No matter what it is you do in music - artist, songwriter, player - it's pretty likely that you know you could do more with your instrument. Maybe you're a singer that doesn't want to rely on hiring an accompanist or worrying about backing tracks (ugh, but that's just my slanted opinion). Maybe you're a songwriter and beginning to realize that you're repeating yourself because of your musical limitations. Or maybe you're getting by just fine where you are but know there's more you could do when you watch more accomplished players.
I see this all the time in my teaching studio, and after thirty years of teaching guitar and piano I've learned a lot about what helps people learn and improve. And when you look at the problem simply, the solutions are pretty simple too. At least, in the big-picture, New Year's resolution sort of way. And the even better news is that unlike most New Year's resolutions, these small steps are relatively easy to take because they start with mental shifts.
1. Pay attention and solve the right problems.
It's hard to solve a problem you can't see, and impossible when you're looking in the wrong place. You might feel like the problem is in your hands, but it doesn't start there. Your hands can be trained (more on this in step two) but not before your head can give them good direction.
Take an inventory of your skill set. How many chords do you know? Do your fingers get tangled up when you change chords? Can you play a variety of grooves? Can you keep time consistently and work comfortably with a musical pulse? All of these issues are specific problems with concrete solutions, but you can't address them until you see them clearly.
2. To play better, you've got to play.
"Play" and "practice" are really two different things. "Practicing" is working on what you can't do well, "playing" is doing what you can. Focused practice is a powerful tool for solving specific technical problems, and I can't advocate for it strongly enough. But it doesn't take much of this kind of work to make a difference if you return to it regularly. Simply paying the kind of close attention that mechanical practice requires sharpens your awareness of what your hands can and can't do, and shines a light on the problem so that you can identify and ultimately solve it. (See item 1).
On the other hand, you've got to practice "flow". This doesn't contradict the previous paragraph, it enhances it - because mechanics and flow use different parts of the brain. Once you've identified the specific mechanical problem, you need to integrate the solution into your playing - and the best way to do that is to play. A lot. Practice your set and make sure you're confident on the delivery of every song, not just vocally but musically. Then make sure you consistently LEARN OTHER SONGS. Not just yours but other people's too. Steadily. Every player should be working on building their repertoire every day. It will introduce new chords, new rhythms, and more opportunities to practice that state of flow: a smooth and confident performance in which even mistakes pass by and are immediately forgotten by both you and the audience.
3. Don't go it alone!
Playing music with other people is what hooked me for life. The cool factor helped, and once I started developing some skills it was satisfying to be able to play on my own. But it was the experience of making music with other people that really made me fall in love with playing the guitar.
Aside from the pure fun of being a part of a group making a bigger sound than you can yourself, playing with others is great for developing that sense of flow. The group won't stop when someone makes a mistake, so you learn how to let mistakes go and keep up. (Missing a chord won't stop the song dead either). The group is (hopefully) going to play the song all the way through, so you practice maintaining your focus through an entire song. And perhaps most importantly, you develop much better control and musical awareness by playing along and being reactive to the group. There's a difference between being able to execute a series of movements - say, a strum pattern or a chord change - and being able to fluidly play a song just as music. Playing with others makes that difference clear, and when you experience that for the first time it's exhilarating. If you can't find people to play with, use backing tracks or any number of programs and apps that can provide backing for you. The trick is to be responding and reacting.
Obviously all three of these points take real effort to apply, just like any worthwhile New Year's resolution. But if you start by just recognizing them as the three pillars that support the whole effort, you might find that it's easier to start digging in deeper. It's really pretty simple: if you want to get better, play a lot, consciously and deliberately, and with others whenever you can. Recognize and solve problems, and be patient...everyone learns at their own pace.
Wishing you much musical success in the new year!
By Dave Isaacs
Dave Isaacs is a dynamic performer with an electric presence and a craftsman’s touch. Also, the Teacher, Dave imparts his wisdom and talent on the hearts and minds of his students.Dave has personally played on my NashvilleEar.com Songwriter Stage several times. He is a truly wonderful guitar player and equally a wonderful person. If you really want to learn the guitar from a true master player you have found him. Go downtown to Nashville at 1216 17th Ave. South you will find the true Nashville Guitar Guru.
You can find Dave to help you here: http://www.daveisaacs.com/