Saturday, May 28, 2011

Will your child will be a success on guitar?

In 1997 University of Melbourne Music Education Professor Gary McPherson  randomly selected 157 children to choose and learn a musical instrument. McPherson was trying to identify the traits of those children who went on to become accomplished musicians and those who did not. Expected indicators like I.Q., a sense of rhythm and aural ability surprisingly played no real role in whether a child went on to become an accomplished musician.

The all important question

When conducting the research each child was asked even before selecting a musical instrument a simple question. "How long do you think you will play?". It turns out the answer to this question was the best predictor of their long term success. Those children who answered "Not very long" did not become proficient. Those who said a few years became reasonably proficient and those who said they would play for life became the top students. Students who made this commitment even before picking up an instrument were seeing their future.

Visualising is believing

What such studies teach us is the importance of visualising our future success. Almost every great achiever had some vision of themselves becoming great before reaching the level of success they finally achieved. Olympic athletes don't just get lucky. They are often single minded all the way to the gold medal. Almost every great musician I have read about has followed in the steps of their heroes. Whether its Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Joe Pass, Segovia, Slash, Jimi Page, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Angus Young or Joe Satriani the story is much the same. "When I saw or heard (their guitar hero) I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life".

Talent is not an indicator of long term success

Studies like McPherson's also reveal a very important fact. Innate talent has very little to do with long term success. This has been shown in study after study. If you set out a vision for yourself and work at it that vision will almost always become a reality provided it's a realistic vision. If you are aged 60 and want to win gold at the Olympics for the 100m sprint it's somewhat unrealistic. I think we all know the difference. I recently heard the story about a young boy living in Costa Rica who decided he wanted to go into space. Considering Costa Rica has no space program his chances were close to zero of ever achieving his goal. After over coming many hurdles he eventually made it to America, learnt to speak English, became an astronaut and has to date flown on several space shuttle missions.

Learning to swim 

For parents I believe you can help your children by talking in terms of a long term commitment to music. When we take our children to swimming lessons we don't say "Hi. I would just like to see if my child has a talent for swimming" yet I often here parents say when they go to enroll their child for guitar lessons such things as "We thought we would give a try but not sure if she has any talent" or "Let's do a term of lessons and see what happens". These kind of comments tell children that if at first you don't succeed then give up. If instead parents take the approach of  asking the question "So you have decided you are going to be a musician. Do you know what this means?" Then go on to explain that it involves daily practice and weekly lessons. When you take this approach you are far less likely to see your child dropping out of music lessons.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Parents - How to inspire your child to learn guitar

Bruce H. Lipton Ph.D. in his book 'The Wisdom of Cells' describes how a child's brain from birth goes through different stages of learning starting  from the low frequency of 'delta' in the first 2 years (a frequency in adults that only occurs when sleeping or unconscious) to the next stage from ages 2 to 6 years known as 'theta' then from 6 years they move into alpha (consciousness) and finally at 12 years beta. Lipton's conclusion is the young brain is simply in a state of absorbing information. This could be compared to downloading information into a computer’s hard drive. In the case of a child straight into the subconscious bypassing the conscious brain.

Surround your child with music for best results

The obvious recommendation for any parent is to simply surround your child with music and if possible musical instruments. Children naturally learn language because they are surrounded by it 24/7. Therefore if you really want your child to do anything your best strategy is to begin by doing it yourself. Parents who learns guitar and practice daily are far more likely to find their child also wanting to learn guitar in years to come. There are no guarantees of course because children see many things going on in their lives but the more you play the more likely they are to want to play. No force required. These days I interview many guitarists wanting to become professional guitar players or teachers. While I have no actual statistics I would guess that close to 50% have at least one parent or close relative who also plays guitar.

Advice not necessarily for everyone

When parents learn guitar at the same time as their children every situation will be unique so the advice I am about to offer is based more around the majority of cases I have seen over the years. This may or may not apply to you but if you are at least aware you can look for early signs of trouble.

Practicing together can lead to problems

When parents learn with their children they sometimes see it as an opportunity to spend quality time together but problems can arise. For example children under 12 years typically progress at a slower rate due to hand strength and fine motor skills and sometimes even grasping general concepts is a challenge. This means that when Mum or Dad start to move ahead the child can quickly lose confidence which may be expressed in the form of restlessness  (frustration) or disinterest ("I'm bored"). Conversely  as an adult you may get frustrated because your child is not keeping up. But the most important reason to avoid practicing together is so you can focus on your child when they are practicing. By all means play along but keep the spotlight firmly on your child. Move at their pace and support them to build their confidence. Be aware that if your relatively rapid progress may be intimidating for them. When they can successfully execute a new song it's time to perform in front of friends and family. When you play together it should be for fun and within their limitations.

