What to Work on Next?

  • 11/3/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Whether you’ve been playing guitar for years or just started last week, you might be confused as to what to work on next. Music is a living language. As such, it is difficult to know where to start. You might find yourself stuck and not know how to improve your skills as a musician.

This inspirational article will take a look at different ways to help the advancing musician in his quest for improvement no matter how long he has been playing.

Expressing Yourself
Whenever facing the painful realization that you don’t know what to study next, it’s good to remember what music really is. Music is a way to express yourself using sounds and rhythms. Reminding yourself of this can help you target your studies and find a renewed direction in your musical development.

Let’s consider a child learning how to write. At first the writings might be quite basic. After a few years, new words and ideas will be seen. This comes with experience and practice. The same principle is seen in music. Writing and composing will really help you be aware of your limitations and help focus your studies on what is important.

Once you write something, leave it for a little while to get your ears a chance to rest. Come back to it a few hours after and listen to your work. Take nots of everything that does not sound good to you and write them down. From that list, try to write a few questions that will help you direct your studies.

Here is an example of the type of questions you might get:
- Which chord(s) could I use to make this transition smoother?
- Why does this note clash with this chord progression?
- Why does this chord never seem to work in this section?
Try being as precise as you can when asking yourself these questions. The more precise the questions, the better your improvement. Finding the answers to your questions will give you a very clear plan to follow.

Too Many Questions
Now that you have precise questions you need to group them into main themes. Those themes may be another question too. That process can be quite difficult and you might want to consider asking another musician to organize your thoughts.

Take a look at the following themes. These themes regroup a certain number of questions generated by the process discussed previously.

Harmonizing Scales
- Why do thee notes never work with this chord?
- Could adding a second voice to this theme make it sound more dramatic?
- Which chord can I add to this section?

- Is there a way to make this fast ascending scale sound smoother?
- How can I get my leads to sound more fluid?

- How can I end this solo on a note that sounds mysterious?
- How can I reproduce more effectively what I hear in my head on the instrument?

The process might seem long and laborious, but it will greatly help you focus on the elements your playing needs the most. The themes you wrote down represent the next thing you should work on while practicing. Make sure you stick to the plan, answering each ones of he questions one at a time.

Finding the Right Answers
Now that your list of questions are organized into themes, you need to find the specific answers that will make sense to you. I insist that the answers given must speak to you. Just learning musical ideas by heart without really knowing how to apply them to your playing won’t be of much use. If an answer doesn’t make sense, dig deeper.

There are many ways to explain the same thing and you need to find the ones that you can relate to. This is where you need the discipline to search without ceasing until you get the desired answer. The best way to approach this is to consider yourself as a self taught musician. Don’t hesitate to research the subject in several places. Don’t settle too fast on one teacher. Ask many different ones to answer whichever question you are researching. There are many different approaches when it comes to music. Some might seem unconventional but it would be a shame to overlook something because it is different from what you’ve been taught.

Following is a list of some places you might consider visiting to find answers to your questions.

- Jamplay (of course!).
- Private teacher.
- Youtube.
- Public library.
- Specialized press.
- Musicians biographies (you’d be surprised what you can learn!).

Many more outlets are possible, the key is to not limit yourself to one. You want to get as many perspectives and approaches as possible. You will most likely hear bad explanations from misinformed musicians. Just listen to their explanation anyway as this will give you an awareness of the difficulties you might come across when wrapping your mind around the studies subject.

Take the habit to always carry with you a writing pad on which you can keep track of your findings. Regularly go through your researched items and constantly review what you’re discovered. Do not be discouraged if you find that one question inspires you ten more. The more questions you have, the more focused your studies will be. Be patient and serious about your research, your hard work will pay off!

Making Things Personal
It’s very important to assimilate everything you learn. Understanding a musical concept is only half of your job as an advancing guitar player. You also need to know how and when to apply it. You will find that certain aspects of music won’t apply to you. You don’t need to spend time mastering something you won’t be using. Always approach a new topic with a set of personal questions. That’s the best way to learn new things while improving your ability.

A great exercise to help you really understand what you are learning is to teach it. Whether you teach a friend or film yourself teaching, you will get a good idea of what is lacking in your understanding of the subject. Ask for feed back on your lesson and take notes. The feedback you get will give you a good idea on how well you know your subject.

Getting Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Sometimes, finding new ideas to improve is difficult on your own. That’s when you need to get outside of your comfort zone and play with other musicians. Try to play with more advanced players. This will most likely expose you to new ideas. Open jam sessions can be great for that. Even if you are not confident enough to take the stage, it can be beneficial to go watch them. Remember to bring your writing pad with you and take notes!

