Sharpening the Senses Through Solitude

Want to sharpen your senses and expand your creativity? Try getting away – alone! We all know that stepping away from the demands of our typical schedule is great therapy, but we don’t often look at solitude as a valuable component of that therapy.Through both choice and circumstance, I have come to realize that my nature demands periods of solitude, with only the sounds and energies of Nature as a companion. As I attend to those demands, they grow, like an insatiable hunger.

Each day of quiet that I give to myself sharpens my senses more. During my daily country chores the creaking of the barn door becomes increasingly loud, the banging of the wheelbarrow as it rattles across the rocks is almost deafening and the hot breeze moves through the tree branches as if amplified in a concert hall. Every particle of dust or blade of grass appears bright and bold, as if viewed under a magnifying glass. Scents of plants, animals and the earth itself compete for my attention.

As senses are sharpened, mental chatter subsides, opening the consciousness to clarity. With clarity comes both increased creativity and a deepening sense of peace. The mind empties, creating space for healing and insight.

While it is impossible to thrive or even survive in true solitude, as in “solitary confinement,” experiencing an absence of human company while relishing the vibrancy of Nature is nothing short of bliss. May you enjoy it often!

This rabbit showed up for me today. Can you see him?

Detachment

Are you passionate about guitar? Even if you wouldn’t describe yourself as passionate about creating music, you probably have deep feelings attached to the experience. After all, it is the emotional aspect of music that inspires and motivates us to listen and play – so what role could detachment possibly play in musicianship?

Ironically, detachment may be the musician’s most valuable tool for achieving artistic success. This does not mean that someone who achieves mastery in detachment will produce dispassionate performances. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur, as detachment invites a level of focus that allows deep emotions to emerge in a musical performance.

How Will It Help?

Learning guitar is challenging, but it shouldn’t be chronically frustrating. If you experience impatience or anxiety about your progress, you may be wasting valuable time and energy on judgment of yourself and your abilities, as opposed to engaging in detached analysis and improvement of the performance. It’s no fun to feel like less of a musician (or even more miserably, less of a person!) because of imperfections in your playing!

Detachment will help you to alleviate disruptive feelings and learn to direct your practice time and energy productively. When you learn to stay focused and disassociated from the ego during practice, you will find that you are only a small step away from accomplishing the same onstage. In other words, detachment can not only help you to learn more efficiently, it can also help you to diminish or eliminate performance anxiety!

How Do You Do It?

The first, and perhaps most important, place to implement detachment is in the practice room, where you have a quiet and private place to develop the ability to witness, critique and correct your work without succumbing to frequent and debilitating emotional responses.

Begin with intention. Before you pick up your guitar, set a goal to listen deeply throughout your practice session and to maintain objectivity in uncovering and improving problem areas. Be relentless in your commitment to this musical goal, which does not allow time for indulging in self judgment and unproductive mental distractions. Remember, every time you respond emotionally to your practice, you have gone off task.

When you first begin the process of practicing with detachment, you may have to do some self-coaching: “Keep moving!” “No criticizing allowed!” “Keep your eye on the ball!” No matter how much coaching is required to keep moving toward your goal, just give it to yourself. You will succeed!

Good Things to Remember

You are not your playing. No one is born a great player and each musician has a unique timetable. It is important to honor yours!

Your playing will never be without “mistakes” – but you may reach a level where those mistakes no longer matter to you or your audience and they may even go unnoticed. The truth is, the less they matter to you, the less they will matter to your audience – and you have control over how much they matter to you!

A sense of humor may be your best ally. Of course, it’s important to continually strive for exceptional technique, tone, melodic content, rhythm and more – but don’t forget to have a good time!

For optimum practice results, follow this guide!

Exercising Patience

Further thoughts on this post (Patience, Tenacity and the Value of TIme)

I did not arrive on this planet with patience – I had to gather it along the way. My nature is to think and move quickly and I easily fall into a rhythm with others who do the same. Slow movers were, for many years, a source of discomfort for me. But a lifetime of conscious work and a plethora of deep experiences transformed my impatient responses and I am far richer for it.

