The Power Of Inertia Or Know Your Flow

While inertia is a term that refers to Newton’s 1st law of motion, I’ve always thought about inertia outside of the realm of physics and applied it psychologically.  I’ve taken some liberties with Newton’s definition, “Every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion (constant velocity) unless it is acted upon by an external unbalanced force” and tried to view it as a factor in personal development/motivation.

I saw the new A&E show, Heavy last week and it was a blunt reminder of just how powerful inertia is in our lives.

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Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest.

In watching the subjects of Heavy try to transform their bodies, I was immediately struck with how difficult it can be to get something moving.  As one person was exhausted and covered in sweat just walking to the gym, the personal trainer commented that, “He’s at 600 lbs.  That’s like a normal person trying to walk to the gym with a refrigerator strapped to their back.”

When I thought about that for a moment, I realized that if I had a fridge strapped to my back, it would only take a couple of steps before every synapse in my body said, “Forget this.  This is dumb. Just sit down.”  The fact that these people worked through that to get to their short-term goal, speaks both to how difficult it can be to work through inertia, and also to how we have the ability to break out of cycles in our heads.

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The flip side of inertia is that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion

So while putting something in action can be hard, maintaining it is a lot easier than stopping it and trying to start it up again.  If you build positive habits it becomes easier to maintain them over time. I’m not saying that it goes on auto pilot.  If you don’t like practicing scales and have built up a new practice regimen involving playing scales – you might have days you skip.  The important things are

1.      that when you’re doing it – you’re really doing it

2.      if you fall of the wagon make sure to get back on

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Falling off the wagon is easy, but getting back on isn’t a big deal if you’ve done it before.

I remember taking with an alcoholic who fell off the wagon in the middle of a multi-day binge and he talked about falling off the wagon like it was a high-speed train.  It’s an issue of perception – if you view a habit or an action as something you have to amp yourself up to do – it’s going to make it more difficult to instill.

If you view the wagon as something that you’re either on or off –it’s going to put a lot of additional pressure (and difficulty) for you to get back on.

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Going with the flow

If you’ve ever tried to walk up a really powerful stream, you know that it’s a lot easier to follow the current than it is to fight it.  In terms of productivity – it’s important to know your flow.  If you know what works for you and what you’re likely to do it’s easier to work things in around that.

I’ve often found that the biggest learning curve that I’ve had in maximizing productivity has been in learning what works for me.  For example, by nature I’m not a very disciplined person and I find that if I leave myself to my unorganized devices I don’t often get much done.

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Coordinates or knowing where you are

Having said that – I do tend to be an organized person.  So in being organized, I find that keeping a calendar (and a practice log) help keep me focused and in focusing helps keep me disciplined.

While I keep and maintain my calendar, every time I put it aside and say – “I don’t need that –  I know what I’m doing” – a week goes by and I find that I may have only gotten a fraction of the things done that I wanted to.

In keeping a weekly calendar  I see not only where I’ve been but also what I’ve been doing.  If I don’t get to my short-term goals, it simply means I’ve fallen off the wagon and have to get back on.  The more time’s I get back on – the less likely I am to fall off.

Because I know my behavioral tendencies, I can go with the flow of those tendencies rather than fighting against them.  If you’re not a morning person, getting up at 5 am to the gym is going to be an uphill battle.  If you tend to be focused mid day – working out on your lunch break might work better for you.  In being organized I find that keeping a calendar (and a practice log) helps keep me focused, disciplined and getting things done.

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Sometimes the last one standing is the winner

All of this works off of the concept of short and long-term goals.  There are times in life that you’ll have to hustle a breakneck 50-yard dash, but life itself is a marathon.

I don’t know how many of you have ever seen Another State Of Mind (a really great get in the van with the band style documentary featuring a then largely unknown Social Distortion).

Social Distortion was on Conan last night, and while I was watching it I thought about all of the critical accolades they’ve received since Another State of Mind and wondered if Mike Ness ever imagined that he would go from spray painting the band logo on a T-shirt to still being around 26 years later.

As a guitar culture, we’ve always put emphasis on the hot-shot guitar player.  You can go on You Tube and see any one of ten thousand people playing their fast licks, and most of them will be posting videos of their snowboarding jumps 2 years from now while their guitar sits unplayed and gains dust.

Social Distortion has achieved the success they have largely by being the last one standing.  Largely by being around and playing so long, they simply couldn’t be ignored anymore.  I also suspect that over time they started amassing a better team (management, lawyers, agents, etc) that helped amplify that process.  But they never would have attracted that team if they broke up for good in the 80’s or 90’s.