Another excellent way to find new areas of studies is to listen to music you are not familiar with. Be open minded and take notes of anything you find appealing. It could be a certain rhythm motif, a theme, a note or even a sound. Get familiar with the passage you find interesting and analyze it. This will spark new questions for which you will need to find answers. The quest is goes on!

You also may find it useful to go watch live shows. You can learn a lot of new things by simply analyzing what other musicians are playing. Watch them interact and always take notes. Try focusing on the non obvious. If the guitar player is taking a lead, pay attention to what’s happening between the bass player and drummer. Be very analytical of what you are hearing. Get to know what makes music enjoyable to you. Not only will these exercises help you develop your own playing, but they will also enhance your personal music appreciation.

The Power of Hearing
As an advancing guitarist, we discussed the importance of seeking answers from many different sources. This can be confusing sometimes. You might be wondering how to know when something should be remembered or not. You should use your ears as your guide.
- Does something sound good to you?
- Do you get excited each time you hear a particular section of a song?
- Do you dread a specific passage?
- Do your ears get confused each time you improvise over a certain chord?
Always remember that the most important tool you have as a musician is your hearing. The beauty of this is that you can work on your music anywhere. You don’t need an instrument to perfect your art. The power of your hearing is a wonderful thing. You can arrange, create, harmonize and do many more things to help your music without being limited by space or resources.

Before discussing practical ways to develop new musical ideas using your sole ability to hear things, let’s talk about what I call the “mental ear.”

The mental ear is your ability to imagine sounds. All the notes, rhythm motifs and sounds happen in your imagination. Every musician should spend time developing this. Being able to hear something before playing it will help your phrasing and sense of melody. Your mental ear can be developed in many ways. Start by imagining a note, then play it on your instrument. You will soon be able to do this faster more precisely. Once you are comfortable with this simple exercise, move on to several notes. Imagine short themes and play them. Keep working on this daily. You will find that it will greatly help you sound more musical.

Mental Hearing Exercises
Let’s take a look at several exercises you can do to develop your mental ear and learn how to work on your music anywhere you’re at. These exercises should be practiced daily. Make sure you are focused and concentrated.

Exercise 1: Mental Visualization
This exercise is one of the best ways to get to know your fretboard. The idea is to imagine a simple melody line or lick, and mentally visualize how you would play it on your guitar. You might find it useful to start with a theme you know well. Imagine your fingers on the fretboard and the sound that would come out. Mentally picture different ways of playing that lick. Imagine playing it on a different area of the fretboard or even on a single string. Again, it might be interesting to cary with you blank guitar tabs with you so that you can check your work next time you have your guitar with you.

If that exercise seems out of reach, spend time working on intervals. Knowing how to play any given interval and anticipate their sound will make this exercise smoother and more accurate.

Exercise 2: Mental Harmonization
This exercise will really help your ear while improving your fretboard knowledge. As for all these exercises, you will need to concentrate on the notes you are creating in your mind. The object here is to listen to a theme (try using an independent radio as you will often work with something new you haven’t heard before) and imagine a secondary part that will work on top of that theme. As you do this, imagine how you would play that harmony on your guitar. Always imagine yourself playing what you hear on your guitar. This will establish a strong connection between what you hear and what you play. The key to successful playing is to associate sounds with movements.

Exercise 3: Mental Reading
For this exercise, you will need some blank tablature paper. Write a few notes and mentally sing them as you put them down. Try to write something melodic that corresponds to a theme you already know. Try writing the theme in different areas of the fretboard. Once you wrote several drafts, try playing your tabs on your instrument and check your work. Practice this daily and always use a new theme. After a few weeks, try making up new themes. Mentally hear them before tabbing them. You’ll be amazed at how easy this exercise is after consistent practice. Your phrasing will sound more musical. You will be able to directly play what you hear.

Exercise 4: Air Guitar
This exercise might make you look ridiculous, but it really will help you create a stronger connection between what you ear and what you play. The drill is quite easy. As you sing notes, pretend that you are playing them on a guitar. Be very serious about it and concentrate on every movement you are doing. Your movements should accurately match the sound that comes out of your mouth.

You may sing something you already know if you find it easier. After a while you will find that you can easily improvise new vocal lines and match your movements to what you are singing.

Final Thoughts
The previous ideas should all inspire you to develop your art and keep working on the areas you need to improve. Remember that music is a living language. As such, you won’t ever be able to have a full understanding of the subject. There always will be something new to learn, you just need to know what that new thing is. Be serious about your practice, be humble, open minded and keep your studies fun and interesting.

Practice well!