Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The average 21 yo American has spent 10,000 hours on video games. Why not guitar?

This is an intriguing question. Almost every 21yo I speak to would love to be able to play guitar but few find any real satisfaction in their mastery of video games. In fact they usually won't even admit their gaming obsession. There are no real long term benefits to playing video games and in fact the opposite is true. Research has shown that too much video gaming can lead to depression and anxiety. See the article 'Reduce kids video game time...' If they were to use the 10,000 hours studying or practicing any one of a thousand or more other skills they would  find themselves in the top 1%. Whether it be sports, academics or music. Studies done on violinists found the best had done around 10,000 hours of practice.

"Come and watch me play my video game"

If you are going to invest 10,000 hours to master something why not something that offers real rewards. Being a video game master is not something that I would imagine holds the same rewards as guitar.  The feeling you get from just 500 hundred hours of guitar practice let alone 10,000 hours is not only truly satisfying but your friends will take pleasure in hearing you perform.  Start playing your video game for them and I doubt you will get much interest no matter how good you are.

Why do people invest so much valuable time in to video games?

I recently read that the richest person in Japan now is not a car manufacturer or a phone company or even a banker but the owner of Nintendo. Games are big business. The prime difference between a game and say learning guitar from what I understand is the game is akin to gambling. Gambling is seductive because as studies show small payouts keep you interested and often lead to addiction. They can predict with surprising accuracy at what point the average person will lose interest. In gambling this is important because they want your money but if they get too greedy you will walk away. With video games they are developed in such a way that you receive enough small rewards to keep you in the game and gradually you become addicted. With games they want to keep you feeling challenged. Make it too easy and you get bored. Too hard and you won't bother trying.

Guitar is the 'too hard' game
Guitar as with many worthwhile skills falls into the 'too hard' basket. Guitar just doesn't have the addictive qualities required to pull you in like video games and gambling because it lacks the small rewards.  There are small rewards of course but most are infrequent and only begin to appear when you commit to regular practice. Sit at a video game for 10 minutes and it is likely you have already won several times and move to the next level. You get a feeling of real accomplishment. The little voice in your head says 'Hey you are good at this'. 10 minutes of guitar and the result will likely be sore fingers and perhaps a few notes of a riff but with the little voice saying 'This is no fun. Let's do something else'. What makes guitar even more challenging is at times it can take weeks, months or even years to develop some of the skills required to play your favorite songs. The payouts are illusive and at times seem impossible to achieve. This is why after 10 minutes of guitar practice you are more likely to lose interest opposed to 10 minutes of video games but ask yourself the following question. Which option offers the greatest pleasure long term? If in doubt about the answer ask any long term guitarist.

 Jane McGonigal's TEDTALK presentation helps to understand why games are seductive. 

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Friday, August 26, 2011

The art of learning guitar

Many musicians see music purely as art. Some will even see structure and planning as the enemy of the artist. Art is in fact the expression of one's imagination and really has nothing to do with 'learning' guitar other than the teacher finding creative new ways to teach when required. Learning guitar is about acquiring the skills needed to express your imagination musically. When you learn guitar what you seek are the skills and you want to know scientifically if possible the best way to acquire those skills. The artist in you needs to be patient and wait for her/his turn. Now is the time to learn.

Playing guitar v learning guitar

When you learn guitar you are not playing guitar. There is a big difference. I often make the comparison to building a house. When you begin building your house you won't be living in it for some time. Building a house and learning guitar both require motivation. When doing either your focus should not be heavily weighted on living in your house (playing guitar) but on staying motivated and enjoying the building process. When we focus too much on the goal we start to cut corners and the result is often a house built on shaky foundations. When you focus more on the work/practice you will begin to enjoy the process. This by the way doesn't mean you ignore your goals. Having goals are very important as they give you a clear direction.

Is the great artist a great teacher?

A great artist is highly respected. In fact when we think of the musicians who influenced us to learn guitar chances are they are just that. Great artists.  How can we be like them? Jimi Hendrix influenced many of today's guitarists both directly and indirectly but would he have made a good guitar teacher? I can't personally say but what I do know is I have never read or heard any evidence showing that Jimi was a great teacher. Jimi was a great artist and while it is possible that he may have been a great teacher being a great artist does not qualify him to be a teacher. But please don't misunderstand my message here. I encourage you to seek out a teacher who has the skills and even artistry of a master but make sure they also possess the skill of teaching.