I’d known about my fret hand fly-away pinky issues for years, but it wasn’t until I studied with Miroslav Tadic and Jack Sanders , that I realized how much it was holding me back.  Unlearning my habits and fixing that has been a really arduous 4-year process but I can say that my playing is already in a different place than it was 2 years ago – much less before I studied with Miro.  If I just stuck with the old habits I had, I never would have been able to move forward – but in taking a huge step back in my playing  – I’m able to move forward now.

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Thinking isn’t Knowing

The difference is I thought I knew what I was doing was right, but it wasn’t until I experienced how wrong it was, that I knew it would have to be fixed. While I tend to conceptualize (or think) things very quickly, but it takes a long time for me to know something.  That’s my flow, and while it would have been great to fix my playing at the get-go, that wasn’t going to happen until I really knew what was wrong and what to do.  To know something is to experience it – and experience takes time.

If you have a plan of where you ultimately want to go (and have some flexibility in getting there) you are well on your way.  In the meantime, it’s important to know what works for you and establish practices that work with your nature instead of against it.

I hope this helps! Thanks for reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Know the big picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revolution not resolution

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

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Positive habits

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

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“Don’t make excuses – make it right”

– Al Little

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

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

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

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Definitions and Documents Or Practicing Part IV

I was originally planning on updating this post with pictures of hand postures and address left and right hand muting techniques – but given that I have sunburned skin peeling off of 20% of my body – I’m going to hold off on photos for now.

Instead, I’d like to take a moment and actually address defining practicing as a means of understanding what is being addressed by practicing and then examine how documenting the process can assist with it.

For those of you who are just coming to this post you may want to also read the previous posts on practicing.  Here’s a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Definition

By defining practicing it’s easier to understand what practicing is supposed to do.  Here is a partial definition from Meriam Webster.

“Main Entry: 1prac·tice

Variant(s): also prac·tise \ˈprak-təs\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): prac·ticed also prac·tisedprac·tic·ing also prac·tis·ing

Etymology: Middle English practisen, from Middle French practiser, from Medieval Latin practizare,alteration of practicare, from practica practice, noun, from Late Latin practice, from Greek praktikē, from feminine of praktikos

Date: 14th century

transitive verb1 a : carry outapply <practice what you preach> b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually<practice politeness> c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine >
2 a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act> b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>”

The definitions presented in the 2nd part of this definition help – but don’t really explain how to train or what practicing is supposed to achieve.  So I’m going to supply one of my own.

Practice:  The proper focused repetition of an idea through an incrementally difficult environment for the purpose of achieving a musical goal.

By tearing apart this definition some elements of practicing can be exposed that you might not have thought about before.

proper:  meaning the right way; consistently

focused:  Practice requires concentration because it requires attention to detail.

repetition:  repetition leads to familiarity (and familiarity breeds contempt so be careful here!)

incrementally difficult environment:  To practice something means that you are pushing your abilities to do something.  In music, one implication of this is to practice with a time keeping device (metronome, drum machine, drummer, recording, etc.) – but this could be any kind of parameter that actually pushes you.

for the purpose of achieving a musical goal:  Practice is goal oriented.  If you are not trying to achieve anything then you are not practicing.

With a clearer understanding of what is meant by practicing – we can go on to how to maximize the use of your practicing time.

1.  Set clear, well-defined goals (short AND long-term) and work towards those goals.

2.  Since practice requires concentration, put yourself in an environment that facilitates concentration such as a relatively quiet, well lit and well ventilated room as free of distraction as possible.

3.  While concentration is required for repetition, excessive repetition undermines concentration.  Many people use set periods of time to practice something.  This can be a good policy if it is done in moderation.  Bill Leavitt (the founder of the guitar department at Berklee)  suggested that students should practice reading for 15 minutes of every hour of practice – because 4 sessions of 15 concentrated minutes of practice get you a lot further than one hour of unfocused practice.  A timer (like an oven timer) can be a great assistance here.

For some people, concentration will be a learned activity.  If you are not used to focusing on something with intensity, then even trying to work 10 minutes on something may be problematic.

If you are having problems with this area – try starting with smaller intervals of time like 5 minutes with one short phrase and then move on to the next item on your agenda. Practicing in this manner will help you develop your capacity for focus as well.

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There are several different thoughts about achieving goals, for me personally – it’s important to get many ideas into muscle memory slowly and develop them all at the same time rather than developing only one idea fully after another. You, however,  should plan on experimenting and find what approaches work for you

By setting a timer and not worrying about how long you are practicing, (in whatever methodology you use) you can spend more energy on the actual performance.

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Documentation

One approach to consider is seen in how athletes train.  After all, playing guitar is a physical process that requires performance of well-trained activity.  This is very similar to a swimmer who has to be able to perform at a high level at a signal (like a whistle blowing).  One thing athletes do is WRITE IT DOWN.  Runners for example often keep a journal of performance times to see if they’re improving.  Writing things down in a journal doesn’t have to be complex or difficult.  I used to keep a notepad in my guitar case, and then write things down.  But now it’s easier to customize a practice log or journal and utilize that either in print or electronically.

