Friday, January 27, 2012

Reading Music for Guitarists

As guitarists we basically have two choices when it comes to reading music and both are important.

Music Notation - As displayed is a system of reading music that dates back hundreds of years and once understood will allow you to sight read (read & play) much like reading a book out aloud. Music notation is the language of music and like reading words in a book is a must for any musician. The first step to learning to read music notation is to memorise and say the lines (Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit) and spaces (FACE) as you move through the music. Do it very slowly and on every note say "Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit" or "FACE". For example if the note was a B rather then guess it say "Every Good Boy". Literally counting up the lines. If you do this daily for at least 6 weeks reading will be easy. Avoid trying to guess notes. This first step gets you familiar with the notes and with practice the notes will jump out at you like the letters of the alphabet. Its all just about familiarity which comes with practice.

Guitar Tab (Tablature) - I can be seen below the notation. In this case we use 6 lines which represent the 6 strings of the guitar. The numbers indicate the fret numbers (not necessarily finger numbers). Tab is more like a map directing you where each note is to be played. This can be very useful especially for electric guitarists. There are many signs and symbols used in tab to express the hundreds of different techniques used. Personally I can not imagine a world without guitar tab.

Many students who start with tab never learn to read music but this is a big mistake. Reading notation has numerous advantages but as mention it is the language of music. Tab is purely for guitarists whereas musical notation is used by all musicians.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The secret to improvisation

I recently received a question via one of our teachers asking about improvisation. Here is my answer. 

Improv is always a good question. I think the best quote I ever heard was from Miles Davis. "There are no wrong notes". I usually tell students we improvise everyday. Whenever we have a conversation we don't usually read from scripts. Our conversations are completely improvised. We use a common language (keys, scales etc.) and we use familiar phrases and  we mimic our peers. There really is no good or bad improvisation. It just depends on what you like. I can say that I heard a great guitar solo but it could be great for one of two reasons. 1. It may be technically well executed and/or 2. It may appeal to my musical taste. 

You do need technical ability

In saying all that there is no mistaking a guitarist who lacks technical skill trying to pull off a difficult solo. It would be like me trying to recite Shakespeare on a London stage. My lack of skill would be obvious. The trick is to keep developing the technical skills which is what the G4 Guitar Method is all about while listening to your favourite players, learning their coolest solos and then letting your own style flow through. This is best achieved by jamming with as many musicians as possible. Like a good conversationalist who frequents social events a good guitarist will regularly attend jam sessions.

What do you want to say?

The way to develop your improvisational skills is much like language. In language its best to read with a dictionary on hand. In music you should listen and then try to analyse what you hear then play it back. The more you listen the more you will come to know what you like. This will also give your technical practice more meaning. Many students who feel stuck with improvisation simply don't know what they are looking for. When we improvise like when we speak we need to have something to say. When I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughn as a teen I knew he had something special. There was so much energy behind his guitar playing and although the songs were structure he improvised the guitar licks and solos for the most part. I didn't necessarily want to be SRV but I was inspired by his energy injected into every note he played. He wasn't just playing notes he was speaking through his guitar. 

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The value of music theory

I know when I was a teen learning guitar was simply about learning songs. I recall my motivation for lessons was just about finding someone who could workout some songs I really wanted to learn. I had little to zero interest in learning scales, reading or music theory. I found such topics laborious and even irrelevant but then came a turning point at around 17 years of age. I was a relative late comer to music (starting at 14yo) so in contrast to many of my musical colleagues who began music lessons at age 5yo and 6yo my aural skills were weak. Unfortunately the later in life you begin learning music the harder it will be to master the aural skills. Much like language. Young brains absorb new languages at an astounding pace as any parent knows and music is really just a language. Young music students almost always have an advantage over late starters especially when it comes to aural ability.

Using theory to fill in the gaps

While I did not really understand this advantage as a teen (at the time I just thought they were more naturally gifted) I recognised my ear was not as reliable as I would have hoped. This was the early 80's by the way and there was no Internet and guitar tab was rare. We mostly had to rely on our teachers writing out songs and of course our own ears. I realised (thanks to my teacher) that music theory actually compensated for my poor aural skills. Music is made up mostly of predictable patterns. Understanding the theory behind those patterns made it easier to work out songs. I could literally predict the next chord or pattern. My ear may have been weak but my understanding of musical theory soon filled in the gaps. I now understood the value of music theory.