Find shared musical interests

It's never too early to introduce your child to the music you like but don't be upset if they find it boring or just not cool. Keep searching until you find something you both like. This means also listening to their favorites. The more you look the more likely you are to find shared tastes. If your child is still very young don't just assume that they only like 'Twinkle twinkle'. Young children may not respond to your Santana collection when they are 2 years old but if they hear it enough by the time they are 5 or 6 they will be trying to work out the riff to 'Black Magic Woman' on the guitar. It never ceases to amaze me how many children love the classic songs from the 60s and 70s such as 'Smoke on the water' ,'TNT' and 'Stairway to Heaven'.

Find the right teachers

It can be easy to assume that when you as an adult find a good teacher that same teacher will be good for your child. While there are certainly teachers who can teach both adults and children equally as well it's more the exception than the rule. I mean no disrespect to my fellow guitar teachers but every teacher has a unique set of skills and while one teacher's skills may match your needs quite nicely it's a mistake to assume they will also be the best choice for your child. The best advice I can give you here is to ask yourself the following questions. No.1. Does your child have good rapport with the teacher? No.2.  Is your child making reasonable progress? (the teacher should be using some kind of method or system of measuring progress that you and your child can easily follow). No.3. Does your child's confidence appear to be growing? If yes to all then you have found the right teacher.

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The many benefits of a guitar teacher

Learning guitar from a book, DVD, Youtube or the internet are all worthy contenders and usually offer in their own right some valuable information. A keen student will source their information from wherever they can get it and not depend wholly and solely on one source but as research shows again and again in almost any field these sources pale in comparison to a real life teacher. It is the whole reason schools and universities will never go out of vogue. Interaction with a real live person offers the greatest learning experience and especially in a subject that involves a combination of knowledge, ear training and motor skills and there is no better example than the guitar.

Here are just a few of the benefits to having a real life teacher;

ACCOUNTABILITY - Studies show that when we are accountable to someone and especially a peer we are far more likely to stay the course. Research into weight loss has found that people who join weight loss centers or get a coach are on average more successful. In fact just having a coach will give you an advantage over those who do not regardless of how good they are. So having a coach (any coach) is better than no coach at all.

FEEDBACK - Having someone to actually look at the way you sit, hold the guitar, place your fingers etc. is priceless. You will learn so much faster if someone is able to guide you because the correction process is regular. I taught myself guitar for 2 years before finding a teacher and I more a less had to start again. I wasted 2 years.

STRUCTURE - A good teacher will give you the structure you need especially in the early stages. For many students it is hard to know where to start. Learn from a professional and let them show you how they do what they do and avoid common mistakes and pitfalls. At the very least its good to have a second opinion other than your own.

INSPIRATION - A good teacher is inspiring. Having a lesson once a week will get you motivated and keep you on track. The best players in all fields from guitarists to sports people to politicians seek advice and coaching not just for information but to keep their motivation up. In fact the personal developmentindustry is perhaps the fastest growing second only to IT.

ANSWERS - Being able to ask someone a question about guitar who can explain it to you in a way that you understanding sure beats spending hours on the net getting frustrated. There is as much misinformation as facts out there so rather then guess what is what you can run it by your teacher,

INTERNET - We know the net has answers to almost any question but its the sheer volume of information that is the real problem. A good teacher will help you to know where to look and find what you need. Again the teacher is a time saver. Remember the challenge is not to teach yourself to play guitar (a nice achievement but no one really cares how you learn when you play great guitar) but to find the best way to learn.

In summary your time is valuable so it is important that you make the best use of your time by learning from a qualified teacher.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why learning guitar can make you happy

Is it just me or do people who play guitar seem happier than average? It seems there may be a very good reason for this fact. It's no coincidence that 'The Blues' became synonymous with guitar. The very act of learning guitar helps you to focus and take your mind off your worries. Recent research reveals that learning a musical instrument may indeed bring about sustained happiness.

Positive psychology 

Martin E. P. Seligman is a leading psychology professor in the US who specializes in the field of positive psychology. Seligman discovered early in his career that the overwhelming majority of research on psychology was focused on understanding and curing mental disorders. In other words negative psychology. A comparison could be made to physical health. For many years people would only seek out a professional (usually a doctor) when they were sick. Today the health and fitness industry is massive due to the fact that people understand that there are different levels of health. Just because you are not feeling sick doesn't mean you are necessarily as healthy as you should or could be.

