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The driving idea behind “The Perpetual Beginner” is that everyone can learn to play well, but that many people struggle and don’t fully understand the reasons why.
This can lead to frustration, stagnation, and a nagging sense that you just “don’t have it”. But whether you have “it” or not, you can play better than you do today when you approach your work with the right mindset and a conscious practice method.
Skilled players get stuck in ruts too, but experienced musicians know how to work through their problems in order to move forward.
The Perpetual Beginner Project is a collaborative look at how this happens for all of us: the process of identifying challenges, finding solutions, and doing the work to make it happen. Underlying all of this is the need to feed the love, to stimulate the desire and excitement that made you want to play in the first place.
To participate in the PB Project, start documenting your progress on video. I’ve started a Facebook group also called The Perpetual Beginner to give us a platform to post these videos and have conversations about them. Most of all, the idea is to put the ideas in the book into action: recognizing mental, technical, and psychic “blocks”, and finding a way past them.
I’ll be posting practice videos of my own as well. My goal is to share my own process in real time as I work through the music, demonstrating how I go about solving problems and (hopefully) showing clear improvement as I do. As much as I may have learned about music over the years, there will always be new things to explore and old things to improve. My hope is that by sharing these things with each other and having conversations about them, we will all be both inspired and elevated as we continue the never-ending process of becoming a better musician.
When you start working with a new teacher, the first few lessons are often a preliminary feeling-out process. It can take some time to get a complete sense of how they work, how knowledgeable they are, and whether their approach speaks to you.
I always make a real effort to make a connection in the first lesson: to find out what the student is really interested in and needs most, and show them something that can make an immediate difference. To some degree, that’s the job description in a nutshell. You should expect a teacher to want to know your specific goals, or to help you set them based on your musical interests and current skills. But what about what a teacher should expect from you? What can you do to help them guide you down a successful path?
The obvious answer is, practice. But there’s more to it than that. Here are five points that will really help you get the most out of your investment in formal lessons.
1. Communicate your interests and goals.
What kind of music do you enjoy most? What would you really like to be able to do? If you haven’t thought about these things, you should. Everyone puts the most effort into the things they enjoy most, so help your teacher find what those things are.
2. Recognize that you should always learning more than just how to play a song.
Ideally, everything you learn should help prepare you for the next thing you’re about to learn. Learning a song should also teach you something bigger, whether it’s a specific technique or a musical pattern that will also be used in other songs. Recognize that a good teacher uses songs as illustrations of a specific approach or concept. When you view the music this way, you’ll get a lot more out of the effort you put in than just memorizing a new song.
3. Take every opportunity to play.
Simply put, the difference between people who get better and people who don’t is in how much they play. The more time you spend practicing and playing, the faster you’re likely to improve. If you’re a busy person and find it hard to find time to practice, find small windows throughout the day to play for just a few minutes. Even if you can only pick up the guitar for a moment, do it.
4. Be clear on the difference between playing and practicing, and do both.
Detailed and focused practice is very powerful, and you should spend some time every day working very slowly on something you find challenging. Slow practice is mentally challenging, and it can feel less satisfying when a song becomes an exercise. But that detailed work is what allows you to solve problems. Think of “practice” as time spent on things you can’t do yet, and “play” as time spent on things you can. One builds your skills, the other feeds the love. Both are essential.
5. Be rigorous in your evaluations. but gentle in your judgments.
Many people don’t set a high enough standard when they practice. You need to do more than just memorize fingerings: you need to know the music and be able to execute it cleanly. So if you’re buzzing, missing notes consistently, or tripping over your fingers, you’re probably going too fast and letting mistakes go uncorrected.
At the same time, though, there’s a difference between judging a performance and judging your potential. Self-talk matters: it’s ok and understandable to get frustrated, but don’t let a challenging song convince you that you don’t have what it takes to learn. Recognize that learning to play is a process that takes time to unfold, and do your best to be patient enough to enjoy the journey.
We’ve all heard the old adage “no pain, no gain”. It might be the right mindset for the gym. But when it comes to playing music, pushing through pain can cause chronic problems. If you’re serious about learning to play well, it’s important to be able to distinguish between normal “growing pains” and something that might be more serious.
Your susceptibility to pain and strain depends on a number of things, but it starts with how much you play. Some people get lost in their playing and look up to find two or three hours have gone by. That’s fantastic for developing your skills, and that kind of devotion to the instrument is a must if you really want to play well.
But playing music is physical, and often involves intricate and highly controlled muscle movement. These muscles are made for facility, not stamina. It takes time to build up the coordination and strength to be able to play for long stretches. This is one of the reasons why an organized practice routine is so important, in that it lets you plan your “workout” the same way you might at the gym. The difference is, you really don’t want to be sore the next day.
