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
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
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 skill presented 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!

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