Mindless Practice: Maximizing Your Practice Time

mindless practice

Mindless Practice

Do you ever find yourself on a Wednesday night tossing up whether to watch the latest episode of “The Bachelor” or getting some guitar practice in? Why not do both! As society is these days, we rarely have enough hours in the day to get through everything we’d like to. This means that inevitably, we end up having to prioritise what we do in our leisure time, and as much as we don’t want to admit it – sometimes guitar gets left behind for soap-operas. A great way to sneak some extra guitar time into the week is to do some mindless practice while watching TV or watching a YouTube video.

Mindless Practise

Subconscious Skills

The importance of our subconscious mind while playing guitar is indisputable. There are simply too many things to consider while playing guitar. To perform a song really effectively, you must be able to not have to think about it. As we learn and play, things enter our subconscious constantly – forming a C chord without having to check a chart, playing the strumming pattern for a song without thinking about it, etc. Once these things are securely within our subconscious we can draw on them as needed using very little brain-power. This lets us worry about other things – such as an incoming barre chord or perhaps a 16th note arpeggio. Naturally, time is a large factor in getting things into our subconscious. The best thing about our subconscious skills however is in the name – we don’t need to be thinking about them too much while we’re practising them! This is where mindless practice comes in.

Mindless Practice

Now don’t get me wrong, mindless practice isn’t about picking up your guitar and bashing it until noise comes out. Like any sort of practise, things like planning, measuring and recording your progress, and goal setting are essential. The difference is what you actually do while you’re practising. Before you start, have in mind a particular technique/exercise/song that you are familiar with. Something you want to ‘tighten up’. You should have learnt what you’re about to play, but it may not be practised. Next, set yourself up in front of your computer/TV with a chair, a footstool, amp, picks, and anything else you’d normally use while practising.

Now, before you turn on “Game of Thrones” or “The Bold and the Beautiful”, play through the piece a few times. Make sure that you’re confident with how it goes. Make sure that everything about your technique (left hand position, right hand position, pick grip…) is looking good. This is a very important step, as the last thing you want to do is reinforce poor technique. Next, start your show going, and get your piece playing. To begin with, try to make sure everything is running smoothly. Then, start forcing yourself to pay less and less attention to what your hands are doing. Eventually, you should be happily watching your show, but would still notice if you made a mistake. It’s as simple as that!

Evidence

While ‘traditional’ practise methods might not recommend the idea of mindless practice, research over the last 50 years has shown otherwise. A thesis published by the Northwestern University of Illinois entitled “A Cognitively Oriented Concept of Piano Technique” in 1985 discussed the importance of “detachment” while playing and practising piano. It says that by detaching yourself from what you’re practising, you remove factors such as over-analysis and fear of mistake. This allows unconscious decisions to be made without the conscious mind stopping at every choice you make. Obviously this thinking translates perfectly to the guitar. How often have you been playing through something and started thinking “I hope I don’t stuff this up!”? How often has this been followed by you stuffing it up? The advantages of mindless practice are clearly evident.

 

So next time you’re facing the dilemma of getting some guitar playing in or risking having the latest episode of your favourite TV series ruined for you by someone tomorrow, grab your guitar out and do some mindless practice. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make if you’re careful to plan out what you want to do. Set some goals, and measure your progress as you go! Your coach can help you with all of this, and even work on planning out a mindless practice schedule based around your TV viewing!

 

Maintaining Productive Practice Methods

Maintaining Productive Guitar Practice Methods

Practice is something that holds a lot of preconceptions in the world of guitarists. One of these is that reaching a level of playing similar to one’s favourite players requires practice of otherworldly proportions, day in and day out. It is something that every guitarist, at some point, associates with endless hours of sitting in their bedroom, playing the same exercise over and over again to no apparent avail. However, there are some factors hiding in plain sight to be considered that will almost certainly change the way you look at guitar practice and the outcome you see occurring as a result of it.

Key Factors

Consistency

One of the most important factors any aspiring musician can employ in their guitar practice is consistency. When it comes to practice, consistency is proven to utilise muscle memory. 15 minutes 3-5 times a week is far more effective than an hour on Saturday. By consistently providing your nervous system with activity, you are introducing a pattern. This allows it to become proficient and take the wheel in a sense. One example of repetition leading to muscle memory stimulation that comes naturally to basically everyone is holding a pen.