Authentic happiness

In the area of psychology we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to improve  our general level of happiness. Just because you are not depressed doesn't mean you are necessarily jumping for joy. Depression is very much on the rise and as with physical health problems like  heart disease and cancer, prevention may help you to avoid becoming a victim in the future.  Seligman's book 'Authentic happiness' raises the topic of positive psycholgy in more detail for those who are interested but I would just like to point out how learning guitar ties into positive psychology.

 Short term pleasure v long term gratification

Seligman explains how happiness basically comes in two forms. Short term pleasure and long term gratification. Pleasure is usually short lived and easily obtain. E.g. Eating chocolate, watching TV, playing video games etc. Long term gratification on the other hand mostly comes from a sense of achievement which of course usually requires a period of dedication and self sacrifice. E.g. Getting fit, passing an exam and of course learning to play guitar. Short term pleasure is basically the opposite of long term gratification resulting mostly in opposite outcomes. With pleasure you get the reward now and pay later whereas with long term gratification you sacrifice now and get the rewards later and almost always with interest.

Marshmallow experiment

In one study known as the 'Marshmallow experiment' they would put a 4yo in a room with a marshmallow and the experimenter would leave the room telling the child that they would return in a little while. The experimenter would add that if they could wait for them to return without eating the marshmallow they would receive two marshmallows. The children who were able to resist (delay gratification) were found later in life to get higher scores on their SATs. What this study concluded was children at 4yo who can delay gratification were more likely to be successful at school and a later follow up study found their average incomes were also higher.

Invest your time wisely

Keep in mind that we can apply the pleasure and gratification idea to learning guitar. The most obvious example is when students focus on just playing songs or riffs without really learning the skills of guitar. These students are seeking the short term pleasure of being able to play a new riff or song while avoiding the sacrifice of practicing the essential skills that in the long term will allow them to play their favourite songs with precision.  The best way to find the real rewards on guitar is to put in real effort. When you go for the quick results and don't invest the time and effort the result is usually frustration and disappointment. Those who invest their time wisely by spending at least 50% of their time focusing on developing the skills required (not just songs) will reap the rewards in years to come not just as skilled guitarists but in the psychological pay out of long term gratification.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Achieving begins with believing...especially on guitar

Do you really believe you can be a great guitarist?

Neuroscience researchers are building a growing body of evidence that our minds play a very powerful role in our physical and mental health and perhaps life outcomes. In fact in some cases the evidence is so strong that it's surprising how little media attention these findings receive. I have come across hundreds of studies in my own research that leave no doubt that our minds play a leading role in our everyday lives which of course affects your ability to learn guitar. To many of you (especially those who read my blogs) this is not new information but lets explore how this may apply to learning the guitar.

The Placebo effect

A placebo is a treatment or medication given to a patient that has no actual effect but where the patient is told it is an actual working medication.  When placebos are given to subjects (volunteers)  in studies usually conducted by drug companies to prove the effectiveness of a new drug.  The researchers will  compare two or more groups with one group taking the placebo to see if the drug indeed showed any significant difference compared with the placebo. Remember the group taking the placebo are unaware they are taking a placebo and in some cases in what is known as a double-blind test even the researchers don't know until after the results are presented.  In numerous studies the placebo has actually been equally as effective as taking the drug. The only current explanation is mind over matter or health in this case.

The Knowcebo effect

The undeniable fact is our beliefs play a very strong role in the way our body responds to everything from the common cold to cancer to depression to achieving success in certain areas of our lives.  In one study for depression they found that a very well known drug only worked if people knew they were actually taking the drug. If the drug was taken unknowingly it had no effect. This has been labeled the 'Knowcebo' effect meaning no effect unless you know you are taking the drug. In another study they found that if people were unaware that there was alcohol in their drink they actually showed less signs of being under the influence. There may be many more examples of the knowcebo effect that we just aren't aware of.

The guitar teacher placebo

Understanding the placebo and knowcebo effects may actually help in learning guitar. The placebo effect infers that what we believe can make a difference to how our body responds even on a subconscious level.  In one survey they found that doctors will often prescribe standard drugs for a host of unrelated symptoms because they know the patient doesn't want to walk away without a prescription of some description. The actual drug has no known properties to heal the patient's condition but the placebo effect seems to improve the patient's condition. From personal experience as both a guitar student and teacher I can say the same thing in relation to learning guitar. As a student my teacher would tell me to practice a particular exercise and the result would be a perceived improvement in my playing. The reality is real improvement happens over months or years of practice not a few hours but my mind felt the exercises were having an immediate effect which in turn boasted my confidence and therefore created a real definite and noticeable improvement in my playing.  I often felt that the day or two after my lesson was when I made the greatest improvement with a slide down in the days following. The teacher was having an obvious effect on the way I perceived myself as a guitarist. The exercises gave me a sense that I had the secret formula for learning guitar.