Here are some of the common places people feel pain from playing, and how to manage it. Keep in mind that my experience is anecdotal, and I’m not offering medical advice. If a problem persists or you have any question about the seriousness of what you’re feeling, ask a doctor.
Most beginners find that their hands get tired or even sore. For a complete beginner or someone who hasn’t played in a long time, pain in the fingertips can be an issue. Building up calluses on the fretting hand takes time and the fingertips can become very sensitive. Even if your calluses are well-developed, periods of more intense playing can leave you with sore fingers. This is a common issue but not a serious one, and it gets better over time.
2. Fret hand thumb
A perfect player with ideal technique on a perfect instrument would never apply any pressure with the fret hand thumb. But regular people do, and beginners and near-beginners tend to push much too hard. This can make the thumb sore at the first joint or at the base, depending on the proportion and shape of your hand.
For most people, adjusting the position of the thumb will relieve some of the pressure. Your hand position should naturally create leverage against the neck; this is usually best achieved with a level, relaxed wrist and curled fingers. But because both hands and guitar necks come in different shapes and sizes, there are always variables.
If you’ve ever been told to just push harder, put that thought out of your head for good.
You can almost always make an adjustment to your hand position that will produce more leverage. Start with a level wrist, palm up, and bring your hand to the strings. Let your thumb fall wherever it feels natural. Feel the strings with your fingertips and move the hand around a little to feel how the weight of your hand and arm help hold the string against the fingerboard. If you feel any strain, go with it…allow the tension to release and see what happens. The thumb might lightly rest against the back of the neck, or it might wrap over the top. Trust your body’s feedback and find the position that feels most relaxed and balanced.
If you’re really working hard no matter what you do, your guitar might need an adjustment. Heavier strings and higher action produce a bigger sound, but if you need to really grip to hold them down you should switch to lighter strings or lower the action (height of the strings relative to the fingerboard). Your guitar should be set up to be as playable as possible, while still giving you the sound you want.
Keep in mind as well that your picking hand approach has a huge impact on the tone. If heavier strings are too much work but lighter strings feel too thin, lighten your attack. Minimizing work and effort from the picking hand helps lighten the fret hand as well.
If you have minimized fret hand effort and set up your guitar and still have pain in the joint or at the base of the thumb (especially when you’re not playing), it might be a sign of a more serious issue you should look into.
3. Wrist and arm
Pain in the wrist or forearm is potentially more serious. Gripping with the fret hand can make the muscles in the wrist and forearm compress as well, and over time this compression can lead to chronic tension and pain. Many people work too hard when strumming or picking, and overwork the muscles of that arm as well. This can lead to chronic inflammation and, in the worst cases, tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you feel pain in the wrists or forearms when you practice, stop. Take a good look at your hand position to see if you can minimize the effort. If you overdo it and get sore, anti-inflammatory meds like Advil can help. A cold pack or heating pad can really help, just like you would use on any other sore muscle. Some people respond better to one than the other; your body will tell you what works best for you. If pain doesn’t improve after a few days, or becomes chronic, you may want to see a professional. See a doctor if you feel you need to; you may need physical therapy or in worst cases, corrective surgery. There are many other treatment modalities that have proven to be helpful. Massage therapy, Active Release Technique (a form of hands-on physical therapy), acupuncture, and chiropractic can all be beneficial.
If you do ever develop a chronic condition, there’s a very good possibility you will need to make some adjustments to your technique.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to deal with any of these problems, or need to fully revamp your technique. It’s not easy to alter the way you play: both good and bad habits become fixed as the movements lock into muscle memory. But whether you’re dealing with a problem now or looking to prevent one, muscles can be trained to develop new ways of working.
Minimizing the risk of pain and injury
1. Have your instrument set up to be as playable as possible.
2. Evaluate your technique and cultivate a relaxed, efficient hand position.
3. Be aware of posture. Guitarists tend to slouch, which exacerbates all these problems. Fighting it is a life sentence.
4. Take frequent breaks when you practice, or split your practice sessions up across your day.
5. Stretches and warmups can really help, but only if you do them right. It’s easy to overdo it, so pay attention to your body.
Most people start playing an instrument with the expectation that they’ll need to practice, especially if they’re taking formal lessons.
But yet, many people don’t, especially once they’ve developed some basic skill. They might pick up the instrument and try to play new things, but don’t know how to actually improve other than to just keep trying.
Have you ever heard the old adage about the definition of insanity being to repeat the same actions and expect different results?
Practicing is like that. Many people’s practice sessions consist of repeated attempts and repeated failures, without any conscious evaluation of what is and isn’t working. Sometimes that is in fact what needs to happen – at least, the repeated attempts. But each failed attempt also needs to be evaluated: what went wrong?