Holding a Pen

There’s a reason our handwriting can be considered legible once we grasp how to hold a pen and the associated movements of the hand and wrist. Consider how you progressed from writing with your entire arm as a kid, to the much more natural movement now. This can be likened to first learning to strum. Initially, everybody strums with his or her entire arm in a very awkward, uncomfortable way. Once the muscle memory for this motion is introduced, it continues to become more effortless until it becomes second nature. This happens through the continuous repetition of the action. Hence why it is so much more favourable in terms of muscle memory to have your brain processing these movements on a regular basis. This is more effective than only being able to process the strumming (or handwriting) motion for a single 1-hour session a week. By opting to practice only once a week, you are preventing the nervous system from associating the movement as a regular occurrence of which it must accommodate, which will result in it taking far longer to become a fluid movement.

Patience

This factor is plain and simple. Every milestone in a guitar player’s life takes time and dedication. Patience will be your best friend in the long run, and you will eventually get to a point where you notice that all of the little pieces and improvements have come together and made a huge difference in your playing.

All of your favourite guitarists are walking examples of the fact that maintaining consistency and patience pays off.

Practice Makes Permanent

It is worth noting that muscle memory comes into play regardless of great or poor technique. It’s worth your while to take no shortcuts and ensure that your technique is as accurate as possible. Learning something the wrong way can be disruptive to the entire process of playing guitar, and can completely limit what you can do. So as soon as possible, assess the techniques and playing style you are employing, and check with your coach – they know how things should be. It can be something as little as ignoring a note in a phrase that isn’t fretted properly, and as a result is affecting your speed. This may seem minute, but it will eventually become a habit if you practice that way enough.

Mental Approach and Finding a Suitable Medium

Outlook

First and foremost, your outlook is the foundation which all of your achievements as a guitarist will be built upon.  It is important to set reasonable expectations on your limits, and chip away at them at a rate that challenges you, or reinforces a concept or technique that you are familiar with without leaving the impression that your guitar practice is a strenuous and unsatisfactory process. Through some basic trial and error, you will soon find a suitable level of time/effort that you can associate with productive practice that yields results.

When You Get Tired

It is important not to force yourself to practice if you are not making any progress with the exercise at that point in time. If the case truly is that you’re just not feeling it, and as a result you are practising poorly, then you are certainly better off either;

– Working on a different exercise or task, or

– Leaving practice altogether and coming back after a short break when you are refreshed and not at risk of practising haphazardly.

This ties in with idea of practising correctly, to ensure that you are not creating permanent, unwanted habits in your playing.

Initially, playing guitar is and always will be something exciting. You wouldn’t have begun playing were that not the case! But it can also be something that’s very daunting at any stage. Whether it be trying to memorise the C major scale in the open position, or being introduced to modes and their harmonisations. Compare this to the idea of learning your favourite guitar tune. If it’s something you’ve never confronted before, then it’s something that can be hard to see yourself doing. But one thing that will always apply to learning and practising, is that if you effectively break the task down into sections, and work on it with consistency and an effective outlook, it will immediately become much more manageable and won’t seem so far-fetched and out of reach. This will help increase your motivation in continuing to work on all of the songs, exercises, techniques and styles you choose to pursue, as there are few better feelings than watching the pieces that you’ve invested time and effort into come together.

8 Tips To Better Guitar Practice

member of the month April 2015, The G

8 Tips To Better Guitar Practice

So, you play the guitar and you want to get better at it. You already go to your lesson every week but you feel as though you could be improving faster.  If only you didn’t find guitar practice to be so boring! When a lot of people think of guitar practice, they immediately think of running scales and exercises for hours on end, and that can be a huge turn-off to the idea. Thankfully, guitar practice doesn’t have to be boring – it can actually be fun!

1. Include technical work, but don’t overdo it

Some people love technical exercises. If you don’t like them much at all, that’s no problem. Do one or two, only do them a couple of times, and do them first. Your guitar practice will be much more effective when there is technical work included, and you’re getting that in and getting it out of the way before you can spend as long as you want on the fun stuff. If you’re stuck for which one to do, have a look at your resources checklist on your journal page and see what you did last and what’s next in line.

