The other day a student expressed his frustration at getting tired of a song before he was really able to play it. This is something a lot of people struggle with. We want to play satisfying music, not just beginner exercises. But it’s not satisfying if we can’t play it well!
Even “beginner” songs have subtleties that really need to be there for a song to sound right. And it doesn’t matter how many or how few chords it has if you can’t execute the changes smoothly. So how do we build up skills quickly enough to progress? Just as importantly, how do we strike a balance between appropriate challenges and finding satisfaction in playing?
Learning to play well is a long-term commitment with a deferred payoff.
It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without effort. But there have to be short-term successes along the way. The struggles need to be punctuated be a steady series of little victories. Not just to keep us motivated, but because the enjoyment of playing music is the reason you picked up the instrument in the first place.
One way to make sure this happens is to organize your practice time into segments, even very short ones. Be clear on the specific goal of each segment. Your goals will likely fall into one of three categories: vocabulary, focus, and flow.
This is any musical information you might use in the course of playing a song. It could be a scale, a melody pattern, a riff, or a new chord. It might be something more involved, like a longer chord sequence or a song form. Think of this as time spent time as adding to your toolbox. Every song can be broken down to notes and chords performed with rhythm and dynamics. When you add to your vocabulary, you make it easier to learn new songs because more of the elements will be familiar.
You can add vocabulary in an organized sequence, like learning scales around the circle of fifths. (More on this in a future post). You can work your way through the major and minor chords, or patterns up the neck, or triadic shapes (ditto). You can also pull unfamiliar chords from a song you want to learn and get them under your fingers before you tackle the whole thing. Treat this not just as a finger exercise but a mental one. Your goal is to memorize the formation, whatever it is, and be able to visualize it easily on the fretboard. Remember, you’re adding tools to the toolbox, so you need to be able to recognize each tool when you need it.
Since adding to your vocabulary involves training your fingers to do something new, though, this area of practice overlaps with the next one – focus.
Focus means technical practice: deliberate attention to the placement of your fingers. When you start to dig into this work, you might be surprised by how much your mental picture of things you thought you knew is actually pretty fuzzy. Are you specifically aware of the movement of each finger? Not just where you want it to go, but how it gets there. Not the target, but the execution – the process of getting there consistently.
This is mechanical and potentially tedious work. But I always point out to my students that if you’re bored when you practice you’re not paying attention. There are lots of details to focus on in even the simplest exercise, and a lot of satisfaction to be derived from executing it well. The trick is not to spend a lot of time on technique, but to make the time you spend as focused as possible. Five minutes of controlled practice of ANYTHING with accuracy and good tone is more powerful than an hour of mindless scales.
I can’t stress enough how important focus practice is. You might apply this to something you’re adding to your vocabulary, or to a challenging part of a song you’re learning. You can create exercises out of these challenging parts by breaking them down to their smallest component movements. Don’t worry about playing the song yet, that comes later. But it connects to the next segment of your practice time.
“Flow” is exactly what it sounds like: playing with fluidity and ease. Notice that I didn’t say “perfectly”.
Playing without mistakes is an obvious goal, but that’s not where the “music” in the music is. To play the way you ultimately want to, thinking about perfection will only get in the way. That mindset is for the other phases of your practice time. Aim for perfection in your technical work…that’s why it’s so important to focus and practice slowly. Practicing flow is different.
It might sound strange, but we learn to play without mistakes when we’re not afraid to make them. When you practice flow, don’t worry about missed notes – just let them go by. Your goal is to begin at the beginning and get to the end. So start simply. This is the part where you put together the pieces you worked on previously in vocabulary and focus practice.
To make this work, assign different music to different practice segments. New songs fall under vocabulary. Songs you’re working through get focused attention during the flow segment. During flow practice, you play songs you know. What you’re actually practicing is not the chords or the rhythm, but playing the song. Stopping to fix mistakes only magnifies them. Remember, pros always keep going.
It’s important , you need to keep the goals modest. Play simple songs well. Start with two chords and a repeating rhythm pattern: I start beginners on “A Horse With No Name” by America, or “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams. There are lots of other examples you can find. Obviously it helps to know and love the song, but there’s something to be said for learning a complete (easy) song as an exercise in performance.
Organizing both your practice time and the music you practice like this helps you make the most of the time you put in. Most of all, it develops ALL the skills you need to learn to play the way you want to.