Now you may be reading this with a slightly confused look on your face thinking, ‘aren’t I playing whilst I’m practicing?’ In this context of this blog post, no, you are not. Obviously, technically, yes, you are. But what I would like to define here is two different mindsets whilst playing music. When I say practice, I mean that you are concentrating on any number of specific elements in the music that you are making. You may be trying to improve your chord changes, or build up to a certain speed, maybe you are trying to get your notes to ring clear or you are trying to keep a good hand position. The point is, when you are practicing, there is a goal, of some kind, that you are trying to achieve. When I talk about playing, I mean to say that you are playing without any specific goal in mind. When you are playing, you are playing because you can, because you enjoy it, because it feels good and because that’s why you chose to start playing an instrument in the first place. Some of you may feel that you can’t play in this way, in the sense that you are unable to let yourself go until you have learnt the instrument, or reached a specific but undefined level of ability. I’m here to tell you now, that this is not the case.
Let’s talk about how we learn. We all have our own ways of learning, some people learn well from books, others by watching or listening. What we all have in common though, is that whatever we are learning, there needs to be both elements of technical theory and practical application. If you are trying to learn how to build a flat pack wardrobe, you need to read the instructions and build the wardrobe. Some would say you should read the instructions before starting to build the wardrobe, most would probably say that reading them whilst you build the wardrobe is the preferred method. I certainly wouldn’t suggest reading the instructions and then trying to build the wardrobe from memory, or indeed, trying to build the wardrobe without the instructions. If you only read the instructions, you haven’t built a wardrobe.
A common phrase, uttered by many of the more mature students I have taught, is ‘I can’t learn things as quickly as I used to, that’s what happens as you get older’. Why do you think young people supposedly learn faster than adults? Do a bit of googling (other search engines are available) and you will find a lot of information about some biological and scientific reasons for this, all about the prefrontal cortex of the brain, all of which I am sure is very true, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t know what a cortex is or where it resides in my brain, or anyone else’s. I’m more interested in things that we can do to improve our capacity to learn, particularly as adults, although everything I say here can be equally useful to some younger students. It is my opinion, and this is based on 20+ years of teaching experience, one of the things we can do, to help us learn, can be taken from the way that many children and teenagers approach music.
Like many musicians, my musical journey started in school, with a group of mates and an empty room. It was the 90’s, and for me and my group of friends it was the grunge era, or to be more precise, and to not upset any musical history buffs, it was the post-grunge era. Kurt Cobain had just died, Nirvana were legendary, Bush and Incubus were in their wake and bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were at the top of their game. These were the bands we aspired to, they were loud, they didn’t care, they sang songs about things we probably didn’t fully understand, but for whatever reason, they spoke to us and it felt good. We started learning the songs through a combination of working them out by ear, looking at tab books bought from the local music shop and asking the few older boys in the school who had been playing for a while what they knew. When I say we learnt the songs, I mean we learnt the bare bones of the songs, if there was a chord, or a section of the song that couldn’t be played with ease, we simply left it out, or replaced it with something we deemed ‘closer enough for now’. We would then get together during the week at lunchtime in the school music room, or at weekends in either the front room of our rhythm guitarists house or in the community hall that was run by a convent. Looking back at it, that should have been quite a surreal experience, being complimented on your music by nuns whilst you were playing songs that in our heads were breaking down walls, fighting against the system and making a mockery of religious ideals. But under our punk attitude we were just a group of 13 year old music nerds, and I think we just thought that this must have been some surprisingly ‘cool’ nuns. We went through plenty of names for the band, mostly with some sudo dark context behind them like D.O.A, or the perversely weird ‘Weebly’ (long before website builders were a thing) and we started to get gigs, and you only get gigs if you’re good right? The gigs we played were a pretty standard affair for the young teenage punk band. A friend’s party in their house or a school event, that kind of thing. Our big break came when we got to support a touring Christian rock band (I can’t precisely remember how this came about, but I presume it had something to do with the nuns.) The lead singer of which seemed to spend most of his time sat cross legged in the middle of the stage holding a metal detector to the microphone, 25 years on and I still don’t understand what was going on there. The point is, that this was a big deal to us. We had a green room (well, we had the kitchen attached to the hall at least) but we had been given a space to prepare and psych ourselves up to getting on stage and playing in front of the maybe 30 people that were there. Despite looking back at this time now and seeing the obvious flaws in our teenage mock angst, I can see a very important attitude that came through this. We played that gig like it was a stadium, or headline festival slot, we didn’t worry about playing everything correctly, in time or in tune, we just played. This was the band persona, the characters we played when in that situation of being 5 friends, who were there to stick it to the man, even though we had no real idea of who the man was or why he needed sticking too. Behind this band persona there were the individual musicians. Speaking for myself, I practiced a lot. I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time after my Grandmother, who was taking me out to lunch at the time, bought me a copy of Guitarist Magazine which had in it a piece about a new collection of tracks called ‘New Rays of the Rising Sun’, which I went on to buy having read the article. This album blew me away, I was aware of Hendrix of course, and had previously heard some of his music on the radio, but this was the first time I had sat down and really listened to him. I was hooked, for the next 3 years I listened to everything available and learnt to play a large amount of his music, but I also spent a lot of time looking into his influences. I wanted to know how he became Hendrix, so it was Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and countless others, all of which I listened to intently and learnt as much as I could from them. I was also fairly diligent in my practice of scales and exercises given to me by my guitar teacher, a fantastic blues guitarist called Greg Watkins who I would regularly go and see play with his band, The Mighty 45s. His music, the things he taught me and the sometimes painful exercises he made me do, shaped me as a musician. That was me, as a teenage guitarist, half my time playing bass in a punk/grunge band where we didn’t care too much about how it all sounded, we were just finding a voice through music, and the rest of the time practicing the finer points of blues guitar playing, frustrating myself with hand positioning, speed, tuning and more.
