Thursday, 12 November 2009

Perseverance or Reassessment? (part 1)

Within the lessons that I teach, I frequently observe the same kinds of things that students seem to do a lot when they’re trying out new licks or ideas. A lot of the time they will attempt the idea, get stuck at a particular part of it, and then try again only to repeat exactly the same mistake. Perseverance once more and determination will drive them to make another attempt, but yet again, the passage grinds to a halt at the same place. I still have similar experiences myself when I try out certain new things, although I take a very different approach to these situations now than I once did. At the point where a student has made the same mistake (or just ground to a halt) 3 or 4 times, I ask them to stop.

It is at this point that an awareness of one of the key components of practice needs to be recognized and responded to. Practice is essentially made of two key components. These are assimilation and reinforcement. Assimilation is the process of learning new ideas. Reinforcement is the process of maintaining and strengthening those ideas.

Taking this into consideration, at the point where a new lick has ground to a halt more than 3 or 4 times, the assimilation process has actually become a reinforcement process, and worse still, it’s actually become a practice of getting something wrong! The assimilation process had not sufficiently been completed before subsequent reinforcement should even be attempted.

At the point where an attempt is made to perform a lick and it’s ground to a halt (or a mistake has been made in the same place) 3 or 4 times in a row, stop. Stop playing and reassess. Reassess by thinking about why the idea is grinding to a halt or why the mistake is being made? Is it too fast? Is it too difficult for the time being and needs to be re-categorized as a longer-term goal? Is it too slow and actually boring to practice? Any of these (and plenty more) reasons could be influencing what is happening, but even if you stop and don’t pick up the guitar again until the next day, to persevere practicing getting something wrong could actually be worse in the long term.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

One Note At A Time (part 1)

One of the most misunderstood, but simultaneously one of the most long term beneficial exercises that I give to my students is a series of perspectives on playing only one note, and then stopping to think about it. These perspectives are most often misunderstood because the process of engaging in a exercise which has very little in the way of immediate "rewarding guitar noise" can seem a long way removed from the kind of guitar playing that they would often like to be able to perform. The exercises can be boring, frustrating, irritating, and at worst, actually discouraging from practice. I would argue, however, that they are absolutely worthy of every serious guitar student's attention.

Based on the principle that essentially all guitar playing (in any style and to any standard) is born of perseverance, the first "perspective" is a very simple question to ask oneself before practice, and then once again after a note (or a few notes) have been played. Where we can chose and direct what we persevere with, it's worth offering considerable conscious effort to carefully identify what may be worthy of our perseverance rather than to "sub-contract" that responsibility out to teachers, books and magazine articles. In the interests of making the best, most effective and economical use of practice time, asking the very simple (but far reaching and highly potent question): "How do I really want to sound?" may seem simplicity itself, but how far can an answer to this question go? To what extent is the potential answer "I want to sound like player X/Y/Z etc..." appropriate or in any way helpful? Why ask it? "What are the benefits of such extensive consideration?"

I would suggest that the more detail you can go into in answering this question, the better. The more players as reference points or influences you can list, the more resources you may draw upon to structure a method by which you can achieve your goals. The more descriptive the sounds and the more you can be as specific as possible in every aspect of "how you really want to sound", the better chance you have of sounding as close as it may be possible to that sound you have in your head. Answering this question as fully, and as accurate as possible will guide almost every decision you will make that will offer a considerable contribution to your playing. Choice of exercises, teachers, instrument, amp, pedals and other equipment (where appropriate), in fact almost every part of the activities you engage in, in order to become the guitar player that you want to become is influenced and guided by the answer (in all it's comprehensive detail) to this one simple question.