Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Importance Of Focus

Welcome to my first ever blog post! Over my years teaching and performing, I've learned a great deal about guitar players and musicians in general, and about the different challenges students face when learning. So having finally made the decision to step out of the 1980's and embrace t'interweb, here goes with an article hopefully every reader can take something from:

As students of the guitar- or indeed any musical instrument - we are often told that “practice makes perfect”. But this is really only half the story. A truer statement would be that you will only get out of a practice session what you put into it. Two minutes spent intensely practicing a technical weak spot or a persistent problem area within a song is immensely more valuable than an hour spent vaguely strumming with one eye on the TV and an ear not concentrating on the sound produced.

Consider two beginner students, both given the same task- in their respective lessons, they have both learned the chord shapes G, D and C. Their homework, over the week, is to familiarise themselves with these shapes to the point where they can play them perfectly and consistently so that in the next lesson we can use these shapes to start playing some basic songs (Knocking On Heaven's Door, Sweet Home Alabama, Sweet Child O'Mine- all use these simple chord shapes).

The first student follows the practice routine diligently- he starts with the chromatic “spider” warm up exercise, playing slowly and carefully, taking care to line up each note perfectly before playing it. He then goes through each of the chord shapes one by one, arpeggiating each one and taking care to adjust his thumb to find the “sweet spot” where the notes ring out. There are muted notes and clicks, but he perseveres- no one else is going to get it right for him, are they? By this point he's been practicing for about 10 minutes, so spends a couple of minutes practicing basic strumming patterns (whole notes/semibreves, half notes/minims, quarter notes/crotchets) and then winds down with that old staple, “Smoke On The Water”- he knows it well, knows he can play it and have it sound recognisable, so he finishes the 15 minute practice session with a positive feeling, looking forward to playing again tomorrow.

By the third or fourth day the spider exercise is getting quicker and more accurate, and the chord shapes are becoming more consistent as the student can recognise patterns and shapes amongst the chord shapes- the C resembling a curve with an “open window” on the G string, the D resembling a pyramid or triangle pointing up the fretboard toward the body of the guitar- so the student starts to string them together, slowly at first, and notices how some changes remind him of songs he knows well.

By the time the next lesson has come round, the student's “Spider” warm up exercise is more controlled and accurate (although still slow, which is fine- speed is NOT the goal here) and the three chords are clear and secure, as are the three basic rhythms. As a result, we can start to combine them in different ways to start playing some actual songs, albeit in slightly simplified fashion. Over the next week, the student starts to add these songs to his repertoire, and also feels confident enough to start experimenting with alterations to the chords and combining them in different ways to some up with his own ideas.

The second student skips out the “Spider” warm up as he finds it boring and decides to go straight to the chords. He lines up the chord shapes and strums them listlessly while browsing the Net or watching TV, not really listening to or engaging with the results. His fingers don't learn to grasp the sweet spots on the fretboard to have the notes ring out cleanly and his chords are muffled and muted. However, he figures he's putting his fingers in roughly the right places and he can call the time he's spent “practice” so he thinks he's done his homework.

Come his next lesson, his “Spider” warm up is sloppy and messy, muted notes and incorrect strings ringing out everywhere, his chords are full of basic errors, sounding muffled and muted and hideously unmusical and the entire lesson has to be devoted to redoing the same topics as theprevious week. Result- zero progress for the student. “But I practiced for almost an hour every night” the student protests....

The moral of this story is pretty clear – practice WILL bring results. But it will ONLY bring them if you are fully engaged with what you're doing, eyes, ears, fingers and brain all working together to shape the sound and create something musical. Patience and concentration is an absolute must, as it is when you are learning any sort of craft or skill, and it is astonishing how many students fail to recognise this, condemning themselves (and their poor teacher!) to frustration. Think about learning to drive – what would happen if you failed to pay attention to the road? Think about someone learning to paint without bothering to look at what they're painting, or someone trying to master a martial art without concentrating on balance, movement etc.

You will only get from practice what you put into it in the first place in terms of focus, concentration and awareness. Fifteen minutes of practice, fully engaged with every aspect of what you're doing, beats out two hours of mindless strumming any day of the week. It's not about marking time, it's about results.

The medicine works. But it will only work if you take it.