Believing you can is your biggest challenge

 In a Steve Vai video lesson I saw recently he pointed out how important it is to visualize yourself being able to play what may seem impossible. Vai knows the power of belief and visualising your future self. When we believe we can achieve something we will begin to put the work in to make it happen but that means taking action. The more action you take the closer you get to your goal but there is also the effect of inertia. When marathon runners know the finish line is close they naturally increase their pace. The closer the line the faster they get. This means the more you practice the more you want to practice especially as you see your goals in sight. But it's worth pointing out that believing is only the beginning . As a beginner believing I can already do something is delusional, knowing I will is dreaming (a good thing but...) and taking action knowing that achievement comes through action is being realistic. Believing you can be a  great guitarist while a basic requirement is also your biggest challenge. If you have enough fingers and enough determination you can succeed. For almost everyone it's purely a choice.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Understanding Scales - For Beginners

Understanding scales may at first seem daunting mostly because of the overwhelming number of possible scales. The trick is to start with one or two and when you feel confident move add a new scale to your repertoire. Also keep in mind that certain scales are used the majority of the time. Some blues players for instance use nothing but the blues scale.

The Chromatic scale 

A scale by definition is just a series of notes determined by specific intervals. Intervals in music refer to the distance in pitch based on what is known as the Chromatic scale. A fancy word for all 12 notes used in western music.  The 12 notes are below but note that an A# and Bb for example are the same note. The name just depends on the key or circumstance. Something you may want to discuss with your teacher in more depth later.

1. A  2. A#/Bb  3. B  4. C  5. C#/Db  6. D  7. D#/Eb  8. E  9. 10. F#/Gb  11. G  12. G#/Ab

The C major scale

To get you started lets look at a C major scale. A major scale has 7 notes. In the case of C the notes are; C D E F G A & B. To play the C major scale take a look at the diagrams below. In the first example the scale is played using a combination of fretted notes and open notes. In the second example the scale ascends and descends through 2 octaves and is played in what we call 2nd position. The small numbers next to the notation signify the fingering.

C major scale in 1st (open) position

C major scale in 2nd position

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Are you prepared to quit guitar?

In Seth Godin's book 'The Dip' he gives a very good analogy on achieving true success which fits perfectly with guitar. The dip is basically the period between the initial enthusiasm of starting a new challenge and achieving your ultimate goal. Almost every imaginable challenge involves a dip. The make or break period if you like.

Those who make it through the dip

When we see elite musicians, sports champions, successful entrepreneurs or  political leaders what we are seeing are people who have made it through their respective dips. They have persevered despite the often numerous failures and setbacks. The Beatles for example played in clubs night after night for years before finally making it. When we see Olympic athletes collecting medals we are seeing the result of years of dedicated training. Usually the more elusive the prize the bigger the dip. Learning to use your new TV for instance is a relatively small dip compared to winning an Olympic gold medal.

Is it worth it?

We often hear and see people who have trained and persevered for years only to miss out on achieving their goal. In fact when the prize is highly sort after and limited to only one or handful of winners most people will fail. Imagine you trained all your life to be the world's No.1 tennis player and win Wimbledon but during your peak you were simply not good enough due to one or two other players who were simply superior. This would almost feel unfair right? You have dedicated your life to this sport, push through the dip and still failed to win.

The voice of the dip
This is actually what that little voice in your heads says while you are going through the dip. Over and over again. This voice has one mission in life. To convince you to give up. The voice is the ultimate salesperson relentlessly calling you at all hours trying to sell you on the benefits of giving up. "Don't waste your time. There is no point. You will never succeed. It's too hard.  Success is never what it's cracked up to be" and so on. Ignoring this voice is what successful people do extremely well. Getting through the dip is all about ignoring this voice while also replacing it with positive self talk.

The guitar dip

Learning guitar of course involves a dip and depending on your goal the dip can vary from say a couple of months of daily practice to years. Around 90% of students who take up guitar begin to enter the dip within the first 6 months. Typically they turn up for their first guitar lesson all excited and literally can't wait to get started. It's at this point I will usually explain that while guitar is very rewarding they are likely to want to quit in the coming weeks or months. I basically take the prevention approach to the dip. No matter how committed they think they are I know most will lose enthusiasm and will want to give up sooner or later. My aim here is not to be pessimistic or to dampen their enthusiasm but to avoid a common misunderstanding.

