Taking Half Steps and Whole Steps to Success

  • 04/7/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Many people setting out upon the adventure of learning a particular instrument, the guitar for example, are naturally filled with various questions, queries and suppositions. Some of the most prevalent questions have to do with how to set up an effective practice schedule, how to hold and play with a pick, whether to fingerpick or flat pick or both, what type and gauge of strings are the best, and finally, does Bigfoot exist and where would I be most likely to spot him? Kidding aside, all of these questions are subjective and can only be accurately answered by the individual aspiring musician through diligent experimentation and practice. Based on a number of factors including hand size, finger strength and agility, genetics and the physical manifestation of those genes in the individual, and the musician?s exposure to music and life experiences, the aspiring musician will find the answers to all of the questions he or she seeks. But are there any constants when it comes to acquiring musical knowledge? Are there any exercises, practices, preparations, incantations that are common amongst all "successful" musicians? My answer to that would be a definite and resounding "no"! Each person must find their own path to music and while some acquire musical knowledge seemingly effortlessly, others have to toil endlessly. But there are some general guidelines which can help you to improve your musicianship over time regardless of the gifts that you were born with.
1. Setting Goals: Setting manageable, rational goals for oneself can be a very effective way of improving ones musicianship while simultaneously avoiding burnout. Many people erroneously push themselves too hard attempting to learn facets of the guitar that just may be beyond their reach at their present skill level. Although it is important to always strive towards attaining new skills and challenging rhythms, it's also important to be reasonable concerning expectations of oneself. For example, an irrational expectation of self might be to learn the lead break for Stairway to Heaven after playing guitar for only two weeks and a rational expectation might be to learn the chords. Of course, each person must evaluate this process for themselves and there may very well be players who can master Jimmy Page's lead breaks in their first two weeks! I'm certainly not telling anybody to sit back and simply strum the open chords for the rest of their lives because that?s all that they have convinced themselves that they are able to play. I'm simply stating that as musicians we need to set goals that are attainable, while still challenging oneself on a day-to-day basis. I know a number of players who desired to learn facets of the guitar that were so far beyond their skill level that they were unable to achieve them and eventually, tragically gave up the instrument altogether. Setting attainable goals, which can be as simple as learning one song, getting a handle on the open chords, or mastering arpeggiated triplets (depending on your skill level) can help to improve one's confidence in one's abilities while still learning. Having that confidence and positive attitude about your skills (self-efficacy) on the guitar can help to build further confidence which in turn will compel you to play more, and subsequently master more and more difficult skills on the guitar. In a sense, there is a circular process that occurs when you achieve a goal in that one success will lead to another. By setting manageable, rational goals that are challenging and achievable at the same time you will build the essential confidence in yourself that you need to play the guitar for life.

2. Rewards: Along the same line of reasoning with setting goals is the importance of rewarding oneself for one's musical accomplishments (or any accomplishments for that matter). The school of Behavioral Psychology has taught us many things about how to ring a bell and make a dog salivate (see Pavlov's dog) but further and more importantly to our topic at hand, how to increase the likelihood that a particular action or response will occur again. The concept of reinforcement is applicable here and is defined as "any event that increases chances that a response will occur again" (Coon, Dennis (1989). Introduction. to Psychology. New York, West Publishing Company). As rewarding oneself can be seen as an "event", it follows that treating oneself after learning or mastering a particular facet of the guitar will increase the likelihood that you will play that way again. Reinforcement, in this case, can also be simply the enjoyment that you receive from playing the guitar or the self-esteem that you derive from conquering a new goal on the guitar. Hence, the process of achieving a new skill can itself be self-reinforcing even without external rewards. Nevertheless, I believe it is of the utmost importance that the individual recognizes and rewards each one of his or her own accomplishments in whatever fashion they have grown accustomed to, whether it's a slice of apple pie or simply acknowledging to oneself that you are a great player and are constantly learning and advancing in your musicianship.

3. Spontaneity: Regardless of the goals you set for yourself I believe that maintaining an air of spontaneity in regards to learning a particular instrument is paramount. You can sit down and write out a day-by-day, minute-by-minute outline of how you're going to learn, how much time you will spend practicing, and what facets of the guitar you will be working upon and in doing so completely impede your progress by being too rigid in your goal setting. Hence, finding a balance between setting goals and still maintaining an air of spontaneity and creativity can be an important feature in the learning process. Setting up a good practice schedule for yourself is a great idea but build some degree of flexibility into it as well. If you are planning to work on scales, it might also benefit you to allow yourself some time to experiment with scales you've never attempted before. Or perhaps you can work on scales and then find a way to apply that newly found knowledge into a song or progression. Or perhaps you can combine scales with learning new chords. Introducing spontaneity into your practice can also help you to avoid getting burned out. Many people are so fixated on one aspect of the guitar that they "hit the wall" so to speak, and begin to lose interest in their instrument. I've seen this phenomenon in a number of people who played piano in their youths and eventually grew tired of just playing scales over and over. Perhaps if they had been allowed to play a song once in a while, or attempt to discover some novel and interesting chords, they might still be playing to this day. I'm not saying that you can't be focused and dedicated to mastering one or two aspects of an instrument; I'm simply stating that I feel it's important to leave spontaneity in the creative process so that you leave open the possibility of discovering something new that you hadn't anticipated.

4. Overcoming Obstacles: Inevitably we all encounter difficult problems when we endeavor to learn something new, especially something as challenging as learning a new instrument. Every musician I know including some who've been playing for over thirty years, have come up against chords, strums, passages, progressions or even just simple (simple to some not to others) techniques that have vexed them at times. Every one of them has told me that the way that they've overcome the musical obstacles in their paths was by diligent practice, an open mindedness to learn new things, the flexibility to walk away from their instrument when they're becoming frustrated, and the constant reminder that they genuinely love music and their instrument of choice. The previous three categories also come into play here. Setting realistic goals can help you to remain focused upon the elements that you feel you need to gain a mastery of which in time can help you to overcome small (or large for that matter) obstacles in your path. Also, keeping a positive state of mind concerning the acquisition of new musical knowledge and the relative difficulties and challenges involved can help you to keep things in perspective and avoid negative, self-defeating types of thinking. The age-old proclamation "I'll never get this!" can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that may very well come true if you choose to think in that fashion. Rewarding yourself for the skills you have acquired can help as well when it comes to overcoming obstacles in that you are focusing on the goals you have achieved and not the skills that have yet to be mastered. Finally, leaving an element of spontaneity in your practices (and performances as well) leaves an element of mystery in your playing that can help to introduce new ideas, new skills, and potentially the knowledge that you need to overcome obstacles in your path.

5. Balance: Finding balance in your practices and methods of learning the guitar can help to synthesize all of the above elements including setting goals, rewarding oneself, being spontaneous, and overcoming inevitable obstacles into an effective learning regimen. Combining all of those elements into your work-a-day life can be a challenge and many people find it difficult if not impossible at times. There will be times when you will only be able to make small steps (half steps, if you will) in your progress and even times when you might be stagnated. Other days you will move with long strides (whole steps?) and find that previously challenging tasks and techniques come to you as if in a dream. Finding that equilibrium can help you to avoid burnout and facilitate you maintaining a positive and constructive attitude. Subsequently, your positive state of mind will guide you through any obstacles and plateaus that you might encounter on your musical journey and make the process more enjoyable on the way.