2.  Play things you like

Enjoy your guitar practice.  If you really like technical work, play more of it. Play as much of it as you want. If you aren’t so keen on the exercises, get your one or two out of the way and get into playing some songs. Pick songs you like. If the one that you’re currently working on is getting you frustrated, have a bit of a go then move on. Play something from a few weeks ago to keep it fresh. Try learning a song that you’ve heard lately or one that you’ve always liked.

guitar practice

3.  Time trials

Time trials are a hugely underrated part of guitar practice. The best way to build up speed on the guitar is to repeat, and repetition often leads to monotony. Instead of endless metronome practice, try timing yourself. Try to see how quickly you can play all the chords in the phrase that’s bothering you, or see how many times you can switch between two irksome chords in 30 seconds or a minute. Not only can they be a real hoot, but they also give you a means to quantify your improvement.

4.  Don’t force it

There are going to be days where you really just don’t feel like picking up the guitar. There are going to be days where you’ve been at work or school and you’re exhausted and guitar is the last thing on your mind. This is life, and that’s okay. You don’t have to practice every day. If playing the guitar at all today is going to be a huge hassle, then don’t do it. You’ll probably achieve negligible gains, and forcing it too often will breed resentment for the guitar and build up a negative predisposition towards practicing, which will impact your ability to enjoy practicing on your good days.

5.  Play with a friend

Guitar practice is that thing you do by yourself, right? Not necessarily! Practising with a partner can be hugely beneficial, and it can be really enjoyable. Not only can you bounce ideas off each other, but you can compare techniques, discuss possible things to learn in the future, and can even compare scores in time trials. Trying to play songs together isn’t just a good way to build ensemble skills and improve your timing, but it’s also the essence of what music is. The social aspect of music is one of its best qualities, and you can’t really benefit from that without playing with others. If you’re not in a band, then practising with a friend is the best way to do that.

6. Make a video or other recording and share it

Recording yourself is becoming easier and easier as technology improves. You can easily record decent video and passable sound on your phone, and can get a decent quality recording setup for your computer quite cheaply. Making a video or a recording can be a really fun experience. Use whatever means you have available and record yourself playing something. It doesn’t really matter what it is – any song that you can play well enough and want to show off will do. How you record it will depend on how you’re going to share it. Think of it this way – Instagram has a 15-second video limit, so you only need to be able to play it convincingly for that amount of time or less. Set your phone up and have a few tries until you get a long enough clip of you playing it flawlessly, cut the video in Instagram, apply a filter, and there you go. It’s surprising how effective this can be for ironing out little issues in particular parts of songs. You will generally want a certain level of perfection for something that you’re going to share – a level that you might not have had the drive to push for otherwise.

7. Do something else while you’re practising

There are traditionalists who would be absolutely mortified that I would even suggest unfocused guitar practice, but it really isn’t such a bad idea, depending on what you’re practising. Mindlessly practising while you watch TV is highly effective for finger fitness exercises (and is probably more interesting than focusing on them), and also for right hand patterns such as strumming and fingerpicking. In these cases it works so well because the distraction of the TV forces you to program your playing into your subconscious, which will make it easier to automate what you are doing.

8. Don’t feel bad if you miss a session

Didn’t practice much this week? Don’t stress. Just go to your lesson and don’t worry about it. Beating yourself up over not practising every day is a negative mindset, which can build up and eventually lead to you giving up to avoid disappointing yourself. (You should read about this here.) They key to avoiding this is to set realistic practice expectations. Don’t forget that you will continue to improve even if you don’t practice at all outside of your weekly guitar lesson.

You continue to play the guitar because you enjoy it. Practising to achieve improvement on the instrument should play into this, rather than be a downside. Think of guitar practice time as an opportunity to continue enjoying your time on the guitar. If you aren’t having a whole lot of fun when you practice, try out a few of these tips to rekindle the spark and have fun whenever you’re holding the guitar – whether you’re on stage, in a lesson, or practising.

Getting the most out of your music with ACTIVE LISTENING

WHAT is Active Listening?

Music forms a kind of background to many of the activities that we undertake in our lives. Some of us listen to music while we study, some listen to it while we drive, some while we eat, some as we socialise. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music as part of doing another activity, but there is something to be said for what can be gained from listening to music AS an activity. By this I mean listening to music without looking at or doing anything else, with the music taking up all of your attention. In the past, this used to be the only way in which to observe music – before music could be recorded, the only way to experience it was in a concert hall or to make it yourself, and early gramophones required operation by hand, which suggests that you wouldn’t do it for the sake of background music. Even live music performed by popular artists often comes with an enormous visual aspect, including lights, dancers, pyrotechnics, costumes, etcetera. The shift of music’s role to “background music” isn’t a problem per se – film music, for instance, is meant to be background music. There is much that can be gained, however, from bringing music back into the foreground and listening to it, instead of just “hearing” it.