Structure is the key
A great guitar teacher knows that structured learning is the key. With structure your teacher can measure your progress and ensure you are on track. This does not mean the teacher is inflexible or is unwilling to consider your musical influences but a good guitar teacher will not lose sight of the goal and that is to help you develop the skills of good guitar playing. As you develop the skills you will be able to play the songs you personally prefer but if you can find a teacher who shares your musical preferences even better.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Guitar mind games

When we set out to learn music we rarely consider the psychology involved. Our main considerations tend to be connection to the physical aspects such as how to hold the guitar, where to put our fingers and perhaps the theoretical aspects like string names, general music theory and so on. Dealing with the monotony of repetitive exercises or playing the same old song over and over and over again hundreds of times only to realize you still don't sound like the recording can be somewhat depressing. It's this psychological toll that often breaks many beginner students eventually forcing them to quit. By being more aware of the psychological effects you will know what to expect. This is helpful especially in the early months when you will be questioning whether it's actually worth the effort but let me assure you right now it's more than worth it assuming you do actually have a passion for music of course.

Learning music is fun right?

For the average person music is something to be enjoyed. When you listen to music you do so for one of several reasons. It could be to relax, to lift your spirits, for fun or to create a mood. The problem begins when we place the same expectation on learning music. When we learn music suddenly it goes from being a pleasant experience to hard work. The fantasy quickly dissolves as reality sets in. While to some this may seem obvious the fact is many students who take up guitar approach learning expecting the same experience as listening. Making a film is nothing like watching a film. Watching an Olympic athlete run the 100m is very different to training for the Olympics.

'No pain no gain' or in our case 'no practice no gain'.

Perhaps you have seen one of those commercials selling home fitness equipment with perfectly toned individuals (probably athletes who train 5+ hours a day) using their ABC cruncher machine with a big smile on their face and appearing to be having fun. The machine may help to isolate muscle groups and I am sure works if used correctly but the fun is somewhat questionable. Getting fit requires hard work and daily commitment. The smiles come after months or even years of committed training. Guitar is no different. It will likely take years to reach a level where you can play a range of music that you can truly feel good about. There is no escaping this fact. The basic rule here is to be honest with yourself from the outset because this is a marathon and being honest means you will be better prepared psychologically to go the distance.

Understanding what motivates you

Staying motivated requires understanding your own mind and this in turn requires some research. Firstly you need to know what motivates you. Can you name right now the top 10 things that would motivate you to practice right now. Is it listening to certain songs? Perhaps it's watching a DVD or talking to friends who play or going to lessons. It may even be reading a book on motivation or a biography of famous musician. Anything that makes you want to practice. I personally keep a journal and write a paragraph or two each night on how I felt about my practice and progress generally. This helps me to reflect while keeping my expectations realistic but best of all if I have an off day I can go back and read previous journal entries so as to remind me of the good days. The point is to find what works for you.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Advice for guitar teachers (and parents) of young children

Parents of young children (under 6 years) often ask  two important questions.

1. Do you have experience teaching young children?
2. What do you actually teach?

Teaching young children guitar is an extensive subject that would require a book or two to really cover in detail but a good way to answer these questions is to share with you the advice I would give to a an inexperienced guitar teacher if I had to summarise in one page. So here goes.

Dear Teacher,

Working with young children is a never ending learning experience and when you meet a very young student for the first time you are most definitely under pressure as every child is unique. Here are a few strategies that almost always work well so hopefully they will get you started.

Parent involvement. - Involve parents as much as possible. E.g. Ask the parent to clap along with their child or ask the child to show their parents the parts of the guitar. "Can you show Mum/Dad which string is No.1?"  

Keep it fun - Don't worry too much about what they learn in lesson one. Play games and keep it fun. Ask them if they can sing any songs. E.g. Twinkle, twinkle and have a sing a long. By starting with something that is familiar to them they will relax. If everything is new and strange they will feel uncomfortable and out of place.

Parent expectations - Your real client is the parent (not the child). Every parent has certain expectations from the lessons. They want to know that you have the experience to meet those expectations. Once understood explain your plan for their child's education. 

You are a stranger - A young child will often be shy at the first lesson because you are a stranger. Some parents can misunderstand this shyness for a lack of interest so it helps to explain to the parents that this is normal and that it will take time for their child to become comfortable at the lesson. Next show the parent what you would like them to do at home.

Confidence - Lessons with young children often come with surprises such as a child refusing to participate in the lesson. Treating such situations as normal will reassure parents that you are confident because the reality is young children just need time to become used to a new environment. I will often to say "The first few weeks are usually a bit strange for them so don't be surprised if next week he/she doesn't want to come to the lesson. The trick is to come anyway and in a month or two they will look forward to coming. Its all about routine and familiarity."

