  That’s an important key to getting things done.

As always, I hope this helps!  Thanks for reading.

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Some Lessons From A Boxing Match

Let’s start with the sweet science

My last post used a quote from boxing, and this post uses some lessons a friend of mine taught me about boxing.  The reason for this is that, in my head, there are a number of parallels between sports and guitar playing, the biggest one being that both require a seemingly endless amount of training and preparation to be able to pull of a performance at the best of your ability in front of an audience.

As I write this, UFC champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey just took her 12 straight win to remain undefeated with a knock out in 34 seconds.  This means that the sum total of her last three fights is under a minute.  Her detractors say this doesn’t mean anything.  They want to see her go the distance in a fight.  I disagree with them.  The fact that she can finish those fights so quickly says EVERYTHING about how much work and preparation she put into those fights.

I read Ronda’s biography and the thing that resonated with me (other than the endless grueling training – I thought back to a LOT of 12-hour days at Berklee while reading this) is how much she got up and kept going when she was knocked down in her life.  When she was back in the states after getting a bronze in the Olympics for judo with no gainful employment she tended bar, worked at an animal shelter and worked as a gym receptionist while living in a car, and managed to get her head in the game and turn herself around from that situation to become the most dominant athlete (male or female IMHO) on the planet.  (You have to have the mental and the physical skills to get to the top of your game.)

Back to the boxing

A good friend of mine (who just happens to be an unbelievable guitar player, musician, songwriter and guitar builder ) Chris Fitzpatrick, recently “celebrated” a milestone birthday in an unconventional way when he signed up to raise money by fighting in a Haymakers For Hope event.  (Haymakers for Hope is an organization that sponsors fights to raise money for cancer research).

It is impossible to understand the physical and mental demands that are required to walk into (and out of) a boxing match if you’ve never stepped foot in a ring.  Some people take a 1/2 hour boxing cardio class and think, “that’s not so hard – I could do 3 minute rounds” not understanding that it’s a whole other thing to try to throw punches when there’s another person there determined to knock you out.  If you haven’t prepped, even if you can avoid getting hit – you’re likely not going to make it out of the first round.

(Some language NSFW.  This excerpt is from the film Heckler, but I’d also recommend Raging Boll which shows more footage from this fight.)

My friend Fitz trained for months to get ready for his fight which required intensive diet and training, getting up at ungodly early hours and pushing his body to the absolute limit.  This was more remarkable given that this fight is something sane people 20-30 years younger might do on a dare.  He won the fight which you can see here.

While he was training, we talked a lot about the similarities between learning how to fight  and learning how to play guitar.  After the fight, there’s a whole post-fight period of introspection – kind of like a post gig introspection, and during that I asked him what lessons he learned.  The lessons he learned are a great guide for guitar playing, or any other venture you want to engage in.

With that – here’s a short sweet list of lessons courtesy of Chris Fitzpatrick.  Remember that the difference between thinking something and knowing something is that knowledge is experiential – so I hope you’ll learn these hard fought lessons of knowledge easier than Fitz had to learn them!   (Also, make sure to check out his Strange County Drifters project and keep an eye out for some forthcoming FnH guitars!)

Lessons:

  1. Don’t be outworked.
  2. Practice for perfection, understanding that perfection is a just a goal, not to be used as a judgement of success or failure.
  3. Push through your limits, you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself and what you can do.
  4. Your comfort zone is a place to rest, not a place to live.
  5. There will always be someone better, Always. learn from them.
  6. Ego is the most dangerous barrier to achievement.
  7. Your mind is so incredibly powerful that it can override your physical being. We all live this everyday and don’t even realize it. Use it.
  8. No one cares except for you. Don’t bother trying to make others care. Care for yourself.
  9. Breathe and relax.

All of these apply to everything, but my discipline is music and guitar.

To which I would add the famous Samurai maxim, “Seven times down – Eight times up.”

There are real limits in life.  If you haven’t ever done a bench press (and never done a similar physical activity) you’re not going to pop a heavy weight off your chest on a bench your first time- but that doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be able to do it.

You don’t know what you can’t do today until you try.
You don’t know what you can’t do tomorrow when you put the work in today.
You don’t know what you can’t do a year from now when you put the work in everyday.

A limit you have today doesn’t necessarily have to be a life long limit if it’s something you can change with consistent, focused work.

I hope this helps!  Thanks again to Chris Fitzpatrick for sharing!

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

Hi Everyone!

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

1. Skill set

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

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

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

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

2.  Visualizing the smaller steps

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

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

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

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading.

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