One of my hopes for this notebook is to collect lesson ideas. Here is my first entry along that line.
When you practice a difficult piece of music, do you repeat the whole thing again and again, stumbling the whole way through, until the music eventually surfaces from under the mess of wrong notes, halting rhythm, and curses? That’s how I used to practice.
I started playing guitar when I was in the seventh grade, learning mostly from my friends Justin, a Jimmy Buffet fanatic, and Matt, a hair band shredder. While it was a varied education, one thing I didn’t learn was how to practice. I would attempt long passages of music—like Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand—at top speed, again and again. I thought that was how everyone did it. The approach went something like this: make 50 mistakes on my first try, 48 on my second, 47 on my third, and in another decade, I’ll be able to play the whole thing with no mistakes! Now how the heck do I sing along?
The process was so slow and frustrating, I’m surprised I stuck with it at all. And I never did get Castles down.
Over the years, I got rid of a lot of those bad habits, but things really came together for me during lessons with Jay Roberts a few years ago. Here are the principles I distilled from those lessons:
- We Repeat Musical Phrases to Build Muscle Memory Muscle memory is a mental record of repeated movements that enable us to move with no thought. When Hendrix sings “Castles Made of Sand” while playing all those gorgeous embellishments on his guitar, he’s not thinking much about his playing—his fingers just remember what they’ve played before. Most of his thought is probably going to singing, making those embellishments sound expressive, and impressing that cute girl in the front row.
- Muscles Remember Mistakes The process of building muscle memory is simple: The body moves, and the mind records the movement. It records with no judgment, like a security camera filming a bank lobby or a stenographer typing testimony in a courtroom. So when you perform mistakes, your muscle memory records those movements just as it records correct movements. When you mess up, you might think, “Shoot, that’s the fifth time I hit that wrong note!” but your muscle memory is diligently recording the incorrect movement all the same.
- Avoid Mistakes by Simplifying and Slowing Down When I was practicing “Castles Made of Sand,” I’d try a big musical phrase, and play it as fast as I could. Of course, it sounded like the cat was playing the guitar, and I was digging myself into a hole because my muscle memory was recording all those mistakes. What I should have done was simplify the music by just choosing a couple notes to work on at a time. Once I had those down, I could either try a few different notes, or add a few notes to the notes I’d already learned. Also, I should have slowed down enough to make correct playing easy. This is actually really hard to do—I’m constantly telling my students to slow down. It’s not just impatience, it’s that people don’t realize how slow slow is. Slow is however slow you need to go to play without mistakes. For beginners learning a lick, this could mean one note every three or five seconds. As Jay put it, “The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.”
- Simplifying Also Means Isolating the Skill You’re Learning Say you’re learning to strum a new song that has a new strum pattern and new chords. Your job is to build muscle memory both with your left hand (fretting the new chords) and your right arm (strumming the new pattern). The problem is, until you build muscle memory, you have to exert all your focus on the skill you’re learning, making sure you don’t make mistakes. So how do you focus on fretting those new chord shapes while making sure you strum correctly? You can’t. So instead, you practice the two skills separately. Fret the new chords and just strum once to make sure they sound good. Repeat. Then practice the strum pattern while fretting just one chord. Repeat. Once you have both skills in your muscle memory, you can practice them together.
- Repeat Until You’ve Really Got It Jay said that it takes between 20 and 80 correct repetitions of a musical phrase—with no mistakes—to build muscle memory. If you make a mistake, simplify or slow down, and then start counting from one again. Whether it takes 20 or 80 depends on your natural aptitude. Eddie Van Halen is probably one of those 20-reps guys. I am closer to being in the 80 club, and proud of it. Go 80’s!
- Learning Strum Patterns Is A Little Different I’ve found that you don’t have to be quite so militant about avoiding mistakes when you’re learning new rhythms, like a new strum pattern. While simplifying and slowing down is helpful, learning rhythms also involves the mysterious process of “getting into the groove.” It demands that you loosen up, stop worrying about sounding bad, and try to feel the music. So don’t worry as much about mistakes. Once you get the strum pattern down, you’ll have plenty of time to obliterate the mistakes from your muscle memory as you strum that pattern over and over and over and over.
I hope this revolutionizes the way you practice. It’s made my own practice so much more enjoyable and productive. Let me know if you’ve found it helpful, have any other tips, or if you’re interested in guitar lessons in Seattle.