Fingerings, chord shapes, lyrics – you learn them one day and the next they’re gone. Maybe you’ve been taught notes on the staff, scale formulas or chord formulas in the past – and maybe more than once – but you can’t seem to retrieve the information or put it to use. It can be pretty frustrating. But the good news is, your frustrations are less likely caused by your musical limitations than they are by unrealistic expectations and a flawed approach to learning.
Perhaps because music making has such a magical quality to it, we tend to forget that the same laws that govern any other type of learning apply to learning music. Regardless of whether we are studying geography, poetry or chord formulas, the key to retaining information is repetition. By using that key effectively, you can immediately and dramatically increase your progress on guitar!
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Memory
Remember cramming for a test in school? Although you may have remembered enough of the information the next morning to pass the exam, how much of that information was still available to you the following week? If you took the same test a month later, your score would certainly be lower yet and with the passing of a year, you might remember little or none of the information.
By devoting yourself to one intense period of study (cramming), you managed to succeed in committing information to short-term memory. Without sufficient repetition, however, the same information never moved into your long-term memory. If, instead, you had reviewed, taught and used that same information repeatedly over a period of time, you would have moved it into long-term memory and probably would have aced the test a year later.
The same principles of short- and long-term memory apply to learning guitar. When you memorize a chord formula, for example, you can easily move it into long-term memory by reviewing it repeatedly and in varied ways and then putting it to use. The more you practice intelligent memory storage, the more efficient your learning becomes!
In order to capitalize on this basic truth about learning, I included worksheets for every concept or skillpresented in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory, and I urge students to do the worksheets repeatedly. If you are trying to learn from a course or system that doesn’t encourage or allow sufficient repetition, don’t blame yourself for your frustrations – get a new course, system or teacher!
It all comes down to practice, but not just any kind of practice. There are specific ways to practice that will maximize the benefits of repetition.
Take small bits
All aspects of guitar playing, including ear training and theory, become manageable and fun when you break down the material into small bits and then practice sufficiently. Take a small bit, memorize it, then take another. Review both bits before taking a third. Resist the temptation to memorize too much in one session. Instead, walk away when (or before) you perceive a decline in your mental performance. When you return after a break, review the material thoroughly before taking on more.
Review new material on the same day of the lesson
You will save a lot of time and energy by nailing down new information on the same day you first learn it. If you don’t have time to devote a full practice session to the new work, make sure that you at least think through it before the day is done.
Review the material in varied ways and from varied perspectives
Read it, write it, draw it, apply it to other songs or teach it to someone else. If, for example, your goal is to learn the formula for a scale, first study it and then test yourself on it repeatedly by writing it, saying it out loud and finding places to play it on your guitar. Last but not least, teach it!
Log in a sufficient number of correct repetitions
The amount of repetitions required for mechanical skills (exercises, scales, licks, passages) varies according to the complexity of the skill, but will probably be more than you expect. Always remember that the point at which you can correctly play a passage is the point at which your practice should begin – and that only correct repetitions will be beneficial. Once you begin those repetitions, don’t count them, just do them – and then do them some more.
Be prepared to study facts, information and concepts (theory, note recognition, etc.) in varied ways a minimum of six to ten times, with hours or days in between.
If you want to memorize a passage, song or concept, put your attention on doing so. Playing a piece numerous times while gazing at the music will not result in memorization. Instead, make an intention to memorize it and take the proper steps (above) to make it happen.
Clean up your language
Now that you understand the reasons behind your frustration and have some solutions, clean up habitual thoughts or language that drag you down and misdirect your mental and emotional energy. In other words, keep your eye on the ball and practice productive thinking. In expressing your feelings about your guitar progress, for example, avoid the word “should” as in “I should be able to…” Instead, take a minute to realize how far you have come and then get to work!
It’s true that insufficient, incorrect or ineffective practice can hold you back. A big part of my job as a teacher is to identify practice problems for my students and present solutions. But even the most creative solutions invariably depend on the power of repetition!