Monday, August 24, 2015

Be the Worst Player in the Room

We're guitar players.  Let's be honest.  We crave praise.  We love being the best player in the room.  It's a great feeling when all of the preparation you've done in your life brings you to that point of mastery...When you have the confidence to play without's a trap...

The need to achieve, to be the best player in the room can get in the way of real progress.  We start avoiding situations that take us out of our comfort zone.  We avoid the embarrassment of possibly making mistakes.  Once this mindset gets a hold on us, it can turn into a narrowing of your playing experience.  Slowly you start taking gigs that are only safe, and soon that feeling of being the best in the room isn't enough to satisfy you, and then the whole experience starts to suffer.

In my early 20's I started to actively seek out musical situations that pushed me out of my comfort zone.  I showed up at a recording session with seasoned jazz players who had all been working together.  I was the unknown player, and straight ahead jazz has never been my strong suit.  I tried my best to not let that affect my ability to contribute musically to the situation, and I focused on enjoying the music, and the considerable skill level of the rest of the band.  On break, I asked a lot of questions about phrasing.  I took the risk of being the annoying guy bugging everyone, because they had a skill that I wanted...I ended up making some friends that day, and my brain grew bigger, as did my the end of my session, I was a shade more comfortable hanging with those guys, and that comfort level grew a bit more each time we got together...until the next left turn in my playing experience threw me into another arena. 

If ever I want to shake up my playing I listen to music that intimidates me, and I break down what I can, starting with the lines that strike me as the most interesting.  I always try to remember that, no matter how bad I may sound on that day, I still have all of the skills that I have worked on my whole life.  One day of sounding bad does not negate all of that work, and it might be exactly the thing that pushes me to the next level. 

So, find that guy whose playing intimidates you and talk to him.  Jam with him.  Let him embarrass you with his ability.  If he's any kind of musician, he's listening intently to what you are doing to try to generate some new ideas of his own.  We never know what is going to spark the next level of development.

As always, music is a language.  If someone uses a word you don't use, or references a book you've never read, try to avoid that instinct to pretend you know what they are talking about.  Ask questions.  Be vulnerable and honest.  Not knowing something doesn't make you less of a person, or less of a musician.  Our experience is vast and very personal to us.  See every conversation or musical experience as an opportunity to learn something new.  Proudly be the worst player in the room.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Practice Makes Imperfect

This year marks my 20th year teaching music privately.  I've learned so much from the process, and watching my students go through all of the stages of development has helped to reinforce my own strengths along the way.  I wanted this blog to reflect the many things my students have taught me about the process of becoming a musician.

Much of my energy with my students is spent trying to help them practice more effectively.  Good practice methods helps us get the most out of any of the material we are working on.  Conversely, bad practice habits will keep us from progressing to our potential, regardless of what content we work on.  Here are some ideas to try to implement into your practicing.

Setting up your environment

We are busy people.  Finding time to practice is frequently very difficult.  When we do find the time, we want to be sure to make the most of it.  I can't tell you how many of my students say that they would practice more if they had easier access to their instruments and their materials.  This may seem like an obvious step to take, but we can lose 10 minutes of practice time just getting set up or looking for the music we're working on etc.

So, first off, I encourage my students to have a practice area that is set up with all of our materials readily available.  I prefer to leave my guitars out on stands, although they are a bit more susceptible to the elements.  If you do leave your guitar on a stand, make sure it is secure and try to keep the room at a reasonable temperature and humidity level.  Guitars are best taken care of in an environment we are also comfortable in. Changes in temperature and humidity can damage our gear and impact our setups, so try to keep the temperature and humidity as consistent as possible.

If you are working off of written music or notes, keep them organized and protect them.  I encourage my students to get a 3 ring binder and page savers to store notes and music that I print for them.  This will protect your music for years to come.  My first lesson notebook is incredibly valuable to me and is falling apart after 30 years.  If I had just protected the paper in the first place it would be in much better shape.  For those of you that want to take it a step further, organizing your book into sections focusing on specific techniques, and organizing transcriptions alphabetically may save you some time.  Use a method that makes sense to you.  Keep in mind that being obsessive about organizing your stuff can waste just as much time as being disorganized.

Also, bookmark videos that you are working on so you can get to them easily.  Keep your bookmarks in sub-folders to keep them in order.

Good playing technique requires that we support our body properly.  Finding a good chair that allows us to sit upright with our shoulders slightly back and our feet on the floor sets us up for good playing habits.  A bad chair can ruin our technique and it's one of the easiest things we can remedy.