Learning to play guitar taught me patience, but my stubborn habits knocked me around a bit along the way. I was too hard on myself and I hurried so much toward arbitrary goals that I neglected to listen to my physical and emotional bodies. My current mission is to help others avoid beating themselves up as hard and as often as I did. Tenacity, discipline, commitment, all cornerstones of deep learning and musical achievement, have always been mine for the taking and they have served me well. Patience, however, was not an easy fourth cornerstone for me to find and place. It was only with the strength provided by the first three that I managed to succeed.

Teaching guitar presented swift and straightforward lessons in patience. How could I truly give to my students if all I offered them was information? In order to give my students the best of myself, I had to meet them where they were – on all levels of their being. That meant I needed to relentlessly respect the tempo of the individual. As I practiced giving that respect to others, I began learning how to give the same to myself. In time, that gift provided a vital flow of creative and emotional nourishment and became a guide toward a fulfilling life.

Love brings a person to patience and I run on love. Waiting for a child to determine which shoe goes on which foot, a horse to take a long draw from the water bucket or a cat to decide “in or out?” – these are all acts that require surrendering to a tempo that may initially seem tortuous. But the magic of an open heart is that it adjusts quickly and willingly to merge with the pulse of the beloved.

Nature is the best teacher I’ve found for cultivating not only patience, but also an ability to tap into and respond to intuition and creativity. Nature invites us to sacrifice our artificial agendas in order to step into the mystery. I have come to depend on my peaceful country home to provide ongoing comfort and personal lessons.

I love my subdivision road. It takes 6 minutes to go the 2 miles to my house, if you drive it well, which means patiently. Of course, you can arrive in less time, but you not only risk banging the bottom of your vehicle on the rough, unpaved road, you will most certainly miss the albino squirrel, the occasional jackrabbit or the subtly changing view from the high, tight curve in the road.

Those who are in a hurry to get here sometimes report “I love your place, but I don’t like your road.” Of course, I understand that from a certain perspective, the delays can be frustrating and uncomfortable. But from another perspective, every rock in that road is sacred.

If you didn’t have to drive a slow and bumpy 2 miles to get to this place, you wouldn’t find this place at the end of the 2 miles. What is that sublime feeling that washes over you as you make your way up my driveway? It is the absence of traffic noise, the multitudes of unseen wildlife and the whispered wisdom of the trees. It is the non-violence of excessive machinery or hard, formed concrete. It is a history of respect between Human and Nature. It is the most exquisite harmony, complex, yet stunningly simple, and there for all who are patient enough to listen.

My Awesome, Bull-Headed Neighbor

He lives just across the road, but I don’t get to see much of him, as the end of my driveway is not within view of my house. Also, he and his herd have plenty of acres to roam and he doesn’t often graze on my side of his territory. When we met last week, it struck me that although there may be a lot of people who would describe a neighbor as bull-headed, I’m one of the lucky few who can do so with delight and awe!

Could You Repeat That, Please?

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.

Be intentional

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!

 

Chemistry, Comfort and Compatibility: Finding Your Perfect Match

1956 Gibson J-200
It was beautiful. It was big. I sold it.

 

Many of us have been in relationships that had plenty of sparkle, but were painful much of the time. So it is with guitars. When I was fresh into the guitar world, my head was easily turned by beautiful wood, artistic inlays or an exquisite tone. In a moment of passion, I would commit to a guitar that was utterly amazing, but wasn’t right for me. In spite of a strong attraction, without the day-to-day ease that comes from comfort and compatibility, the relationship was doomed.

Although breaking up is hard to do, sometimes it is clearly the best move. The wisdom of experience coupled with the realization that there is no shortage of amazing guitars on the planet led me to healthy, happy (yes, even blissful!) long-term relationships with some great guitars. A little forethought can do the same for you.

Make a List

Before you begin shopping, write down your criteria for your perfect match. (Lists don’t lie!) Start your list with fundamental requirements, such as size, type (acoustic, electric, etc.), playability, quality of workmanship and price range. You can find information about guitar types and tips on guitar shopping and negotiating the deal in this article on how to buy a guitar.

Once you are clear on the basics, add in your personal needs and desires, such as kind of wood, decoration, tone and general appeal. This is the time to reflect on yourself and your music.

Know Yourself, Know Your Music, Trust Your Gut

It is important to consider your body type when choosing a guitar. If, for example, you are small or have a short upper body, you will play and feel your best with a small guitar. Never underestimate the importance of the size and shape of your guitar – a guitar that is too large for you can actually cause injury to your hands or arms!