Dip awareness

Not being aware of the dip is a bit like a Titanic waiting to happen. The Titanic set sail with everyone in charge expecting a smooth uneventful voyage. Their lack of awareness caused them to be unprepared for possible disasters. The Titanic was cruising through dangerous waters and the ship had not been tested against the possibility of slamming into an iceberg. Had they been aware of possible problems they could have installed enough life boats and even had a rescue party on standby. Unlike the Titanic where a potential risk of colliding with an iceberg big enough to sink it was relatively small it's almost a certainty that you will run into an iceberg (an unforeseen loss of motivation).

Preparing for the dip

The way to prepare is to simply ask yourself the question? "What will I do when I lose enthusiasm and feel like giving up?" You might say things like " I will give it one more month and see how I feel" or "I will make sure I chat to my teacher before making any decisions" or "I will at least complete the first level certificate before making a decision" or "I will complete 50 hours of practice before I decide". Another strategy is to set up rewards for yourself. Treat yourself to a concert or DVD or a movie. Whatever it takes. The trick  is to set up a contingency plan while you are motivated so when the mood changes you are ready. The longer you hang in there the less you will want to stop. As you move through the dip your confidence grows stronger and the option of quitting fades into the distance.


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Friday, May 6, 2011

Spend time listening to music. I mean really listening.

I can't remember the number of times I read or heard interviews with great musicians being asked the question about what advice they would give young music students and they almost always mention answer listening.  Becoming a great musician begins with listening to music. If you or your child are not inspired to pick up the guitar everyday you are probably not listening to enough inspiring music.

Our subconscious responds to stimuli

I recently came across a TV show based on the latest research on the eating habits of children. There were various research topics but one that stood out was the one about children eating more food when they watched TV compared to no TV while seated at the dining room table. Over eating and TV is not just exclusive to children of course. I also came across an article in the U.K. Guardian entitled 'Children gain weight as they watch TV'.  In fact overeating is a huge problem with obesity levels at an all time high and it seems our old friend the TV could be partly to blame. I know I have found myself at times snacking in front of the TV even though I recently ate an adequate sized dinner. At first I never really made the connection between food and TV but it becomes quite apparent when you start noticing the number of fast food commercials on TV. For children in the afternoon it tends to be sweets and snacks. These commercials work on your subconscious mind by filling it with images of food. When food is constantly being thrown up in front of you it doesn't take long before your brain responds and the cravings begin. While it may be a little disturbing to realise your brain is being cleverly manipulated into ringing for a pizza or heading down to the drive thru there is an upside.

The upside of brain manipulation.

Our brains can also be cleverly manipulated into getting us to do positive activities such as practicing guitar. There is (for most people anyway) certain songs that will inspire one to pick up a guitar whether on a conscious level or a subconscious level. What was it about the song 'Stairway to Heaven' that drove so many people to want to  learn guitar. There were a thousand similar guitar pieces with beautiful finger picking patterns yet for some reason they did not have the same impact on the masses. 'Smoke on the water' is yet another example. Even people who have never touched a guitar are inspired to play when they hear this classic riff. These songs are popular examples of inspiration at work but what inspires you will depend on personal taste.

When I listen I only listen

I  know from my own childhood listening to music was a daily part of life. For myself music could never be just in the back ground. In fact I find music played for the sake of a little ambiance is either annoying or distracting. In my 20s I  had great trouble going to clubs or parties where music was playing and everyone was chatting (shouting) over the top. When music is playing I am listening.  As a child  I would literally lay down on the ground close my eyes and get lost in the amazing journey the music would take me on. I am surprised I am not deaf actually because my ears certainly got a serious workout and still do. I was fortunate because my father had no interest in TV but loved music. Spending time with my father meant listening to music. TV was never an option. My love and passion for music was born out of the huge amount of listening I did especially as a child. I can recall as a young child opting to sit in the car and listen to tapes of Paul McCartney or David Bowie or Ian Hunter rather then sit inside and watch TV. The car also allowed me to play it loud of course without the sound of another family member telling me to turn it down. These were the days before portable music players.

Music is pure inspiration

Listening to music is largely absorbed by your subconscious. Music in movies is often what makes you cry, your heart race or makes you fearful or anxious. Music is so powerful on the subconscious that political leaders have used it to persuade their followers and to excite the masses. Music is one of the greatest motivators of all so make sure you not only spend time listening but seeking the music that inspires you to practice guitar.


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