Now let’s fast forward, many years have gone by and I’ve spent a large part of that time teaching people how to play guitar, among other instruments, and there has been a good mix throughout that time of teaching younger people and older people, from all walks of life. What I have noticed about the main differences between the under 20 year olds and the over 40 year olds, is the division of time that is spent between that teenager attitude of just play it and damn the consequences, and diligently practice, making sure everything you play is the best it can be. The younger student will generally practice less, but will spend time playing songs that they have found elsewhere, nowadays the internet and YouTube make this particularly easy to do, or they are forming their own bands with the same devil may care attitude to how it sounds that myself and the rest of my friends had at that age. On the flip side, the older generation of students will spend the majority of their time with their instrument, practicing every little bit of every piece or exercise until it is perfect, and often get frustrated or demoralised by how difficult perfection is to achieve. I have come to refer to this as ‘Adult Learner Syndrome’, although I accept that this is a generalisation, as I have had younger students who do this as well as older students who don’t, but I would say that this is accurate for the majority of older students I have taught. The thing that I was inadvertently doing whilst bashing out all those grunge songs as a teenager, was getting comfortable with the instrument, it was this part of my musical journey that allowed me to be able to pick up a guitar and feel instantly at home with it, my hand knew where to go, it would sit on my lap or hang around my neck with ease, it would fit to me. No amount of ‘practice’ will get you there, only by playing will get you, for want of a better phrase, to be ‘at one’ with your instrument. Think of it in other walks of life, no amount of hitting a punch bag is going to make you a great boxer, that’s why sparing is a thing, or imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike on an exercise bike at the gym. Practicing is of course necessary, to learn technique, build muscle memory and understand how music works, but playing I would argue, is equally as important. Playing, as I have previously stated, is what will make you comfortable with the instrument, if your big struggle in playing is making the notes sound clear and consistent, then this is most likely what you are missing. This goes for chord changes too, if you want to get your chord changes quicker and smoother, then playing is a far more efficient path than practicing.
Here are some tips to get you playing more:
Improvisation: if part of your practice routine is learning scales, then using those scales to improvise over backing tracks is a great way, to not only imprint the scales into your mind, but also give you that freedom of just playing for a bit. Say you have been learning the C Major Scale, go to YouTube and type in the search bar ‘C Major Backing Track’, there will be plenty to choose from. Once you have chosen a backing track to use, set it going and then play the C Major Scale over the top of it, it is a good idea to start with trying to play the scale in order and in time with the backing track, but if you find that difficult to do, do not give up, just try it a few times round. Once you have done this, you can then start playing the notes of the scale in any order you like, just try picking them out in literally any order. If you hit notes that are not in the scale, then rather than stop and think ‘I will come back to this once I have learnt the scale a bit more’, just keep going, you will learn which notes not to hit a lot quicker if you are brave enough to hit them in the first place.
Play along with your hero: play along to some songs from your favourite artists, three chord tricks, any songs that you like, but here is the important bit, don’t stop if you make a mistake. If you are playing along with your favourite Bruce Springsteen song, then there, for that moment, you are Bruce Springsteen, play it like the boss would. Try starting with one chord, if the first chord in the song is a G then it is highly likely that the song is in the key of G, so just try strumming along on that one chord and see how it sounds, then try adding in another chord, and then another. Pay more attention to listening to the song than to what you are actually playing, this will train your ear to hear the chord changes. You don’t even need to worry about what chords you are playing, just move your hand to any chord you are comfortable playing when you think there is a chord change in the song. You can find lyrics and chords to thousands of songs on the internet, just type the song name followed by the word ‘chords’ into a search engine and unless you are trying to find a particularly obscure song, then it will undoubtedly be there.
Join a group: there are plenty of community music groups around that you can join. They usually meet up either weekly or monthly and they welcome people in to learn songs and play them together (If you are in the Dorset/Hampshire area of the UK then you can check the group I run at folkorc.co.uk). To find out about other groups I would suggest contacting your local music school, they probably run some themselves and if not they will likely know of others that are around.
Start a band: a band doesn’t have to have a goal in mind, there is no need to set yourself up to play a gig or anything. Just get together with friends to play music. Choose a selection of songs to play and just enjoy getting together to play them. Don’t over do it, just try to agree on a small selection of songs, 5 or 6 to start with. You could always agree on a songbook to work from, there are plenty of good song books out there with titles like 100 great acoustic guitar songs, or 50 three chord trick songs. What you want to avoid, is spending too much time talking about what you are going to play and less time actually playing. Once you have a selection of songs to try, you could make it a bit more interesting by writing down the names of the songs on small bits of paper and choose which song you are going to play next by picking them out of a hat. The important thing to remember, is that you are doing this for enjoyment, don’t be afraid to have a laugh with it.
I hope this post encourages you to get out, throw caution to the wind, and start playing music. Doing this will help you enjoy playing music, and it will help you improve your practice. Thanks for reading, look out for future posts on how to make your practice routine as efficient as possible and how to start a band or a session.
All The Best,