I deserve a gold star

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This past Thursday, Danny and I spent an entire hour working on the Simon & Garfunkel piece. Not because I didn’t practice. Not because it was difficult. But because he was delighted to see my progress and gave me page 3 and 4 for homework. Which means I’ve completed two-thirds of this fingerpicking song!

It felt really good–I mean, really, freakin’ good to have Danny proud of me. “Now, didn’t I tell you-you’d be great at fingerpicking if you just practiced?” he said in his twangy South Carolina accent.

Typically Danny’s lessons are complex due to his “pop quizzes” and ability to fly through an extensive amount of material but last week it was 100% fingerpicking. But even he said it was worth it.

Although, my performance was nearly a 180, there were a few errors Danny teased me about (that’s the kind of relationship we have). When reading music, I tend to skip measures when I get bored/zone out. And secondly, I often neglect my pinky. The latter is most difficult because I’d already learned how to play tricky finger patterns (my way) and now I have to relearn them by using my pinky. Oh well, it’s nothing a metronome and repetition can’t fix, right?

IMAGE COURTESY OF PIXTAWAN / FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET

Tipsy Tuesday: Practicing what you know is fun, but doesn’t improve you.

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“If what you’re playing in the practice room sounds perfect, it’s not practice” –Derek Siver (former student and teacher at Berklee College of Music)

I love this tid bit.  It’s so true and unfortunately, what a lot of us choose not to realize… yet we question what happened to our progress.

When I was in elementary school, my parents interrupted my play time with friends to practice piano for 20-30 minutes–timer and everything.  You’d think I’d be a very talented and disciplined pianist by now but 7 year old me did not take advantage of the much needed structure my parents provided. Of course, at that age I was upset to be stuck inside while my friends ran around the neighborhood pretending to be mythical creatures without me.  So to speed up the painful 20 minutes of being chained to the Yamaha keyboard, I played the same songs that I knew by heart over and over again.  Ya know, The Robot song, Jingle Bells, and whatever else was easy but fun to play.

The beneficial thing about that is I will remember how to play Jingle Bells until I’m 70–it’s embedded in my memory.  The bad thing is that my piano career ended prematurely.  Don’t laugh, but I plateaued at the age of 7! Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  But think about it.

That happens whenever a person restricts them self by only playing what he or she is good at–how can you grow from that?  Well, uh, you don’t.  You can’t!  You’re only good at that one thing you played over and over–that’s it.  And that’s not even the worst part!  In addition, you become uncomfortable whenever you’re bad at something because you’re not familiar to failing to gain progress and momentum in your learning.

If you can’t handle not being good at something, then by all means, continue to play what you’re already good at!  Just know that you’re coasting aka plateaued.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tipsy Tuesday: Let’s Get the Most Out of Practice Sessions

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Good morning east coast friends!  And good evening, my west coast night owls.  I know, I never post this late but technically it’s still Tuesday and there’s something I’ve been meaning to share with ya’ll.

The other week I found an informative article based upon a dissertation written by Dr. Christine Carter.  Not only is she a clarinetist and a teacher at Manhattan School of Music, she also researched a learning phenomenon called contextual interference.

Do you ever wonder why you can have a good practice session then struggle with the same material the next day? Check out the article on Bulletproof Musician, another one of my favorite resources.  The explanations are very eye opening and Carter’s suggestions aim to make practice sessions more efficient.

Alright, time for me to get some shut eye and finish up packing!

Image courtesy of xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tipsy Tuesday: Scales just got tastier

Does anyone over the age of 21 still chow down on PB&Js?  Unfortunately, I can’t eat those economical, convenient sandwiches anymore–it’s missing an element…  I suppose I could substitute jelly for fresh fruit.  Sliced bananas, anyone?

Similar to sandwiches, everyone reaches a point where practicing lacks the tastiness we once enjoyed as newbies.  What you’re learning is important but after a while, you reach a point where you crave something new and refreshing.  Let me assure you this is normal and if you haven’t experienced this yet… trust me, you will eventually.  Not to sound jaded or anything, but… The excitement of learning guitar (for the first time) wears off; however, your interest doesn’t (or shouldn’t).  It feels much different: balanced, mature and stable, unlike my short term PB&J cravings that skyrocket then drop as fast as a sugar rush.

With that being said, please welcome my new weekly series, Tipsy Tuesday.  Every Tuesday, I will share tips and/or ideas to add a fun element to your practice routine.