Different styles of music call for different kinds of instruments. Is the guitar you’re considering built to bring out the sound of the of music that you will be playing on it? You may need to face the fact that you require more than one guitar in order to be effective with the different styles of music you play. (Hey, what guitar player doesn’t like an excuse to collect guitars?) Try to avoid excessive peer influence, brand bias or flashy sales gimmicks when choosing a guitar. When you find a guitar that really draws your attention, pick it up and play it. Tune in to the way it sounds and to how it feels in your lap. Play it some more. Is it your guitar?

Once You’ve Found It, Never Let It Go!

It’s a lot of fun to buy a guitar, but it’s even more fun if the guitar is a sweet deal and a good match. Once you’ve found that match, take it home, give it lots of attention and watch the relationship grow!

Listening With Others: Music Appreciation, Naturally!

Most people today listen to music alone. Regardless of whether you are in a crowd using ear buds, in your car or at home, your listening experience is likely to be a solitary one.

Much has been written about the many changes that have come about from this style of listening, including the effect that ear buds have on our hearing, the changes in the way that music is marketed and the quality of sound that is produced as a result of that marketing. As a musician and a music teacher, I have an additional concern: as social listening declines, is a natural path to music appreciation being sacrificed?

Music appreciation is usually taught in the classroom the same way that other topics or concepts are: bring attention to it, describe it and, if possible, make it experiential. The teaching becomes even more effective when the transfer of information is accompanied by a positive emotional experience.

Listening with others in a social situation can offer the same advantages that a classroom approach to music appreciation offers, but for most people, it’s a lot more personal and relevant – and therefore a lot more fun! When several people listen to the same band, one is likely to comment on the sax solo while another will focus on a bass riff and a third might respond to the lyrics. As each person receives the opinions and reactions from another, attention is brought to an area of the music that might otherwise have remained unnoticed.

Listening is not the only aspect of music appreciation that is addressed in the classroom, nor is it the only one that is learned in social listening experience. A formal curriculum for music appreciation will usually include a historical view of the music and a biographical look at the artist. Who doesn’t share these types of details with friends when they are listening to music together? Fan clubs are built on less!

If you find that listening is largely a solo experience for you, try setting aside some time with one or two friends to listen to a wide variety of music. Background music during a party or a meal doesn’t count. I’m talking about real listening. Take turns playing DJ or work a “youtube party” into your casual hang-out time with friends, family members or roommates. It’s a cheap, easy and satisfying way to connect with people – and you might just find that you are also connecting more deeply to the music you love! 

Harmony

Most guitarists begin playing by learning a few chords. We all remember the thrill of playing our first song after discovering how to form our fingers into distinct shapes and then placing them on the appropriate frets. From that point on, the song list may grow and the chords may become more varied or complex, but the thrill of turning chord shapes into music never dies.

Opening the door to chords and song playing on an instrument as complex as the guitar unfortunately carries no guarantee of an intimate relationship with harmony. However long the list of memorized chord shapes becomes, the notes within the chords may remain a mystery and attempting to determine which chords are in a song can feel like nothing more than an exercise in frustration. What is it about harmony that is so alluring and yet so elusive?

Aspects of the Principal Elements of Music

Of the three principal elements of music (melody, harmony and rhythm), melody boldly claims the leading role. Melody is the part of the music that you hum or whistle. It is the part that sticks in your head (whether you want it to or not!) and the part that most often embodies the selling points of a song. When you want to bring a song to mind for a friend, you sing the tune, or melody. If a song has lyrics, they will ride on the melody, attaching in such a way that the emotions of each become inseparable from the other. No one fails to notice a melody.

The next element in terms of strength is rhythm. Rhythm is visceral and primal. It requires little effort to perceive, as it seeks and steals our attention. Rhythm provides a foundation and support for the whole of a song. Without rhythm, melody becomes vague and difficult, if not impossible, to catch, hold or comprehend. Rhythm is what gets you on your feet at a concert, motivates you toward energetic action in your household chores or prompts you to drum unselfconsciously on the steering wheel of your car at the stoplight. Rhythm is what grooves, swings or rocks!