I always play with a guitar strap, so having one that is set up to the right size is crucial.  Setting up a strap so that the guitar is at the same angle whether you are sitting or standing helps to reinforce good, consistent technique.  When I first started I didn't practice with a strap when I sat.  Every chair I sat in felt uncomfortable and changed the angle of my wrist, which made it hard to develop a consistent technique.  I was constantly shifting the guitar from one leg to the other, shifting the neck higher or lower.  Very rarely could I stay in one position for very long.  Finding the right height for a strap ended all of that for me.

Materials you want to have easy access to: computer, speakers, metronome, recorded music, pen, paper, extra strings, capo, tuner, music stand, tablet, water, snack, comfortable chair, guitar strap, guitar stand

Preparing for Practice:

Just Breathe

We make our most progress when we are focused and clear-headed.  Practice time, as mentally-challenging as it can be, can also be an escape from the chaos of our daily lives.  When we practice from a calm place, we tend to make the most progress.  Try taking about 30 seconds to a minute to just breathe deeply and leave the demands of the rest of our lives behind us for a little while.  Breathing is really essential to good practicing.  Many of us hold our breathe when we are playing something technically challenging.  It creates unnecessary tension in our bodies, and also our coordination is negatively affected when we don't breathe normally.  We need oxygen to survive, and when we hold our breathe we lose our flexibility.  Often we aren't even aware that we are doing it.  The calmer we are when we start, the more likely we are to not feed the habit of holding our breath.

Drink some water 

Drink a little bit of water so we aren't distracted by hunger or thirst.  Our bodies have great distraction mechanisms built in.  On many occasions I'll be set up to do some work, and then think, "Oh, I'm thirsty..."  Then go up and get a drink, and suddenly I'm into something else that takes me away.  This is easy to fix.


Try to imagine yourself playing well.  Imagine feeling relaxed and in control.  Try to hear in your head the passage you are working on played perfectly.  Imagine it down to the smallest detail possible.  Hold on to that vision as you are playing

What are your strengths?

When I was younger I practiced to feel good about myself.  By ten years old I was playing songs I loved and it felt great.  When I practiced I imagined myself as a rock star.  While this was great for my self esteem, I often overlooked some of the little mistakes and holes in my technique.  In general, I would play passages up to tempo a little too early, and gloss over the techniques that were a struggle.  Fortunately, I grew out of those tendencies and eventually addressed the problem areas.

Understanding yourself and your own flaws can help you make the most of your practicing.  Trying to strike a good balance between technique, feel, theory, ear training, helps to root out the trouble spots.  In general, we need to focus on the areas that give us the most trouble.  At the same time, we also need to be able to feel when we are getting a little too burned out by the challenge, and give ourselves a breather by playing something fun that will loosen us up.  We are more likely to practice regularly if we enjoy the process, so try to keep your frustration level in check.  When we do encounter frustration, take a breath, remember how good it feels to master a technique, and try again.  For me, my break would be playing along with some songs I knew well and not trying to be too picky about what I'm playing.  If I practiced for an hour, I'd try to leave about ten minutes for just playing for the fun of it.

Practice slowly, but not too slowly

One of the classic adages in practicing is that we need to play slowly before we can play up to tempo.  While this is very true, I've had many students take this to an extreme.  If you practice too slowly there are some potential issues.  First, if we practice too slowly, we lose our perspective and musical context.  It's easy to get lost at extreme slow tempos and then we are missing out on the benefits.  So, instead of playing extremely slowly, I suggest playing at a slow tempo where the feel of the song is still intact.  We are looking for a starting tempo that allows us to play each part cleanly, and connected.  If you are having to slow down to the point that the phrase is unrecognizable, try practicing a smaller piece of the phrase and working that up.  Usually, there are one or two spots that require us to go extra slowly, and the rest is playable at a faster tempo.  Instead of playing the larger chunk slowly, focus on just the trouble spots.  You should see faster improvement this way.

Another thing that many of my students have done is that they practice at slow tempos for too long.  If you are playing a passage consistently cleanly, it's time to bring up the tempo.  As an experiment, try playing the section 20 BPM faster than you've been practicing.  Try to observe where you have trouble.  While you wouldn't want to practice like that consistently, it gives us very useful information.  If your brain is having trouble keeping up at that tempo or you are forgetting where you are, then you know you haven't fully internalized it yet, and that's where you need to put your focus.  If you are tripping over the picking coordination, then put your focus on evening out the picking motion for a while.  If your left hand can't get there fast enough, focus on lightening your touch and trying to make sure that you are being as efficient as possible.  Sometimes multiple things fall apart, and it's hard to know what to do.  In that event, try to pick one element to work on.  If we don't play up to the point that things fall apart from time to time, you won't know where your weakness lies, and as a result you won't break through to higher tempos.   

