These days what I’ve been focusing on with many students is the need to “see” groups of chords. That is, not just deal with a new piece of music on a chord-to-chord basis. Of course, when a piece is unfamiliar and brand new you must attack it chord by chord but as soon as possible it’s important to visualize sequences or groups of chords. This is simply because to play a song with no breaks in the rhythm you must think ahead. This allows you took watch your fretting hand and imagine the chord or better yet, a few of them that are about to be played. Every great guitarist does this. If you don’t believe me, watch the lead guitar player in a band, that usually anonymous guy standing behind the star. His eyes are almost always on the neck of his guitar and I promise you, he is not looking so much at what he’s playing but rather at what he’s about to play. Learning groups of chords in sequence makes this much easier.
What goes hand in hand with this (pun intended!) is recognizing the repetitive nature of almost all popular music. Consciously or unconsciously, songwriters have known how important this is for hundreds of years. If a song is to be popular it MUST be repetitive. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus is a common pattern. The verses are almost entirely the same in terms of chord sequences, as are the choruses. So if you learn one verse and chorus, you’ve learned almost all the song. This can get boring from a listener or player’s perspective though and this is why a bridge (an entirely different part of the song) is sometimes used to break up the verse/chorus/verse/chorus monotony. And inside the verse and the chorus it’s common for there to be chord sequences that are repeated from line to line, or with a different line in between.
Our brains thrive on a piece of music being predictable. And there is no better way to make a song predictable than by using repetition. Conversely, this is why many people have a hard time becoming emotionally attached to jazz. It’s just not predictable! But that’s why very accomplished musicians are drawn to it; the challenge of improvising in a fresh and unpredictable way that still conveys emotion is almost irresistible to advanced players. But even in jazz, having a “head” or melody that is based on a predictable chord sequence is almost essential. Take the classic “I’ve Got Rhythm.” That chord sequence is so common in jazz songs that when one player is calling out a tune to others who may not know it, if it has that sequence all he has to say is: “Rhythm changes, key of B flat!” and the others instantly know the song.
Maximizing practice time. This is so, so important. Very few of us have the time in our busy lives to practice as much as we would like. So it’s vital that the time you do have is put to the best possible use. In the case of someone taking lessons – and paying for them – beneficial practice only makes sense if you hope to progress and see results from your investment. So how to do that? First of all, if possible, try to dedicate a certain time each day to pick up your instrument. I have students who practice right after or before dinner and even ones who begin their day with playing almost as soon as they get up. This way, practice becomes part of your daily routine and you will notice if your routine is disrupted. Practicing at random times is probably the norm with most people but the danger there is that a number of days may pass when it’s easy to convince yourself that you have a more compelling activity.
So what do you do when practicing? With my students, this is what I recommend. Start by selecting a song or even an easy exercise that you know you can play pretty well and go for it. This builds your confidence. Or play a few that you like! Warming up before tackling harder music is always a good idea. Then begin attacking your latest piece of music. Rejoice in small triumphs within that piece and don’t be too hard on yourself about parts that are more challenging. Always separate those parts from the piece and practice them on their own. But be sure to add a few measures before and after that hard part, too, as the transitions from less difficult to more difficult to easier parts can become as big a problem as the hard part itself if they’re not dealt with.
Keep a steady beat when practicing a song, even if that beat is much slower than what you know the finished product should sound like. I always say this to students: Rhythm is the Great Equalizer! What I mean by that is any piece of music played to rhythmic perfection, regardless of how slow, i.e., with a steady beat, will be easier to gradually speed up to the desired tempo compared to playing only easy parts of a song fast while stopping or slowing down on the harder parts. I always have to ask them to believe me when it comes to this concept because OF COURSE we want to hear a song up to tempo and part of our brain allows us to be satisfied with parts even if the whole is flawed. Always remember that from a listener’s perspective, even a very simple song with few chords that is played rhythmically perfect is much more pleasing than a fancy song that is stopped again and again. Rhythm bonds the listener and player.
Some students seem to almost fight with their guitars when I first see them or they are beginning lessons with me after playing on their own for a long time. Awkward motion and outright pain when playing almost always come down to something quite simple, which is posture and holding the guitar correctly. Assuming the player is sitting (and almost everyone does this rather than standing up) it’s vital to select a straight-backed chair with no arms and sit up straight. The natural tendency (and I am often guilty of this, although I’m better than I used to be!) is to kind of slump over the instrument. Why? To see what the heck you’re doing! A bad habit that goes along with this holding the guitar with the body tilted slightly toward being flat on our lap, again to better see what’s going on. The problem is, both slumping and holding the guitar toward a flat plane makes reaching around the neck much, much more difficult and in some cases makes arching the fingers for clear tone all but impossible. The back of the guitar should rest flat against your belly and chest. The neck must be at least parallel to the floor – holding it on an upward angle is better – but never, ever allow the head of the guitar to point down toward the floor and rest your forearm on your leg. The best way I know to help mitigate these bad habits is to use a strap when you play, usually adjusted to a shorter length when used while sitting compared to its length if you were standing. This way the weight of the guitar, especially the weight of the neck is off your hands. Sad to say, you just have to get used to looking over the neck and body as well as possible without slumping or tilting the guitar. Not easy, but it CAN be done. You’ll thank me for this some day, ha!
There are a few other things that I see all the time that stand in the way of students reaching their potential; I’ll probably get into those in a future post. Until then…..
Peace & good music,