Harmony, however, is more subtle and complex than the other two principal elements and may therefore be overlooked or underrated by the untrained ear.  Harmony is more than a decoration or dressing for the song – it is a fundamental aspect of the structure. But while fulfilling the weighty role of a structural component, harmony is likely be received by the listener as an emotional or sensual quality – one which evokes feelings such as fullness, sweetness, lightness, darkness or any range of moods. Harmony in music is like that taste in a dish that although difficult to identify, is responsible for binding and refining the more obvious flavors, thereby sparking both a need to unravel the mystery of the recipe and a desire to indulge more deeply in its richness.

Where and How Do You Find It?

When you listen to guitar accompaniment or the vocal tracks on a song you are listening to harmony – but how do you hone your ability to extract the individual notes for analysis, study or replication? The key is to open into the right brain, hone your concentration on a single harmonic line and sing what you hear! Singing a note allows you to find and confirm it. In order to achieve efficiency, consistency and accuracy in the search for a note or musical line, singing must precede playing on the instrument.

I realize that not every guitar player embraces the idea of singing. If you resist singing, keep in mind that in order to learn to hear harmony you don’t need good vocal tone, an extensive range or impressive breath control. In fact, it is not necessary for your singing to be heard by any ears but your own. It is necessary, however, to learn to match pitches with your voice (a skill that you will need for lead playing, as well) and to allow your voice to search out and identify chord tones. Some very concrete pathways toward hearing and singing pitches exist and they are yours to use at any time in your musical life.

An Informal Education: Mom, the School Chorus and a Stack of Vinyl

I grew up in a house filled with good records. In addition, I was fortunate to have both a mother with a musically developed ear and a generous elementary school music teacher. Those two talented women taught me to sing harmony at an early age, which, combined with my own patience and tenacity, led to my ability to pick out chords on the guitar, create solo guitar arrangements, invent leads and more.

Although you may not share the benefit of having learned harmony through childhood experiences, there are many ways to receive a natural – and often free – aural education. My mother was unique in her combined abilities to hear and impart musical pitches in a casual, unstructured way, but any person who can sing harmony can assist you in hearing specific pitches. Just ask someone you know who sings harmony to stop at any given point of a song and feed you one or more of the notes in the harmonic line. Better yet, ask that singer to teach you a complete harmony part to a simple, familiar song. After you learn one part and can sing it accurately (and along with the melody), practice it until you are able to do so comfortably without assistance. By the time you’ve gone through this process with a few songs, you will begin to feel confident and adventuresome!

If you don’t know someone who can give you individual attention (or even if you do and just want to put more fun into your life), join a choir! The Condit Elementary School Chorus did wonders for me! Expanding beyond that humble group, I began performing at the age of nine in an a capella vocal trio that my sister, our friend and I formed. (Read about The Starlettes here, where you can also hear us nonchalantly wrap our 10 year-old voices around some pretty sophisticated three-part harmonies!) The time invested in singing harmony over a two year period proved to be more valuable to me than I might have imagined!

Singing in a choir may not seem like an exciting or even relevant venture for a guitar player, but trust me – it is. It’s also a free musical education in more ways than one. The instruction that my ear received in elementary school allowed me to teach myself how to play guitar by sitting for hours at the record player and concentrating, chord by chord, on the songs I wanted to play. Not only did I learn to play guitar, with time and study I was able to acquire other marketable skills, such as composition, transcription and arrangement – all from putting my ear to the speakers and singing what I heard.

The Value of Structured Study

Regardless of your past experience, musical aspirations or current level, you will deepen your knowledge and accelerate your progress through the study of music. As a young adult, I committed to a curriculum that I created toward my own goals. As a result, I experienced a dramatic increase in my ability to quickly and accurately play on my guitar the sounds that I heard on recordings or in my head. You can enjoy the same success by turning your focus to an efficient and relevant study of ear training and music theory. Do the practice (which is actually a lot of fun!) and marvel at your expanded guitar skills!

Singing in a choir may not seem like an exciting or even relevant venture for a guitar player, but trust me – it is. It’s also a free musical education in more ways than one. The instruction that my ear received in elementary school allowed me to teach myself how to play guitar by sitting for hours at the record player and concentrating, chord by chord, on the songs I wanted to play. Not only did I learn to play guitar, with time and study I was able to acquire other marketable skills, such as composition, transcription and arrangement – all from putting my ear to the speakers and singing what I heard.

 

(A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory and A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training are
both efficient and relevant ways to become musically fluent. Also, feel free to
contact me for individual help with any aspect of your playing. I am happy to assist
you in person or by webcam)