Hope that helps and please feel free to email me at anytime. 


Keep searching
Starting out young is the best time so if you are a parent with a young child now is the time to get them started. Some teachers do not take on young children so keep looking until you find a teacher who accepts younger students and if at first you don't succeed keep searching.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The importance of fundamentals

I recently watch a football game where both teams were evenly match but the more experienced team (the average player had played more games at this level) appeared to be sticking to the fundamentals even when the pressure was on. The less experienced team took the lead in the last 10 minutes and it looked like they were going to win. I couldn't help noticing how calm the experienced players appeared considering they were about to lose one of the most important games of the year. In the final minutes they scored, took the lead and won the game. They may have very well lost but it would have been mostly due to a lack of time  or opportunity rather then error or poor judgement. Their experience taught them to stick to the fundamentals as it is almost always the best option.

Refining the skills is what matters

Over the years I have read hundreds of books and articles on teaching and coaching and one of the most repetitive messages is 'Stick to the fundamentals'. In saying that it's important to point out that the more experienced team did not win the game in the final minutes just because they stuck to the fundamentals. Sticking to fundamentals is a long term strategy. When we stick to anything long enough we get good at it. Fundamentals are just that. Fundamental skills needed in the activity at hand. Anything else is optional. Experienced players know that each game is just a chance to refine these fundamental skills. One game over a whole season is relatively unimportant. In fact when we are too focused on winning the game we lose sight of the bigger picture. When we stick to the fundamentals we refine those fundamental skills over weeks months and years and our overall game improves. Eventually we get so good that mistakes are rare and that is when the magic appears.

All songs are based on the fundamental skills

Every skill whether it be playing a football game or playing guitar is based on fundamentals. With guitar for example correctly  picking, strumming,  fingering chords, playing scales etc are fundamentals. A footballer might develop their kicking to improve their accuracy when on the field whereas a guitarist will develop her/his picking to get a better result when playing a song even if they have never played the song before. When you stray from the fundamentals you lose the foundation of great guitar playing. Your playing becomes unstable and therefore unreliable. When the pressure is on let's say for an important performance and you are nervous sticking to the fundamentals and focusing on the bigger long term picture will help you to do your best at the time and to avoid placing too much importance on any one performance. Devote time each day to develop the fundamental skills and when it comes time to perform treat it as another practice session.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Why do children really want to stop lessons?

This is perhaps the most important question parents will need to ask at some point because understanding the answer may prevent your child giving up guitar unnecessarily. In fact I would go as far as to say over 90% of children give up on guitar due to a misunderstanding.   When I take teachers through our teacher training program I point out that parents know their children better than anyone. A parent is often much more likely to recognize when their child is not happy, frustrated or losing confidence. Parents are almost always the first person to know when things are not going well and this explains why teachers can often be surprised when a parent calls up to say that they will be stopping lessons. I then go on to explain to teachers that while parents know their child they do not necessarily know how to respond to their child when the learning experience is not going well. Naturally when parents see their child unhappy they respond by ending the apparent source of their misery. Guitar practice. This outcome can fortunately be avoided.

The three stages

When children decide to stop lessons they usually move through a three stage process.

Stage 1. Frustration. The work set by the teacher is too challenging or misunderstood resulting in frustration.
Stage 2. Loss of confidence. The child begins to lose confidence due to the ongoing difficulty or lack of understanding.
Stage 3. Practice stops. At this point they just stop trying deciding its not worth it.


Frustration is your first sign of trouble ahead. Parents who are aware of this early sign should speak to the teacher and if possible sit with their child when they practice. A good strategy is to ask your child to teach you. When they teach you they think differently. Suddenly they are the expert so aim to see the problem from a different perspective. Parents who address frustration from the outset will rarely see their child move to stage 2.

Loss of confidence

The most obvious signs of a loss in confidence come in the form of self defeating statements like "I can't do it" or "It's too hard". A loss in confidence is really just honesty. They see that the task is above and beyond their current ability or understanding. All too often well meaning adults will simply respond with "Come on. You can do it!" While these words are encouraging they don't make for practical advice. When a task is too difficult the trick is break it down. I use the 'step' analogy. Imagine a 2 year old climbing adult stairs. If the steps are too high they give up. Put smaller steps and they can do it. This is where an experienced teacher makes all the difference but parents can play a big role by monitoring their child's practice and speaking to the teacher.