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I have linked two sample documents below.  Please feel free to download and use or edit at will.

PRACTICE LOG (PDF)

Weekly Practice Log (Word)

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What needs to be written down:

Here’s a sample entry:

Week of What is being Practiced? Time Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Notes
6/8/10 A Major Pentatonic sweep (sextuplets) 10 mins 100bpm             Watch Pinky tension!!

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The goal is to write just enough to keep track of what you’re doing.  Feel free to add or drop items.  

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If you’re going to start really putting the hours into practicing, I would recommend that you give yourself enough material to do no more than an hour or two at one sitting. 

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Do multiple sittings a day if you want. (Personally – I can’t really focus very well after an hour or so consistently.  So if I can I do an hour in the afternoon and then another hour later).  

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It also depends on what I need to practice.  If it’s a difficult piece I need to pull together – I might have to do 4-5 sessions like this a day.  The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.

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I’m calling it a practice log or a journal – but really it’s a type of map –

by keeping a journal you can see where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.

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It’s a good idea to periodically go through some old journals to just kind of get a fix for where you’re at.

Keeping a practice journal can be a drag and a chore if you want to view it that way, but it can be hugely beneficial in seeing what it is you are actually getting done.  If you make it a part of the practice ritual it will just be something you do.

For example, the first thing an experienced player will do before they play anything on a guitar is to see if it’s in tune.  If you get used to just picking up the journal when you pick up a guitar to practice – it will become 2nd nature.

Now that you’re writing it down – here are some things to address while you’re practicing:

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Practice accurately.

You have to play slowly and accurately before you can play quickly and accurately.

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Pay attention!

Can you make out all of the notes?  Are you really nailing the rhythm?  Are there any open strings ringing or unwanted notes?  Are you practicing the same way that you’re going to play?  Is the guitar in the same position when you practice as when you play in front of an audience?

[*Special Note: Paying attention requires concentration which is why you can’t really practice while you’re watching TV.  You can play or warm up in front of a TV – you just can’t focus on the TV and the guitar at the same time.  If you can’t pay attention to something try moving on.  If you can’t move on, then stop and come back to it.  You will get much more done this way that by just mindlessly running fingering patterns*]

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Always use a metronome, recording or time keeping device when practicing.

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Isolate problem areas.

If you are learning a piece, there are often several areas that need more attention that the rest of the piece.  Isolate those areas (however small they may be) and develop them. When you have gotten more comfortable with the problematic areas –  begin to practice sections before and after the area.  Treat the problem area as a center and keep moving out from the center as necessary.

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Do it right the first time.

Paying attention allows you to make sure that you’re practicing correctly.  Practice correctly – play correctly.  Inherent in this idea is that you’re practicing at a tempo you’re comfortable enough that you can tell if you’re playing it correctly.

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Don’t go overboard.

Some people go from not practicing at all to trying to practice the entire day.  Music is built off of experience, growth and endurance – none of which comes quickly.  Moderation is a good thing.  Occasionally think of the long term, and use the marathoner’s strategy of pacing yourself.

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Persevere.

Establish a regimen and stick as close to it as you can. If you make practicing enjoyable – you’ll eventually start to look forward to it.  It’s okay to stop and take breaks from practicing as a regimen, just don’t forget to start up again.

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Don’t forget to play.

The whole point of practicing is to gain elements to utilize in playing music.  Play whenever possible, desired and/or required.  After all this is supposed to be enjoyable.

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All of this advice works off of the idea that you have specific goals in mind when practicing.  My suggestions for what to practice will be the subject of a later post.

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I hope this helps!

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If you like this post you may also like:

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PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

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PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

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

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

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FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

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

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

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

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Practice Makes Better aka Practicing Part I

Probably the most commonly asked question of guitar teachers is some variant of, “How do I get better at (insert topic here)?” – which invariably leads to an answer of “practice”. 

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If you’re a rock guitarist like me, you probably won’t get much (if any) further clarification on this point as many instructors I’ve come in contact with don’t have an understanding of practicing other than repetition.  Since practicing is such an absolutely vital step in gaining instrumental proficiency, it seems odd that proper practicing methods for guitar are misunderstood by so many.

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There are a number of reasons for this.  Speaking from personal experience, I do not come from a classical background.  This is important to note because when you play an unamplified instrument in a concert hall (like a classical guitar) you need to make sure that you know how to project the sound, and that requires a specific focus on areas like proper technique, tone production and repertoire.  So typically from the get-go there’s a concise emphasis on technique and repertoire and typically some level of addressing what and how to practice.

As someone who learned a lot by trial and error – with the emphasis on error –  it’s really only within the last four years of teaching that made me go deep into practicing methodology.  What follows is a series of observations on optimising the practice experience.