 

WHY should we Actively Listen?

More goes into a piece of music than just a melody or a chord progression. Sure, these are important parts of the song, but to judge a song based on only those factors is an incomplete assessment of what is contained in a recording. The song as written by the composer may contain more than these things already – even more can be achieved in the studio with the aid of the engineer. Orchestral works and songs with large bands will often have a number of things going on at any given time, even if many of those things are not fulfilling key roles in the ensemble.

It has been suggested that the decline in active music listening is part of the cause of the decline in general music literacy. Whether or not this is true, it can certainly be argued that many people don’t really understand what they are listening to – they just accept it as part of the world they live in, as part of the soundscape in their workplace, shops or car. Could they listen to the same music if they were alone in a room with a media player playing those songs and nothing else to entertain them? Does that music have the capacity to satisfy them in the same way when taken out of the distractive contexts in which it is normally heard?

Another suggested reason for the decline in active listening is the decrease in the popularity of instrumental music. Music that has no lyrics does not provide an easy way to relate to the song – there is no message or sentiment to  easily engage with by listening to the words. Instrumental music is not necessarily any less emotive than music with lyrics, but the music has to be actively listened to in order to best engage with the emotions in the work.

 
There is much that can be gained, however, from bringing music back into the foreground and listening to it, instead of just “hearing” it.

HOW do we Actively Listen?

The most important part of active listening is for the music to be the primary target of your focus. Don’t try to actively listen while doing anything else – don’t read, don’t play a game, don’t check your phone – the music has to have all of your focus. Watching the video clip for a song can also be highly distracting, unless the video clip only features footage of the artist playing the song. If it helps to close your eyes, by all means do so.

There are a number of things that you can keep an ear out for when you  are giving a song your full attention. A few of these will be discussed separately below. If you’re interested in addressing all of these aspects of the song, you will more than likely have to listen to the song more than once, focusing on different elements each time. Taking notes can be helpful, but it isn’t always entirely necessary.

It is worth keeping in mind that looking for every little thing mentioned here could be overly exhaustive. Music, like any art form in this post-modern era, ultimately means different things to different people and affects different people in different ways. The things that I find particularly interesting about a song might not be of any interest to you, and things that you find interesting may not occur to your neighbour, your co-workers, or the guy you walked past on the street the other day. All art is to some degree subjective, and music is no exception.

 

Structure

What sections are in the song? Does it follow a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus form? Does it have many wildly varying sections? Do these sections repeat? Does the placement of each part in the song contribute in some way to the overall message or aesthetic of the song?

Are each of the verses different in any ways? Are they the same music with different lyrics? Is there a build up through the song – are later verses louder or more intense than earlier ones? Do some sections that have the same lyrics sound different? Why do they sound different? What instruments are playing differently, how does the playing differ, and what effect does it have on the sound?

 

Melody

Which instrument is playing the melody? The vocals will usually be taking the main melody, but that is not always the case. Is there more than one melody happening at the same time? Do these melodies interact in a way that sounds interesting? Is the melody a smooth melody where each note is close in pitch to the note before it, or is it jagged and angular, with big jumps between notes?

Is the melody repetitive? Do the repetitions vary from each other? Is the melody in the last chorus different to previous ones?

 

Bass

Is there a distinct bass line? A distinct bass line can not always be heard, especially if the bass is following the part played by the guitar. If there is a distinct bass line, what makes it distinct? Is it melodic? Is it sparse (only playing a couple of times a bar) or is it continuous/walking?

 

Chords/harmony

Does the song have an obvious chord progression? Is it the same few chords for the entire song? Is the chord sequence in the verse the same as in the chorus?

Is there any dissonance in the harmony of the song? Does it sound happy or sad, bright or dark?

Is the entire song consonant, or does it include notes or chords that sound jarring or unresolved? Is there ever a feeling of the song trying to lead somewhere harmonically, but the resolution being delayed?

 

Drums/percussion

Are there drums? Are they acoustic drums, or have they been synthesised? Is the same beat played for the whole song, or does it change for different parts of the structure? Which cymbals are used (hi-hat, crash, ride, splash, china, etc) and how does using these particular cymbals affect the texture of the song?