Practice stops

By this point it can be difficult but not impossible to get them back on track. The best solution is to discuss the current practice with their teacher and try to start fresh. If the teacher is unable to help and the situation does not change it may be time to find a new teacher. Different teachers have different strengths and weaknesses so if your child is not responding it does not mean the teacher is not a good teacher but rescuing students at this stage may just not be one of their strengths.

The best approach

The best approach is to work closely with your child and teacher from day one. Parents who work closely with their children will usually get a better result and the issue of wanting to stop guitar lessons is unlikely to ever arise. When a child wants to stop lessons the first two stages have probably been overlooked. The only real exception to this is when a child is forced into learning in the first place but that's another topic. In my experience very few students really want to quit guitar. They just want to escape the frustration and regain their confidence and too often giving up appears to be their only viable option.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Art of Persistence

I will often say that persistence is perhaps the most important trait required by a successful guitar student but lets take it one step further by understanding how you become persistent. After all persistence is obvious in hindsight. When we look at successful people in anything it is all too easy to say they were persistent therefore they succeeded but the real question is how and why did they persist.

3 categories

There are basically three categories of guitar students. Those who persist without any conscious decision, those who consciously persist and those who do not persist. Those who persist without consciously thinking about it are the lucky few. Guitar practice just happens. Each day they will pick up their guitar and work on the current skills and songs giving it no more thought then eating breakfast. Its just part of their day and requires no motivational self talk or reminders from parents or well meaning friends. If this is you think yourself very lucky and the rest of what I am about to write is probably of no use or interest to you.

How to persist

Those who consciously persist account for the majority of successful guitar players. The real question any beginner needs to ask is 'How can I ensure I will persist?' Most beginners will give up and not because they made a conscious decision to quit. They just suddenly find one day that their guitar is sitting in the corner collecting dust then soon after it finds it way to storage or eBay. The persistent guitarists do something very different. They know that each day is a new day and requires a conscious effort to decide no matter what they will practice. They leave nothing to chance. They have B, C and D plans ready when required.

Persistent students are prepared

The persistent guitar student is basically prepared for every occasion. He/She will keep a daily practice log, add a reminder to their calendar, enroll for weekly lessons, keep their guitar on a stand in view but most importantly dedicate a set time each day to practice. The persistent student knows that some days they will look forward to practice but other days they will search for excuses to avoid practice. They also understand that its a marathon not a sprint. Its consistent practice over years that makes great guitar players. They understand their biggest challenge is not the guitar itself but their own mind. The persistent guitar student learns to ignore the voice that says 'It's not worth it' or 'You have better things to do' or worse 'You have no talent so stop wasting your time'.

Mastering persistence

Success on guitar is the result of persistence so your goal is to master the art of persistence. The good news is it gets easier. The longer you persist the less effort you will need to keep persisting. A good analogy I once heard is its like launching a Space shuttle. Getting it off the ground and outside Earth's atmosphere takes a lot of energy but once in space away from the Earth's gravitational pull very little energy is required. In guitar terms the launch period is probably about the first 500 hours of practice. After that you will cruise. But remember if you stop and start it would be like the Space shuttle falling back to Earth and having to relaunch. Set a plan to practice everyday for a year or two and you will find yourself in orbit.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

Are piano students just better students? Part 2

Continuing on from the previous blog Are piano students just better students?
the second lesson I gained from the piano teacher experience was to observe and question every situation especially where someone is getting results. In this case the answer was not obvious at first but I realised the power and influence of the teacher is often seriously underestimated. Even by teachers. In my early years of teaching I would have said that teachers play only a small role in the success of their students. My belief at the time was good students were naturally motivated to learn and practice guitar but the piano teacher experience soon made me realise this could not be true. I say this because I strongly believe a teacher is your best option when it comes to learning guitar but if your (or your child's) first experience with a teacher is not what you hoped for don't stop there. Keep looking and trying different teachers until you find the right teacher but do give each teacher a chance. At least 3 months unless it is obvious they are not the right teacher for you.

Its a family affair

When it comes to children successful teachers know that its a family affair. When I see teachers struggling to teach children the first question I ask is "Do you involve the parents?" and as you may have guessed the answer is usually no. Many parents of course don't get involved for various reasons. Perhaps they know nothing about guitar or music so prefer to keep out of it. It may be they have several children or work and their time is limited or they are not available to attend the lessons. Or it could be they feel their child is old enough to be responsible for their own lessons and learning. In each and every case an effective teacher will find a way to involve parents.