Listed below are my personal suggestions to add flavor to a bland practice routine-scales, in particular:

  1. When playing a scale forward/backwards use hammer ons, hammer offs, bends etc.  Typically, I do hammer offs as I play down the scale, then hammer ons on the way up, then switch.
  2. Do you like to sing or want to improve your voice? Sing as you play scales.  No, not an actual song, just “ahh” like you’re at the doctor getting your throat inspected.  Does it not feel natural? How about “ooo?” Or try whatever sound feels most comfortable to you.  This helps you hear tones and strengthen your singing voice.  If a scale is too high, either move down the neck or stay put and try to do harmonies.  One of my favorite jazz musicians did this while studying at Berklee College of Music –Esperanza Spalding.
  3. Backing tracks!  If you’re familiar with your fretboard then start soloing over a backing track.  Start slow and keep it simple.  Spruce it up with hammer ons, hammer offs, bends, and vibrato.

    Warning: The following are dangerously addicting E minor backing tracksJimi Hendrix
    Pop Rock
    12 Bar Blues

Image curtesy of Rawich / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dropping the habit: Memorization

Players like myself need to accept this: Memorization is not your friend.  I’m still trying to accept this and last Sunday I realized how important it is to refrain from memorizing without understanding what you’re playing.

I highly doubt Alek intended to spark another revelation when he asked me to play a minor pentatonic scale.  Mind you, I’ve never learned it but I do indeed know the blues scale by heart.  So he gave me a hint, “avoid the blue note.”

“The what?”

After Alek’s detailed explanation about the flat 5th scale degree and additional theory that I’d rather not attempt to repeat, I accepted his challenge.  But I’ll be honest, the theory went out the other ear because I figured I could simply memorize what he showed me.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to skip over a couple notes, ya know?

As I attempted to impress Alek by playing a slow and sloppy variation of the E minor pentatonic scale, I felt as if it was much harder than it should be.  It also did not help that he tricked me.  Okay-not-really.  But there was definitely more to it than I thought and my cleverness hurt me big time.

In retrospect, Alek’s elaborate scale degree explanation was the knowledge I needed to play the scale without a problem.  Instead, I used memorization as a short cut that resulted in a messy line of notes reminiscent of the blues scale–what a headache.  It’s very clear to me now: the further I delve into learning guitar the less I can rely on memorization.  If you want to be a versatile player you gotta drop the habit or else your skills will be limited to your memory.  And yes, this is the exact advice he gave me that very day.

Is it enlightenment? Or common sense?

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Growing up and even now, I sensed there was a secret within the music community that catapults intermediate players way, way, way ahead.  And whatever that secret is, I ain’t got it.  Does that make sense?  It probably sounds silly to those who’ve already surpassed the intermediate level but I cannot be the only person who feels this way.  And ya know, maybe that’s why me and others have quit instruments but return to it?  Who knows.

I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself but I feel like I’m finally bridging the gap in this journey.  The gap that I always take a starting sprint towards but never gain enough momentum to leap over.  Ya know, that “aha!” moment, light bulb, that secret.  

It’s as if everything Danny taught me (but did not stick) is now 100% clear now that Alek reexplained it in different terms.  This doesn’t mean Danny’s not a good teacher–he’s hands down, one of the best–it’s simply beneficial to hear and see a concept multiple times and in various ways.

As you may or may not already know, Alek teaches me theory in every single lesson.  Everything I’ve learned so far explains “why” for literally every teensy-weensy guitar concept that I honestly was never interested in to begin with… but it made a huge difference.  Recently, the material fell into my lap as one entity with a note,

Kristen, open your eyes and pay attention.  This is how you use everything you’ve been taught.  This, right here, is what’s been missing. Stop overlooking it. 

At the time I didn’t understand why I needed to know all those technical concepts but now it makes perfect sense.

For that reason, I am currently fixated on music theory.  I can’t get enough of it.  It’s so complex but when you place all the puzzle pieces together you get one of those, “ohhhh!” moments–it’s addicting.  And because of that, I’m thirsty to know more and more.  I wish people weren’t so afraid of theory or think it’s boring.  I suppose it’s like an acquired taste that must develop over time.

The little things

You will be very proud of me:  I received a $100 mail-in rebate from upgrading my cell phone (Thank you Verizon Wireless) and used it responsibly: Guitar stuff & groceries.

At my local music store, I purchased a stand for my sheet music and a metronome. The stand is pretty explanatory… I’ve been putting my sheet music and tabs on top of of my floor tom, a large drum from my drum kit.  Because of that and long hours in front of my computer, my neck is not so happy.  I’m convinced  it’s a decent investment with a small price tag that’ll keep my chiropractor and health insurance happy.

Now, the metronome is something I’ve been debating for years. I lost my it back when I was a devote drummer. Instead of purchasing a new one I used a cell phone app which is just as good, however, I often get distracted by text messages. My solution? I put my cell phone on silent during practice sessions but I could still view my nofications when I’d change the tempo. With the extra cash, I finally replaced my missing metronome that I just knew would appear any day now.

Sure enough, it’s the little things that improve the efficiency of practice.  What do you do to improve your productivity and focus?