Balancing skills and songs

Aural is just one of several guitar skills you need of course but the above is just an example of the importance of skill development opposed to simply learning songs. Songs for the most part will come and go. Go ahead and learn your favourite songs because that is what its all about but always be mindful of the skills and try to balance your practice time evenly between skills and songs. When you have the skills learning new songs should become easier. If you have difficulty learning a new song try to assess why and isolate the skills you perhaps need to work on.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Overestimating your ability

In a study conducted some years ago teenagers were asked  before their exam what mark they expected to get to assess how accurately their belief matched their result.  They found that boys tended to over estimate their results where as girls underestimated.  As a result the boys were disappointed with their mark and the girls were pleasantly surprised. Given the choice I think most of us would prefer to come in higher than expected but as always there is more to the story. The boys on average tend to be over confident but with out going into it here it is important not to confuse low expectations with low self esteem. Confidence is closely linked to self esteem so while we want to lower our expectations we don't want to lower confidence.

Overestimating is part of the human condition

Many experts say that optimism is an essential part of our well being. We have all heard a thousand times that to be successful you need to be confident in your ability. Believe and you shall achieve they say. This is of course true to a large degree and an idea I regularly promote. Why would you attempt something that seemed unachievable? Even the most pessimistic person attempting the impossible believes there is a slight chance of success. The reality is we humans on the whole tend to over estimate our chances of success and this is a good thing but does have some negative side effects. The truth is most progress comes from people who over estimate their real chances of success but somehow end up beating the odds. If we were always realistic about our chances of success there would be very little progress. So what is the downside?

The downside of overestimating our ability

The bad news is our generous overestimations can lead us to disappointment as shown in the above example which can in turn lead us to abandon our goals. Nearly every book I have ever read on success talks about the need to accept and embrace failure. The underlying theme is almost always the same. Failed, failed, failed, failed, failed, success. Failure is just a necessary part of the journey. Failure they say is actually a good thing because it shows you are stepping outside of your comfort zone. When you succeed the first time at a new endeavour the odds are it was luck or the challenge was too easy. The problem is most of us don't like failure. When we fail we beat ourselves up and often completely give up on our goal. I have seen this with guitar students many times and their decision to give up is never based on logic. It is an emotional decision. 

Failure is a relative experience

The point of paragraph one was not to compare boys with girls but to demonstrate how success and failure are relative experiences. If you find yourself wanting to give up guitar on a regular basis I suggest you take a closer look at your expectations. Wanting to give up by the way is not unusual. I certainly went through it as a teen and often felt like guitar was not worth the time and effort. When students pick up the guitar they tend to believe on average that they will be a half descent guitarist within six months. Six months later they are questioning their progress and whether it is all worth it. It just seems to be going slower than expected. Their perceived lack of progress may be real or imaginary depending on their expectations. Either way the feeling is the same. They feel they have not met their expectations and are therefore a failure.

You are not alone

Successful actors, musicians, dancers, pilots, surgeons, sports people, politicians, business people have all doubted themselves at times. No matter who they are or how great you think they are they have all questioned their ability and their level of talent rarely has anything to do with it. It is their personal expectations that determine failure or success in their minds. If failure feels like the norm to you then try lowering your expectations. Remember that giving up on your dream to play guitar is almost always an emotional decision rather than being based on facts. Guitar takes time to learn of which every great guitar player can testify.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why you should practice early...

Morning practice for many makes all the difference. In fact it can be the most important practice session of the day. There are several reasons why.

Freedom. When we practice in the morning we don't need to spend the day thinking about how we are going to fit in our practice later in the day. If you have a busy day thinking about how and when you will fit in your practice it can feel like a burden rather than a pleasure. 

Clear. We are generally more alert in the morning oppose to later in the day or evening when we have a head full of the days events. Our heads are clear so the quality of our practice is often better.
Theme. You can set a theme for the day. E.g. G major scale. So as well as your morning physical workout you can add an mp3 to your ipod and listen through out the day to develop your aural awareness. You can also visualize the scale to help memorise.

Skipping. Leaving something till late in the day often means if something comes up you are likely to skip practice that day. Morning practice ensures you have done something (even 10 mins) therefore you are moving forward.

Uninterupted. I find I am less likely to get interrupted. Friends tend to ring at night more so then 7am in the morning.

Relax. At night you can just relax and jam out. Make the morning focus time and night chill time.

Faster. Those who practice in the morning also have the luxury of doing more practice at night. This means an option for faster progress if you so desire.

Feeling good. Perhaps the most important point is how it makes you feel. When you have a routine of morning practice you will feel good for the day because you know your dream of playing guitar is actually coming true. Each day as you leave for school or work (or not) you can feel good about the fact that your practice is done.  

If you choose to do morning practice I can assure you it will pay off.

If you have any questions email me.