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!

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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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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!

Practice The Way You Want To Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  Figure out where to put all my fingers

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

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

3.  Understand the phrasing

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

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

4. 
Set a metronome marking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deadlines Are Your Best Friend

Hey Everyone!

I have a new post coming up next week about benchmarks and perfection, but as a starting point I wanted to bring out this chestnut (originally posted on guitarchitecture.org).

One of the things that attracts me to improvisation is the immediacy of it.  You perform and then it’s done.  While I like documenting these improvisations I fully recognize the danger of doing so.  (The danger being that when you record something there is a tendency to say, “Oh that sounds pretty good. I should just tweak a couple of things and then it will be perfect.”)

A Variation on the “I used to Walk a mile in the snow to get to school” rant

The way records used to be made back in the day,  involved a bunch of musicians who rehearsed and/or toured some material to death getting together in a room.  Mics would be set up and levels were typically set by putting loud instruments in the back of the room and softer ones up front (soloists would literally step up to the mike to solo and then step back) and after the end of the performance, the record was recorded.

Multitracking came along and studio time was still prohibitively expensive enough that you wanted to get tracks done as quickly as possible.  I played in several bands that did weekend cd’s tracking and overdubs on day one and mixing on day two.  There were always things that you wanted to tweak – but two days later you had a CD and it was done.

You kids and your new fangled “machines”

Now everyone has a multitrack recorder called a computer that can edit audio to the millisecond and the temptation to play god and make the perfect aural universe is a dangerous one to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my computer and I love Logic but I also know that if a take is 95% of the way there in terms of recording – it may take all day at best to get that extra 5%.  In a worst case scenario it might take forever.

Perfection is over rated.

Midi can be “perfect”.  It can be quantized and performed uniformly ever single time.  From a performance perspective, it can play things faster and cleaner than you will ever be able to with millisecond accurate timing.

Midi is also typically boring.  No one wants to watch a sequencer play things on a stage.  Audiences might listen, but they’re not going to give it their full attention.

In pop music (i.e. “rock” music) – ProTools and midi as a performance standard have increasingly become the goal.  Once I was sitting with a world class engineer and in discussing talking about how out of control the pursuit of “perfection” in commercially released recordings is,  He said, “let me give you an example” and proceeded to bring up a track he was working on on his desk top.  The track was going really slow.

“Is that an old computer?” I asked.  It turned out that it was the newest version.  Top of the line with memory and drives at the highest level the system would support.

When the track finally loaded I saw why it took so long.  There were eighteen thousand edits on the drum track alone.  18,000 edits!  On a 4 minute song.  Every single drum hit was cross faded.  Every single hit was moved and jostled to fit a midi track.

From a perspective of timing – it was perfect but from a performance perspective it was boring and it sounded like every other programmed drum track you ever heard.

I am not advising you to give up on bettering yourself (quite the contrary) – but my general advice to any artist is not to get seduced by “perfection”.  Perfection can be a great motivator or it can be the siren song that sinks your productivity.

To paraphrase a quote that I should be able to cite, “A true artist never completes a work but merely abandons it.”

Deadlines are your best friend.

Deadlines allow you to get things done.

Real (i.e. no-moving and non-negotiable) deadlines force you to realize that 95% of something is more than 100% of nothing.

Work at the highest level that you possibly can – but realize when it’s time to move on to the next thing.

As Steve Jobs famously stated,

“Real artists ship.”

Thanks for reading!

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Changing One’s Perception And Removing “Should” From One’s Vocabulary

“Oh should you now?”

We all have things that we know we’re supposed to do and don’t do with frequency.  We should see the doctor regularly.  We should exercise more and eat less.  We should really write our grandma.  We should really get to practicing.

The reality is that “shoulds” are little minefields in our brain.  We plant them around everywhere and then get absent-minded about where they are.  When we finally have to confront one, the temptation is to get upset because you now know what you should have done and did not – and the onus of it falls on you.

Getting past “should” is a life long struggle and as someone who is still working on it, I can say that it’s not easy but it is possible.

This can be done by removing the phrase “I should” from your vocabulary and replacing it with “I am

(i.e.  replacing “should” with “do”)

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Adjusting your perception.

If you meet expatriates from the US who have been living in another country for a long time and not speaking their original language, occasionally they have a real disconnect when you speak English to them.  This has happened to me on several occasions where I’ve met people who were frustrated at not remembering words in English and feel very disconnected in speaking it with people.

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There’s a reason for this.  They’re out of practice.

If you are a native English speaker in the US – you practice speaking and writing in the language every day.

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The difference is you probably don’t think about it as “practice“.

You just think about part of it as your day.  As something that you do naturally, you don’t think of it as work or drudgery.  You feel comfortable enough in your use of it that when you are confronted with phrases or terms you’ve never heard before – you simply listen instead of freaking out and make sense of in in context.  You pick up information and interact with it all day long.

