May 2013 marks my 10th year in music instruction. At times I’ve taught bass guitar or piano, and I’ve benefited a great deal from that, but my mainstay has always been guitar.
I’ve watched a lot of students come and go, and some of that is just turnover, but I think there are a lot of people that get in with high expectations only to find that it takes real time and effort to develop skill on their instrument. They are surprised to find that they can’t instantly do what other musicians seem to do so effortlessly.
Though I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, I think the following elements represent some of the most important facets of becoming a better instrumentalist. Whether you’re about to get in to lessons or you’re already in lessons, understanding these concepts will help you on your path.
1. Remain Teachable
It’s hard to overstate the importance of staying open to new ideas and concepts. Ultimately, you are capable of what you think you’re capable of.
Only two to three years ago I would watch guitar players like Andy McKee and Don Ross and wonder how in the world they were able to keep several things (a beat, a chord progression, a melody) going all at once. Percussive style guitar really blew my mind.
But in the last few months I’ve come to see that in some regard it’s not as complicated as it looks. I still wouldn’t consider myself the next McKee or Ross – they are amazing – but I am starting to figure some things out.
I chalk this up to teachability. I absorb more when I’m open to learning. It may seem obvious, but sometimes you don’t realize the type of burdens you’re under until you’re not under them anymore. Personally, in the past, things like financial struggles have detracted me from really being in a place mentally where I could focus on things long enough to figure them out.
So don’t get frustrated too easily. That brings me to my next point.
2. Adopt a Long-Term Mindset
You’ve heard me say this before, perhaps in reference to social media or blogging or building a music career. But there is a logical and rational reason for seeing your musical journey as a long-term commitment.
I know, I know. I’ve heard about them too. The kids who do nothing but play guitar for six months straight and suddenly they can sweep arpeggios like they were Yngwie Malmsteen (I apologize that all my examples are guitarists). Or the guy who could suddenly play every song on the radio by ear. Or the gal who learned the entirety of “Stairway to Heaven” in the beginning months of her lessons.
The interesting thing about playing an instrument is that the effort you put in today may not pay off tomorrow. Or in a week. Or in a month. Maybe not even in a year. But at some point the effort you put in will catch up with you. At least that’s been my experience.
I think one of the contributing factors in growth is that there is a difference between people and how their muscle memories work. Some people seem to be able to do something once or twice and never have to revisit it again. Others seem to have to really dig their heels in, practice hard and push through. Though it is a personal assumption, I’ve come to believe that proper rest and sleep can also play a part.
Your journey is your journey and you should never compare it with anyone else’s. Some people are just better prepared, more focused, or more naturally gifted at the start. Some people are more ready and open to learning (refer to my first point).
Nuno Bettencourt talked about the fact that his brothers were much better players when he got started. But do you hear much about his brothers in the media? No way. Nuno kept at it long enough to become one of the best players out there.
3. Practice and Persevere
“Practice, practice, practice.”
You’ve heard your favorite musicians say it before, but what exactly does it mean? What should you focus on? How much time should you invest?
Well, that depends on your goals and what setting you intend to play in. I can tell you from experience that the way you prepare for a particular project, band or gig is always a little different. Moreover, you’re allowed to approach it your own way.
When I first started playing in a Def Leppard tribute band, no word of a lie I really had to immerse myself in the music. I didn’t think it would be very difficult (and I don’t think most people did based on how they prepared for auditions), but keeping up with all the key changes and unorthodox arrangements in their music definitely kept me on my toes. I probably practiced for a minimum of three hours a day for a month or two. I can play the set today with a couple of quick refreshers, but I had a bit of a shaky start.
And that was quite different from how I approached playing lead guitar on Jonathan Ferguson‘s album. I would set a track on loop and pause it when an idea came to me. Then I would write down the idea, hit play and continue to develop more. I also did quite a bit of improvising in the studio. They had me come in and do a few run-throughs with each track and glued together the best parts in editing.
For most of my working life as a musician, I have aspired to be the best I could be. As result, I developed a very versatile approach to guitar that allowed me to adapt to a variety of situations and improvise as necessary. Your goals might be different.
When it comes to practice, I think consistency is really important. No matter how much time you choose to put towards practicing your instrument, as long as you can do it every day, you will get better over time. You don’t have to start with three hours, but you will want to invest 15 to 30 minutes daily if you want to make it worthwhile.
The bottom line is that – as long as you’re getting better acquainted with your instrument – any practice is good practice. The only practice that’s bad is the kind that causes injury. If you have a good teacher, they will point out any issues they see with the way you hold or play your instrument and help you correct that.
Conclusion: Becoming a Better Instrumentalist
There are a lot of other things I could cover in this post, but I will leave it at that. Leave your comments and suggestions below, and let’s put our minds together to come up with more tips.
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