Music 101 (part 1)



If you want to take up guitar seriously, but don’t know what’s involved, this series hopefully will help you.  These are NOT lessons.  These briefly introduce what you will encounter as you learn guitar, and the required approach to learn  musical skills effectively, including the idea of challenging your beliefs in your capabilities, and building a mental framework‘.  We look at problems that occur when this isn’t done, as is very often the case with guitarists teaching themselves, and, if unlucky, when being taught, especially once bad habits creep in that create doubt that you’re stuck and can’t improve further.

In particular, you’ll learn about what a practice session should entail for making progress (we call this directed practice) and how recalling what you last practiced strengthens your learning.  This doesn’t go into detail about what to practice, rather how to practice with a positive attitude and realistic expectations that replaces doubt by enjoyable progress.


How we learn effectively

When starting a new skill, like learning guitar, we have no relevant memories (no mental framework) to draw upon. So it really helps if you get a high-level introduction to music concepts you will encounter later and how they relate, how they benefit you.  This creates a skeletal mental framework.

Ideally you need guidance so that you learn more about the topics in an order that builds on what you already have been introduced to.  This continuously builds more associations in your brain, fleshing out and connecting different concepts in the framework.  Eventually, some areas may become automatic … without directed practice, that skill won’t improve, and can drop off slightly.

There are many different areas that can be worked on to improve your musical skills on an instrument so you feel confident, happy at steady progress, and able to create your own music, and improvise. This series will look into these at a high-level to give you an idea of what you will encounter and how they relate to each other. Next, let’s compare effective and ineffective learning.

A typical ineffective learning journey

A typical journey, outside of academia, is we hear music we like and want to eventually play.  We go about randomly picking up various pieces of information, from friends and the Internet; a chord shape here, a scale pattern there.  Working out music by ear seems like magic, so we use guitar tab, which can often have mistakes.  We try to play licks that are too technically challenging for us, and because of inattention to fine detail involved, develop bad technique which we are stuck with. So we convince ourselves we can’t get to higher skill levels.  We watch short videos that promise we will learn the secret shape(s) that will let us solo without learning all that “boring theory” and so on.    These videos are the  modern equivalent of snake oil, guaranteed to cure every ailment.  All this often results in a shallow or no understanding of how to use what we’ve learned, with no mental framework in place, and doubt in our abilities ever advancing.

This is not your fault … your brain builds and connects memories given the experiences you encounter, hence your resulting beliefs.

However, these aren’t etched into your brain forever.  Corrections and new connections can be made.  Negative beliefs dispersed, replaced by positive ones … provided you apply the right sort of effort.  This is true in all walks of life.

Are you prepared for the effort?

Let’s set the record straight. You won’t learn what’s required without putting the effort in. Hundreds of hours of effort.  Several thousand hours to become expert.  Above all, you need the right mental attitude about your abilities and towards how you approach this effort,  to gradually build a highly-connected mental framework of musical concepts  and trained motor skills . As these build,  creating the music in your mind produces all the coordinated activities in your nervous system that result in your hands producing your music on your guitar with emotion and confidence, sounding great and being mistake-free.

To develop this you need realistic goals to work towards, and specific areas to work on towards your goals.  You need to deeply attend to what you are learning or practicing.  Some examples include working on aural recognition (heard externally and in your minds’ear), awareness of body tension, timing accuracy with rhythm, how to use a scale, how to construct chords, or how to improvise over a chord progression.  There are many others.

How you learn effectively

Becoming a good guitarist is very much about realistic expectations, determination and belief you can make steady gradual progress towards your goals with practice.  It’s incredibly rare for someone to get there in a very short time.  Natural talent is incredibly rare.  You learn through repetition during directed practice. That is, you practice to develop your skill level, with your mind fully engaged,  paying attention to one thing at a time, rather than practicing using your current skill level. Directed practice mandates zero distractions.

Obviously, it’s far better to attend to something now that will benefit many other areas later.  For example, if you have a problem with tension, and know how to check your body for this, and learn how to consciously relax, this will absolutely help all your future playing.  If you have a problem remembering a shape, the answer there is to learn about “intervals” (covered briefly in part 2), as these appear in all shapes you’ll ever come across.

For example, for decades, I had a problem with picking accurately with certain licks above a particular speed. Practicing at a comfortable speed did not improve my picking skills.   I convinced myself I would never be good at high-speed picking.  I relied on legato for high-speed playing, and I was at a virtuoso level with that.  I knew all about directed practice, but never got the correct advice to address this issue, so I’d tense up as soon as I was about to attempt a tricky lick that required high speed picking .   My belief defeated me.  Happily, I was given advice by a technique expert, who also knows about directed practice as applied to technique.  Over a period of time, I had to examine and focus on many things very closely … find exactly which notes in the lick were causing difficulty, the depth and angle of the pick, how I held it, the height above or below the string, the quality of the sound produced, the timing, the synchronisation with my fretting hand, my body tension. As I fixed one thing, something else surfaced, and so I’d address that, and so on … but this then benefitted my playing overall.

You learn deeply through frequent recall. Rather than spending two hours on a topic, it’s better you spend 20-30 minutes and then take a break (several hours, or one or more days) doing other stuff, then continue from where you left off, so you are recalling what you have done and where you got to. This strengthens mental associations.  Unfortunately, bad technique, and incorrect knowledge, left unaddressed because of doubts (wrong beliefs of your capabilities) get strengthened as well. Hence you need to avoid or replace these with good technique and correct knowledge, learned in an order that lets the future build on the current, based on strong beliefs in your capabilities, proven by ongoing improvements.

For example, I may be learning about a new”chord type” (what this means is introduced later in this series). I’ll recall what I’ve learned so far about chord types in general, and I’ll recall what I know about “intervals” (introduced in part 2), such as the shape and sound of the intervals in this new chord type and play these with a rhythm (introduced in part 3).

Warning. Playing guitar while watching TV just practices your current skill level. Listening to music while you’re learning about theory is a bad idea. It’s too distracting, especially to a musican. Next thing you know, you’re working on some riff you’ve just heard! Distractions will ruin directed practice.

As important is having realistic goals and expectations on what it takes reaching them.  You need to accept it may take a long time for you  to reach your goals, and you want to enjoy the small steps all along the way.  Enjoy the journey, don’t just focus on the final destination.


What we’ve learned

We looked at the need to build a mental framework, through which we can relate new concepts with what we already learned and that initially, a high-level overview is necessary for a skeletal framework. We looked at directed practice, where we use mental focus to develop our skill in short sessions, with breaks in between.  We looked at recalling what we have learned each time we use directed practice.  We saw that distractions are a very bad idea when you want to improve your skill.  We especially saw that your mental attitude, your strong beliefs in your capabilities, proven by ongoing improvements, are paramount.

Next time, we’ll take a high-level look at some introductory fundamental concepts that underpin music .


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