Strategies And Tips For Mastering Music
From Master Players And Teachers
by Issac Hernandez, NYC Guitar School
What is the best way to practice? It can be quite a confusing and daunting subject to break down because there are numerous approaches, and there are always a multitude of things to practice.
In this article, I will explore techniques and strategies that will give you the biggest results in the shortest amount of time. These aren’t necessarily specific drills, like “practice this scale” or “learn that chord”. This is a more holistic approach to guitar–concepts that transcend proficiency levels and could be applied at any level of musicianship.
Of course, these aren’t hacks or shortcuts–there is still plenty of work involved–but if you’re going to put the time and effort these tips will help make that time and effort as effective as possible.
I Wrote This Article Because I Wanted To Learn To Practice Better
If you are looking for growth and improvement, it is important that you take a step back and question how you do things from time to time. That’s what I did before I wrote this article. I’ve been playing guitar for years, and have taught at NYC Guitar School for several years as well–but I started questioning my approach to the instrument. I decided to seek out people who play better than me and learn from them.
For this article I interviewed four of our top level teachers (who are also top level players). Each teacher had a wealth of knowledge to share; I broke down their approaches and organized them into things we should do and pitfalls to avoid. Each interview was unique and had an impact on me.
From jazz virtuoso Aki Ishiguro I learned the importance of mindset in practicing and playing guitar–to enjoy the process and not be discouraged when things aren’t moving as fast as you’d like them to be.
From classical player Rob Adler, who is the director of the NYC Guitar School Suzuki Guitar program and runs the Brooklyn location, I learned that before you begin working on anything you must listen; patience is key if you are in search of mastery.
From Suke Cerulo, the NYC Guitar School Lead Guitar Director, I learned to keep the big picture in mind and to avoid losing myself in the minutiae of music. He taught me to be creative in my practice and demand more of myself.
And from classical player and Suzuki teacher Jason Balish I realized that goals are essential. Goals give you an essential roadmap and a regimen to keep you on track every step of the way.
Read on to find out how these pros expand on these concepts…
Practices that Will Yield the Most Results:
Practice 1: LISTEN.
Before you begin learning your next song or start tackling that new piece, listen. Become very familiar with what you’re going to learn. Find different interpretations and/or covers of what you’re going for. This will set the expectation of what you’re trying to achieve and will give you a point of reference. A big mistake is starting something new without first ingraining it in your ear–that mistake basically doubles your workload.
Practice 2: RECORD YOURSELF.
This practice is like going to the doctor’s office. It can be as uncomfortable as it is necessary. This practice is the way a musician can make a diagnosis and take the correct action to fix problems. There are so many things that we could practice and so many possibilities. Finding areas to focus on is key, and since we all have different strengths and weaknesses, these areas will vary. By recording yourself you can assess the areas of your playing that could use some work. It is very hard to be honest with yourself, especially while you’re playing the instrument. By getting an honest view of your abilities you can then deduce what you have to work on.
Practice 3: GOALS AND PATIENCE.
Having very specific goals and knowing exactly why you’re working on something is essential to achieving your desired results. This practice will help set you up with a regimented roadmap in order to get things going. That being said, you must also be aware that when it comes to guitar (or pretty much anything else), results aren’t immediate. You might sit down and practice something for thirty minutes, but that doesn’t mean you will achieve your goal at the end of that session. If you have your goals and intentions in place, then you should be aware that you’re moving in the desired direction and that patience is just a part of the game.
Practice 4: WEAKNESSES.
We all want to sound good and we all want to have fun while doing it. Unfortunately, growth doesn’t come from doing the things we’re good at; it’s quite the opposite actually. Improvement originates by working on our shortcomings. Finding your weaknesses and doubling down on them will change the way you sound and play way faster than working on the things you’re already good at.
Strategies for Breaking Past Plateaus
Strategy 1: SPECIFICITY.
All practice isn’t equal. Noodling on the instrument (although fun) for an hour is not better than working deliberately on something you know you need, ie., diatonic triads across the neck. Coming up with a routine and being very specific about what you need to work on is a strong way to break past a plateau. Be very precise when it comes to your practice. It will take the randomness out of the equation and won’t leave you wondering why you’re not getting any better.
Strategy 2: MINDSET.
Not getting discouraged is a big part of the journey, especially when you’re not progressing as fast as you would like. You have to remember that you’re in it for the long haul. Enjoy the process of practicing and working on new/difficult things. There is no need to be in a rush to get to the next level. Being aware of the negative feelings that can come from lack of patience can lead to you getting away from the instrument. Find the fulfillment in practice and stick with it.
Strategy 3: CREATIVITY IN PRACTICE.
Tackling a particular issue or problem repeatedly in the same way will lead to frustration and most likely burn out. Try taking a step back and reevaluating your approach. It’s really important that you become critical about what you’re doing whenever you hit a plateau; simply doing the same thing over and over again will not yield the desired result. This can be an art in itself, but start by simply asking how you could do something differently. Can you break it up? Can you change rhythmic values? Try a different area of the neck? The key here is to find different ways to approach the problem. The specifics will always vary but approach a problem in a way that challenges you and breaks up the monotony of it.
Pitfalls and Mistakes to Avoid
Pitfall 1: TOO FAST TOO EARLY
Many guitar players prioritize speed over musicality. This can become the root of many deficiencies. Speed is but one component that makes music interesting. Putting speed first can cause you to learn things incorrectly and can lead to memory slips during performances. Know that it’s not a race and that musicality should be your main focus. Speed is a component that comes near the end, not the beginning.
Pitfall 2: LACKING CONCRETE GOALS.
There are hundreds if not thousands of things to practice. Having concrete goals will direct your deliberate practice. Having goals along with regimented practice is essential to keep improving along your journey. Make the instrument a part of your life so that it grows along with you. Have a roadmap, know why you’re working on something, and don’t just practice for the sake of it.
Pitfall 3: BIG PICTURE
As musicians we sometimes have to isolate certain aspects of the music we are working on. The issue comes when this focus is overdone and we put things under the microscope. Keeping the big picture in mind when you’re working on things will help keep you on track and not over focus on tiny aspects of the music.
Key Points for Consistent Improvement:
Point 1: MUSIC IS CIRCULAR
Think of music as a circular process, not a linear one. There is information that you learn that you will later come back to and learn it better. Musicians have an urge to push past knowledge. Revisit the ideas that you have and learn them better. Double down on the things that appeal the most to you. Instead of asking for new ideas demand more of what you already have. You can always add your take to things and make them your own.
Point 2: DON’T OVER DO IT
There is such a thing as over-practicing, and this often leads to burn out. There comes a point where you start to get diminishing returns. It is important to know when to walk away (momentarily). Taking a break and coming back with a fresh perspective could be just the thing to refresh and re-energize your practice. Something to note is that we need time away from the instrument to let what we were working on process and assimilate into our musical arsenal.
You’ll find that these concepts and strategies have the possibility for much overlap. Which ones resonated with you? Practice is fluid and so it requires tweaking every now and then. Be aware of the way you do things: is it achieving the desired results? Be critical when it comes to your practice and take aspects of this article that you think could improve your results.
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