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There are really two broad issues here – how and what to practice.  So the first series of postings will deal with the “how” of practicing – optimal performance issues and methodologies and then delve into the “what” to practice.

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**Note: 

some of this may seem excessively rudimentary, but greatness is in the details.  And if you’re striving for greatness  it’s best to address some details early.

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The First Prerequisite: The Guitar

Before examining any of the methodology of the text it is important to note all of the material presented here is dependent on a useable instrument in optimal playing condition.

If you’ve never had your guitar set up, or if you are not familiar with how to set up a guitar, I recommend taking your guitar to a qualified guitar repair person and having the instrument professionally adjusted.

For people who play primarily 6-string electric guitar, I recommend playing everything you practice on an acoustic as well.

There are several reasons for this:

1.  In playing acoustic, there are no effects to mask performance flaws.  If your playing is sloppy, it is something that you will become immediately aware of, particularly if you are recording. Listening to a recording of an acoustic will reveal every unintentional open string, choked note, finger squeak and any other unintentional noise.

2. Acoustic strings are typically heavier than electric strings.  Playing acoustic guitar with proper technique will build strength and endurance that makes playing electric guitar much easier.

3.  For the most part, any technique that you develop for electric guitar should be something that can be performed on acoustic guitar.  It can be a humbling experience at best (and an ego shattering one at worst) to shed a hot lick on electric, think you have it down and then crash and burn when you try to play it on acoustic.  I’ve seen this happen numerous times on unplugged shows and it’s always grim.

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The Second Prerequisite: Practice Materials

There are several things I recommend to have with you when  practicing.

1.  A metronome or time keeping device.  It’s VERY important to practice with a time keeping device.  If a metronome doesn’t work for you, use a drum loop or have someone record percussion for you.  If you practice out of time, you will play out of time.

2.  A tuner.  Ultimately it’s a good goal to be able to fine tune accurately by ear or by pitch, but since this skill can take a while to acquire, it’s a good idea to start with a tuner.

3.  A note-book, notepad or (if using a computer) word processing application.  This will be covered more in-depth later, but it’s important to be able to write everything down.

4.  A recorder.  Try to get in the habit of recording parts of your practice session.  It doesn’t need to be a brilliant hi fidelity recording.  You could use your cell phone as a recording device and probably record some video as well. The recording quality just needs to be something audible that you can review.  In addition to being able to hear your performance.  It can help you get used to the sound of your playing.  If you get more into recording later, it will be less stressful, as you will have already had a lot of experience.

5. A guitar strap.  Properly adjusted.  (This step assumes you are playing a steel string guitar – nylon string classical guitar style has its own set of rules for proper guitar body placement when playing and performing.  The point of this step is to have the guitar sit consistently on your body when practicing and performing. More on this later).

6.  A comfortable chair (if you’re sitting).

7. A timer.  Like an egg timer or a kitchen timer.

8. Goals.  More on this later as well, but it’s important to have a very clear goal of what you’re trying to achieve.  There are some goal oriented links and observations here.

Most of this can fit in a guitar case and set up in about a minute.  The key is to not make any part of this an ordeal.  If something is difficult, you’re probably much less likely to do it.

The next practice post will address posture, muscle memory and some other interesting ideas.

In the meantime, if you haven’t been doing so already make sure to warm your hands up with light stretching before strenuous play.  There’s some basic overview information here, but it’s also worthwhile to mention that not everything on the internet is accurate or useful.  So if you research something online and try to apply it and it hurts – STOP IMMEDIATELY.

This will be a good reminder for me to go over warm up routines in a future post.

I hope this helps!

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Focus, music and the marathon mentality

One thing that I try to emphasize with students (or anyone that’s willing to listen) is that achieving anything worthwhile typically requires dedication and commitment.  In pacing terms, musical proficiency isn’t a 50 yard dash – it’s a marathon.  It something that requires a lot of training and an understanding of pacing.  

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If you go full bore and don’t pace yourself properly you’ll burn yourself out before you reach your goals.  

Not reaching your goals is also a possibility if you don’t push yourself hard enough.

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Keeping an end goal in sight can be a difficult thing to maintain.  This will be a general theme that will thread its way through a series of short articles that will get posted here regarding the general topic of practicing.  In my own life, tackling 2000 pages of manuscript and trying to wrestle them in a series of books is both invigorating and overwhelming.

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One site that has posted a lot of really good observations about maintaining goals and focus is Mike Torres’ refocuser site (http://www.refocuser.com).  There are some really salient points there and for a more immediate resource in goal setting you may want to head over to his 12 goals site (http://www.12goals.com). Some good general information that can be directly applied to getting things done on the guitar (or maybe in other areas of your life as well).

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Thanks for reading!

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