Smaller Pieces

We are anxious to play on the master level.  Frequently, that anxiousness makes us play a whole song up to tempo with 70% accuracy, instead of slowing it down and playing it with higher accuracy.  We don't like to encounter our practicing mortality.

The most productive musicians know how to quickly diagnose trouble spots.  When doing this, usually we are struggling with small elements of our technique that require more intense focus.  It's sometimes tedious, but a few minutes of this kind of hyper focus can yield more results than playing a whole passage hundreds of times.  For example, try upstroking the open G string, and downstroking the B string.  This is sometimes called "inside picking".  The pick feels trapped by the surrounding strings.  This is one of the harder coordinations we  run into, and it happens all the time in melody lines.  If we spend a few minutes going back and forth between those strings, it will help to even it out.  When we run into it in the melody we are working in, it should be less of a sticking point.  We need to route out spots like this.  We are all different players with different strengths, so you have to be your own guide with this.  Practicing techniques that are already strong won't improve your technique nearly as efficiently as working on the hard stuff.

Make Mistakes

There is a lot of anxiety connected with making mistakes.  For professionals it feels like a comment on our character, our profession, our self-worth.  Mistakes are necessary!  It's important to start to just observe our mistakes and not assign too much judgement.  Make note of it and on the next repetition, put a little more attention at that spot, or slow down a little.  Mistakes are there to guide us in the right direction. They shout to us, "Hey!  Work on this!".  When we make peace with our mistakes it becomes much easier to improve.  Anger at mistakes is wasted time and energy.  It pulls your focus away.  As ridiculous as it sounds, try to be grateful for your mistakes.  They are telling you important things about our playing, and are the only way we improve.  Someone who plays only passages that are comfortable, never risking mistakes, will never advance.  Mistakes are the byproduct of progress.


Many of my students work on music the way we listen to it:  Beginning to end.  Often, they have a hard time starting in the middle of a section, too so they have to go back to the beginning each time they practice.  It's very hard to focus on specifics when you have to start at the beginning each time.  If this is a barrier for you, you have to really stick to it.  Start on measure two or three, and do your best to hear that as a unit.  It will slowly get easier.  Try not to give into the temptation of starting at the beginning.  It will remain a barrier until you root it out.  Ideally, you should be able to start a piece of music from any point and get to the end.

A technique that has helped me to learn long sections and internalize them more quickly is to learn the last phrase first.  Then work on the second to last phrase and work our way back to the beginning.  The benefit of this is that our concentration is naturally better at the start of a repetition.  This way, we are starting at the newest material and working toward the most familiar.  Our last measure will get the most repetitions and we'll be freshest on the new portion.  Over time you will be able to play whole sections from beginning to end with fewer mental mistakes.

The Ear is the Instrument

In the last ten years we've seen an explosion in tools available to the developing guitarist.  You can easily find a transcription or video demonstration of any song you want to learn, backing tracks to play along with, even phone apps with lessons embedded.  There are tons of technique books available addressing every aspect of playing.  Many of these are incredible resources with great potential, but the one thing that is the same is that we still have to understand how to practice well in order to access all that these resources have to offer.  The instant availability of anything you want demonstrated has a negative effect, too.  So much of my musical development came as a result of trying to figure out records by ear.  Sometimes I did so inaccurately, but that was part of the process of development.  Other times I'd come across a challenging technical passage that I just couldn't play the way it was originally performed.  I had to come up with my own way to play it.  I grew immensely as a result of this process.  So, I suggest spending some time trying to figure out these songs by ear before rushing to a transcription or a video demonstration.  It might take longer initially, but by learning by ear you are exercising skills that are of immeasurable importance to a musician.  Great musicians need to know how to listen to the details of what other musicians are playing to properly interact with them.  This process needs to be practiced and honed.  Often we think we know what other people are playing and then we break it down and discover much more than what is on the surface.  The more music we can decode as it happens, the more we can respond to our musical environment, and the experience becomes richer. 

Remember why you play

In the push to become better musicians, it's easy to get frustrated and forget what motivated us to play in the first place.  In the midst of all of your focused practicing, it's very important to make sure that you take some time to just enjoy playing.  Put on your favorite song and play along, even badly, if it makes you feel good.  Perform an easy song in front of your friends if that is fun for you.  Music is here to help to balance our lives and provide a unique outlet for our life experience.  If we don't let off some steam from time to time, you may find yourself losing your motivation to play.  It is most fundamentally important to put the instrument in your hands.  While there is great value in studious practicing, it isn't the whole story.  Music is here to help us connect to our own humanity and share that with others.  We don't have to play perfectly to convey something powerful and meaningful.  Ultimately, we perform like we practice and if we practice without joy, that is what we will communicate to an audience.  Happy practicing!!!