 

Other

Some things that can add to a recording of a song are not musical, or are at least unexplainable in musical terms. These can include sound effects (whether related to the lyrics or not), sounds from non-musical sources, or simply ways in which frequencies interact that defy explanation. Have you ever had part of a song make you think that your phone was ringing when it wasn’t, but there was no “ringing phone” sound in the song? You have subconsciously trained your ear to alert you where you hear your phone ringing, and the sounds in the song have interacted in a way that have excited those frequencies in your hearing. This particular reaction is just an example, of course. You could take this part as far as linking things that the song reminds you of – places, people, events. If it’s part of your reaction to the music, then it’s important to acknowledge.

 

Context

This is another point that is often neglected when considering the merits of a piece of music. The context can be considered at a macro level – which country it was composed/recorded in, what century/decade/year, what events were happening in the world, etc, or it can be considered at a more micro level – which album was it on, and how it reflects the overall aesthetic of that album, or how it differs from it. There is something to be said for listening to an entire album from start to finish – each song is its own creative unit, but the album can also be considered a creative unit of its own. Concept albums are an especially good example of this.


The goal of active listening isn’t to turn your music listening into study sessions. There is no reason not to continue listening to music the way that you always have. The next time you hear a song you like, however, take a moment to really listen. The reason you like it might not be the reason that you thought you did, or there may be more to the song that will make you like it even more. You might hear something that you’d never heard before, and will always notice in the future. However you look at it, actively listening to music will definitely help you to get more out of your day-to-day listening.

© The Guitar Gym Pty Ltd, 2015.  Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.  Links to this article are permitted.

Are You Really Too Busy To Learn The Guitar?

Are You Really Too Busy To Learn The Guitar?

Quitting Is Not The Answer!

By John Freiberg

This article addresses two commonly held beliefs:

1. That there is no point in having a guitar lesson unless you have practiced and mastered what you were taught in your previous lesson.

2.  That in order to learn the guitar you need to practice at least several times a week.

Let me start by stating that these beliefs are FALSE, and in most cases lead the recreational guitarist to give up their instrument.  By being realistic about your time and understanding the real function of your guitar lessons, you stand a much better chance of playing your guitar for the rest of your life AND enjoying it as you go.

Here is an email I recently received from a student who, like many, holds the afore mentioned beliefs:

Hi John,

I won’t be able to make it to my lesson tomorrow, and I have also decided to stop taking lessons for the time being. I realise that I have only attended two lessons so far, but unfortunately I have not been able to make time to practice. With my university work taking up most of my time I can’t see the point in continuing to come to lessons when I can’t find the time to master what I have learned the previous week.

Hopefully I’ll be in contact sometime in the not too distant future to finish what I have started.

With thanks,

Mary

Here is my reply to Mary’s email:

Hi Mary,

I understand your situation entirely, and appreciate why you have decided to postpone your guitar lessons for the time being.  I imagine you would be someone who would want to fully commit to anything you do in order to achieve as highly as possible at it.

However, I fear I have let you down because I obviously didn’t clearly explain to you that you are not expected to “master” what we work on in one lesson prior to the following week’s lesson.  Sure, you can mentally understand and memorize chords, scales, techniques and concepts in a short time.  However, for your hands to do it in a “masterful” way, will take years.

Let us take, for example, the G – Cadd9 – D chord progression we did in your first lesson.  By the end of the lesson you had: 1.  Mentally memorized the chords 2.  Gained enough muscle memory and control to change between these chords at what I would consider to be a “reasonable standard” and 3.  Were producing a fairly consistent sound when strumming the chords.  All this (and more) in 1 lesson!

Now the same G – Cadd9 – D chord progression when played by a professional guitarist who has been performing for 30 years, as simple as this chord change is, would sound better than your average Joe guitarist.

The question is, “What is Mastery?”  The answer isn’t so simple.  Is to master something to perfect it?  What exactly is perfect?  When it comes to guitar playing, there really is no perfect, just varying degrees of execution.

That you are finding it hard to make time to practice is all the more reason why you should still attend your lesson on a weekly basis.  By committing to your lesson each week, you know you are going to play and practice at least once, which is better than not at all.  You may even consider having two lessons per week.  Guitar for you, like the vast majority of people, is a recreational activity.  Yet for some reason, people learning a musical instrument for recreational purposes put pressure on themselves and often decide not to pursue it because they “can’t find the time to practice.”