The child’s brain

Children are not permitted to drive, vote or watch certain kinds of movies for a very good reason. They are not yet ready. In fact a child's brain is not fully developed until their early 20's which explains why 18 and 19 year olds are the most likely to be involved in fatal car accidents. Its not so much they lack driving experience as they lack control over their emotions. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that stops us from acting out irrationally and for late teens (mostly boys) driving fast and reckless is basically a lack of rational thinking. After all, if you have less than a few years of driving experience isn't this the time to drive slower and with more caution? If you want to see this in a more extreme example notice how a 2 year old will have a tantrum over the smallest trivial event. Controlling their emotions is very difficult at this age. Children need help from their parents and teachers. Some more than others and every situation is different.

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Are piano students just better students?

In my early years teaching guitar I worked along side a piano teacher. We both had roughly the same number of students but there was an obvious difference. Almost all of her students were improving at a good steady rate whereas my students were inconsistent. At first it wasn't so obvious but after a year or so the disparity between our students was quite remarkable. What made me really take notice was the low turnover of her piano students compared to my guitar students. The piano teacher rarely lost students whereas for me it was almost a weekly occurrence. I know it wasn't personal because many students did not want to stop lessons but their parents realised it was pointless due to the obvious lack of progress. I remember coming to the conclusion that piano students were just better students but as with many untested theories it turned out to be a false conclusion. The difference was the teacher not the students.

Discovering the piano teacher's secret

One afternoon the piano teacher rang me and said she would be late and asked me if I could explain the situation to her students. I was free so rather than leave the student waiting idle I asked him to show me what he was learning. Immediately he proudly showed me his practice log pointing out how much practice he had done during the week. On closer inspection I could see his log was filled in almost every day. When he began to play I asked how long he had been learning and I was stunned to learn he had only began 6 months earlier. When the next student arrived the story was much the same. I then asked the teacher whether she believed the practice log made a difference and her response was something like "I am not sure but I do know the students who use the practice log tend to progress faster".

My experiment

It was time to run an experiment. I divided my students into two groups. Group A kept a practice log. Group B did not. Group A students soon moved ahead of group B students in most cases. The practice log really did make a difference but I was not sure why. I decided the best way to find out was to use one myself. What I noticed almost immediately was a feeling of accountability. If I did not fill in my log I felt I was letting myself down.  There was also a kind of self competitive desire to increase my practice time. If I did 20 mins a day this week I wanted to go for 25 mins a day the next week and so on. If my record for a month was say 4000 minutes I felt compelled to beat my high score the next month. Measuring my practice times motivated me to do better. It's a strange phenomenon but one that works. It's the reason video games are so popular. Most video games are pointless and do nothing more than make you better at the game itself. Let's face it, nobody really cares if you have the high score on a video game yet people are driven often addicted to improve on their score. As you can see if you want to improve your guitar playing start by measuring your practice.

I did learn another very important lesson from the piano teacher which I will share in my next blog.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Advice from Maroon 5 guitarist

The following is an extract from an interview with Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine and he makes a very interesting point. See my comments below.

Interviewer: When you started playing, did your parents ever make you practice?

Valentine: My parents made me start taking piano lessons when I was 8 and I hated it and they made me practice piano. I discovered guitar a few years later and they never had to ask me to practice guitar. In fact they had to come into my room and tell me to stop and go to bed. But forcing me to take piano, I think that definitely set up the discipline of being able to sit and practice and I took that to guitar. I think that's important. We sort of need to teach children to do that. I sound like an old curmudgeon now, but when I see kids playing Guitar Hero I think like, "Man if they applied half the time to playing a real guitar that they do to playing Guitar Hero they could be very skilled guitarists."

Parents need to be involved
Note Valentine says he was forced to play piano but then goes on to say we sort of need to teach children to do that. Teaching children self discipline by force is not necessarily required. Parents do need to set the rules but they should also work with their children and support them. In the case of Valentine the piano lessons and practice had paid dividends (music literacy) giving him a distinct advantage when it came to learning guitar. He was motivated to play guitar because he had the basic skills. Its like reading. If you can already read picking up a book or magazine is a pleasure. If you can't read its hard work. Children need help from their parents getting over this early hump. Most children cannot learn guitar from scratch anymore than they can learn to read. We don't want to force children to learn music but as parents if we leave it up to our children to decide whether they will practice or not chances are they will be playing Guitar Hero rather than a real guitar. 
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