If you doubt this, try the following: Take your current practice regimen and instead of practicing scales or chords or what have you, take out a dictionary and apply the same regimen to trying to expand your vocabulary.  Unless you’re studying for the SATs or GREs, I bet you make it a day before it gets discarded entirely or doomed to the “should” bin.

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If you make practicing just part of your regular day instead of something that has to be carved out of your schedule it will be easier to maintain.

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Occasionally, I read articles with guitarists who claim that they never practice.  It’s important to remember that anyone who is the topic of an article in a trade publication  is generally going to be a professional musician with a rigorous performance schedule.  If they don’t have time to practice – its only because they’re gigging too much and while they may not be “practicing” by a strict definition you can bet they’re keeping their chops up.

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I have no idea if Scotty Anderson “practices” but based on hearing him play I imagine that he has a guitar in his hand most of the day and is either playing or working on things all of the time.  Eddie Van Halen is another guy who may not identify what he does as practicing – but every interview I’ve read with him makes it seems like he has a guitar in his hands playing for hours every day.  (It’s also worth noting that many people consider Van Halen their best album for songs and playing.)

When Jimmy Rosenberg was playing with Sinti at the ripe old age of 16 he was asked by a guitar magazine how he got that frighteningly good at that age and he said, “Well I practice/play 4-5 hours a day, and rehearse with Sinti 4-5 hours a day, and then we have concerts”.

If you have a problem committing to practicing, you could change your mindset to move past “practicing” as an event and instead concentrate on doing” as a habit.

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Think about how easy it is to gain a bad habit.  Now think about how hard it can be to break that habit.

There are plenty of good habits that you probably have developed as well and maintaining a good habit requires very little work.

Again it’s about perception.  If practicing is something you view as a chore it will be something that you are loathe to do.  It’ll be much easier to practice if you can make it something you look forward to.

To quote Albert Ellis,

“Don’t should on yourself”.

I hope this helps!  Thanks for dropping by!

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Don’t Be Afraid Of The Work

As I edit this, I’m taking a break from the final edits on the print edition of Pentatonic Visualization and working on the layout/order/edits of my Pentatonic Extraction book which should be out this fall.

That puts the tally to 3 books in 2011 (Melodic Patterns, Positional Exploration and Harmonic Combinatorics), 3 in 2012 (Chord Scales, and 2 short Kindle titles – An Indie Musician Wake Up Call and Selling It Versus Selling Out) and 3 in 2013 (Symmetrical 12-Tone Patterns, Pentatonic Visualization and Pentatonic Extraction) with a strong chance of another kindle book released this year as well.

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While being able to call yourself an author seems appealing -working at this rate is arduous at best. When you don’t have a production house behind you – writing means taking on all of the menial tasks in getting a book out.  In this case, even something like the Visualization make over has taken a month to get done and taking on the Extraction book involves massive edits, re-writes and a complete reformatting (typically involving a tedious cut/paste/format/edit workflow).  The appeal of being an author becomes less glamorous  when it takes days and weeks of mind numbing work to get the book out the door.

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But here’s something I’ve discovered:

Many people want to get better at something.

They have access to materials.

They have access to knowledge.

They have the desire to move forward.

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Even with all of that energy and good intention, in any endeavour most people won’t do the work over the long haul.

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Because the work is not glamorous.  It’s not always fun (though it’s usually nowhere near as bad as we make it out to be).  It’s often tedious and time-consuming and isn’t there something better (read more enjoyable) to do?

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The real pay off is in what happens in the focused work.

Jonas Hellborg

Yngwie Malmsteen

Miroslav Tadic

Buckminster Fuller

Nikola Tesla

Thomas Edison

Jorge Luis Borges

It doesn’t matter which successful person you pick.  Most people who succeed do so because in addition to the initial vision (inspiration) they also have the ability to go the extra distance and see something to its logical conclusion (endurance).

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Don’t be afraid of the work.  It’s where the nectar is.  It’s where the magic is and…

when you truly devote yourself to your work – you work on yourself at the same time.  

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When you lose yourself in your work you’re really finding more of yourself.  You have to have your eyes open to see that.  You have to be open to that possibility to perceive that and you may not recognize it until later – but that connection ( or Csikszentmihalyi’s flow) carries through into other things.

A lesson from Borges

In the later years of Borges life (after his vision had gone),  he would write whatever story or poem he was working on in his head and then spend some time editing and perfecting each phrase as an internal process.  When it was done, he would call in his assistant and recite it in it’s final form to be transcribed and read back to him for approval.

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Now 2 questions:

How many other people could write under those conditions?  A few.

How many could write at his level?  None…even with their sight.

He could have easily made excuses – writing in this fashion is incredibly difficult – but instead he put the effort in and continued to get his writing out into the world.

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If you’re doing the work, you’re already ahead of the pack.

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I hope this helps!  Thanks for reading.

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(Special thanks to Chris Lavender for some extra perspective and inspiration on this post)