Let us compare playing the guitar to a popular recreational sport, golf.  Now how many people play golf, yet do nothing more than play 18 holes every weekend?  Are all these golfers at the driving range every evening after work?  On the practice green holing 6 footers night after night?  Of course not!  Do they give up their desire to play the game every weekend just because they “can’t find the time to practice?”  No way!  So why is playing the guitar any different?  Why practice at all?  Why not just PLAY?  The reality is, that after doing nothing more than playing 18 holes of golf each week for a few short years, many golfers achieve a single figure handicap and play quite well.  Obviously they aren’t going to beat Tiger Woods, but they enjoy the game and play at a reasonable standard.

The same thing happens with guitar players.  Most of my recreational students don’t practice very much.  They might practice and play a little during the week some weeks, and not at all other weeks.  However, as they are committed to their weekly guitar lesson, they know they will practice and play their guitar at least once a week under professional guidance.  These students find that after a few months, they are playing some of their favourite songs WELL.  After a few years, they become GOOD guitar players!

The students that quit guitar lessons because they “can’t find the time to practice,” in most cases also quit playing altogether, forever.  The guitar goes under the bed for a while and then on ebay.  They give up on something they obviously have a desire to do.  They tell themselves they’ll take it up again when they have time, which I assume will be at 65 when they retire.  (At which time they will often falsely believe they are too old to learn).  They are victims of the commonly held belief that in order to play an instrument you need to practice several times a week or give up altogether.  Yet the same belief seems not to apply to other recreational pursuits.  The same people might go cycling, play golf, tennis, bridge or some other activity about once a week and never even consider giving it up because they don’t practice at it.

It goes without saying that practicing effectively on a daily basis will yield greater results than a casual approach.  However, if you are a recreational guitarist, why pressure yourself to practice?  Why come home from a hard day at the office, turn on the television, look at the guitar sitting in the corner and feel guilty?  If you don’t feel like playing, don’t play!  Just play when you want to.  Hint:  Substitute the word “practice” with “play” and you will find you will want to spend time with your guitar more often. 

My advice to the busy, recreational guitarist is:

  1. Commit to your weekly guitar lesson
  2. Involve yourself in events that make you feel part of a community of guitarists and have a social element, such as group lessons and workshops offered at The Guitar Gym
  3. Organise to meet other guitarists to play with
  4. Play only when you want to
  5. Don’t have any expectations about what you “should” be able to play after a certain period of time
  6. Don’t beat yourself up if you planned to play and bailed out

By following these six pieces of advice, you will gradually improve overtime and enjoy the process a whole lot more along the way.  After a few years you will become a good guitarist.

YOU HAVE A DESIRE TO PLAY THE GUITAR SO DON’T GIVE UP!

Regards,

John

 © John Freiberg, 2009.  

Reproduced with permission.  Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.  Links to this article are permitted.

Learning Guitar For Beginners

 

Learning to play music, whether it be on a guitar, piano, violin or the sitar; requires the development of a new understanding of sound akin to that of learning a second language.  While this common comparison is often repeated by educators and appreciators of music; far from being a metaphorical analogy it is quite literally true.  The same regions of your brain responsible for determining words and meaning from everyday conversation are also responsible for interpreting music.  This complex neural network that organises and interprets sound is incredibly powerful and is richly interwoven with other regions of the brain such as our motor cortex (which is why we feel compelled to move to music) and the parts of our brain responsible for memory preservation and emotional responses (which explains our emotional response to music).

To understand the important function of these neural links, imagine a time in the past when you have heard someone speaking in a foreign language.  Since the language is foreign to you, understanding exactly what is being communicated is impossible; however, through the variation of their tone of voice and their dynamics, we can pick up clues as to how they are feeling or what kind of a mental state are they in.  Do they sound worried, happy, uncertain, excited?  We use our ears to pick up on these non-verbal cues, through subtle variations in their vocal pitch, the rhythm with which they speak along with their dynamics.  It is through this same mechanism in our brains that we determine emotion and meaning through music.

So even in a language that is foreign to us, there are still certain messages that can be conveyed even if we do not understand a word that has been said.  The same can be said for the way most of us appreciate music.  The vast majority of the population would have no idea what a I – V – vi – IV progression is, and yet it is used in a tremendous amount of pop music and is a familiar progression to anyone that hears it.  It can spark memories of your favourite song, and then take you back to the first time you heard it.  A great example of the use of this progression is by comedy group The Axis of Awesome in a song they called “4 Chords.” (click link to view)

It is perfectly possible to understand the emotion conveyed through music without being fluent in its “language,” in fact this is how most of us appreciate music.  However, with an understanding of its dialect an artist is able to manipulate it for their own creative endeavours as this comedy act demonstrates.

So how does one become fluent in the language of music?  The answer to that is “the same way we learn any other kind of language.” We start with speaking simple words – mimicking the sounds of others – which then form sentences that we understand and can recite. We begin to assign meaning to these sounds and start to understand the context in which they are spoken.  After a certain degree of proficiency is reached in the fundamentals of our new dialect through basic conversation, one can more intuitively begin to understand how to read and write.  Eventually with time conversing with other speakers of your new language you can begin to think in that language; you intuitively understand it to such a degree that it begins to represent your inner thoughts.

So what does this mean in regards to musical education?

Music has its own language; it has its own set of formulas to construct sentences, phrases and paragraphs, as well as rules for grammar, punctuation and of course courtesy.  However, unlike learning a new language where we already have an instinctive mastery over our vocal chords – in learning the language of music, we need to learn to communicate through our instrument.  This carries alongside it some practical difficulties many of which we all have to face.  Our brains are optimised and hardwired from birth to acquire language through our vocal chords and this is how we intuitively communicate.  Playing guitar though is a less natural task for our brains to perform.  While musical instruments are designed for our bodies to be as easy as possible to play and express ourselves on, our brain is not specifically designed for it.  We need to rewire them – our new instrument needs to become our vocal chords.

This is where practice comes into the equation, but perhaps not in the way you might expect it.  In order to change the way our brain behaves we need to start making it behave differently.  It seems obvious, but this crucial understanding is often under appreciated amongst students and parents.  Learning music isn’t about learning notes on a page and then attributing them to positions on a guitar and the reciting them, this would be no different to playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox.  It is about moulding your understanding of musical sounds in order to manipulate them and converse with others.  In order to begin manipulating these sounds we need to first learn how to create them using our new vocal chords, this is the crucial first step.  This is where playing becomes involved.

Playing the guitar and practicing the guitar are two different things.  We are less interested in how much a beginner has practiced and much more interested in how much they played.  What is the difference though? We can teach a student how to play a chord and show them the correct fingering and how to strum the chord.  Armed with this knowledge, they can go home and practice exactly as they have been shown, returning the following week with some degree of mastery of that specific strumming pattern and chord. But unless the student goes home and owns that chord, and starts playing around with it, exploring it, playing it loudly or softly, taking some notes away or adding some more, experimenting with the boundaries of the instrument, practice begins to feel a bit like Guitar Hero – endlessly striving for some vague goal of perfection without really learning anything fulfilling along the way.

Unlike Guitar Hero where you lose points for hitting the wrong note, in the real world, every single note you play earns you points, even the wrong ones.  Every time you make a mistake on the guitar you earn valuable experience, even recognising you made a mistake is a tremendous learning curve.  Just experimenting with simple things like bending the strings to change the pitch of a note, or playing chords in different positions, or playing with different notes on the guitar to make your own melodies is much more valuable than endlessly trying to perfect one specific technique. That is not to say it isn’t important to learn correct technique; this is what will enable you to progress – but unless you experiment with those new techniques and explore them using your own curiosity, you might as well play just Guitar Hero instead.

By using your own creative instincts to guide your exploration of the guitar, you begin actively rewiring your brain to use it instinctively as your voice. Rather than learning a set of patterns and techniques to be copied and performed perfectly, you learn how to interact with your instrument so that the sounds you wish to create begin to represent your inner thoughts to which you outwardly communicate through your instrument.  It is the freedom to experiment and play with different sounds on the instrument that differentiates a “natural” musician from someone that considers themselves untalented. The truth is, we can all be natural musicians if we free ourselves from the expectation of playing the right notes, and just simply play notes. This is where the joy of music comes from; the ability to manipulate sound to your desires, to outwardly express yourself in a new medium of sounds and understanding. This joy does not come from learning repetitive patterns and chord shapes but from personal experience and understanding of the sounds you can create, and how to create them. We encourage all of our students to take this approach to learning. We can show the student the tools and the techniques, but the student must explore them using their own creativity.

© The Guitar Gym Pty Ltd, 2012.  Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.  Links to this article are permitted.

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