First of all, it’s important to recognize that if you don’t work in a deliberate way to improve or develop something specific, you’re not practicing. The key word here is “deliberate”: to identify a problem or goal, no matter how large or small, and consciously perform specific actions that will help you solve the problem.
This is a huge insight, if a simple one.
Taking this view teaches you to approach practicing as problem-solving, and to use the same mental approach for both small problems and large ones. So practicing virtually anything can be constructive, even if the music isn’t difficult to play. As long as there’s a specific problem to solve, there’s something to be gained from working on it even if it’s a very simple or subtle issue.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t specific things you should be working on, but what those things are will vary depending on your level of skill and experience.
There are fundamentals that are important for everyone, and there are subtleties and details that are specific to particular styles of playing. If you’re taking lessons, you can reasonably expect your teacher evaluate your playing and decide what needs improvement. But whether you have a teacher or not, you have the same responsibility to yourself: to honestly (and gently) identify problems and shortcomings, and make sure your practice time is directed at solving them.
Break it down
Everything you do on the guitar requires a mechanical action: a specific movement or series of movements, driven by a thought or intention. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that every mechanical problem has a mechanical solution, once you can reduce things down to their essential components. In other words, if you can’t play something, it’s because your hands aren’t accomplishing the movement they need to in a deliberate and controlled way. This might sound obvious, but consider this: it’s one thing to say that you can’t execute a part, but it’s another to recognize that your little finger isn’t landing cleanly on that high note in measure 3. Once you identify a specific issue, you can begin to resolve it. But you need to have a clear picture of the problem first before you can make any progress.
Most people don’t take the time to break things down far enough to be able to see all the individual aspects clearly. To play anything well requires two fundamental things: to know where you want the fingers to go, and to have the control to get them there. The control part is a given, of course, but you might be surprised how many issues come from a general fuzziness about what the music requires of you.
For instance, you might know what note to play but might not have thought about which finger you use to play it. Or perhaps you had considered the fret hand note but not how to pick or pluck the string. You might know what fingers to place to create a specific chord, but you might not notice how the fingers actually move from one chord to another. The fact is, it’s very easy to have a superficial sense of what you need to do, but completely miss the finer details that ultimately allow you to do it. Breaking things down to their smallest component parts is a powerful way to identify the real issue behind every challenge, and the issue is often NOT that you’re just not good enough.
Balance your practice time
Another crucial idea is that your practice time should be balanced. This means that you don’t spend all your time in one area, but divide your efforts so that you work to address several different things over the course of a single session or a single day.
I find that it’s helpful to divide practice time into three categories: technique, vocabulary, and flow:
Technique is the mechanics of playing: how your fingers move. This is the aspect we’ve addressed above in this piece.
Vocabulary is what you play: how many sounds you know how to make, and where they belong in a musical context. Obviously there is a technique component here as well, since every sound is produced by a specific movement or pattern.
Flow is the ability to put the pieces together in real time. This also includes musical elements like dynamics and phrasing as well as the ability to commit music to memory and maintain concentration in a performance.
If you can split your time up so that you address all three areas every time you practice, you’ll probably find your progress starts to accelerate. Of course, all three are interrelated, but working on discrete components helps keep you focused and organized. There are many ways to approach this, but here’s an example of a practice routine that would take about 45 minutes to complete:
1. 5 min – slow warmup on finger exercises.
This is simply to wake your fingers up and start off paying very close attention to how they feel on the guitar neck. Moving slowly ensures accuracy: a sloppy technical exercise does more harm than good, because it teaches you to be sloppy. You don’t need to spend more than five minutes on this kind of detailed work, and make sure that you vary the patterns from day to day.
2. 5-10 min – running scales.
This continues your technique work but places it in a musical context. Keep in mind that even if you never play lead or melody, single-note work makes you a better and more accurate rhythm player by developing overall finger independence and coordination. Focus on finger placement first, but also take the opportunity to do some ear-training: listen to the sounds that different patterns and formations make. Stay aware of your root note, and the sound of each subsequent note as the sequence unfolds.
3. 15-20 min – songs in progress
This might be time devoted to learning a new song, or to polishing up one you’ve been working on. We apply both technique and vocabulary practice in this work, by learning new chords and patterns and by zeroing in on the specific technical demands of each.
4. 15-20 min – performance
This is where you put the microscope away and step back to look at the bigger picture. Whatever song you might be working on, your first large goal should always be to be able to play it all the way through. But that’s still only the first step. Whether you intend to perform or not, you should still perform the songs yourself in practice. This reinforces the flow of the music so you can keep going through mistakes and distractions, and also allows you to play with expressive details like phrasing and dynamics in real time. Remember that the confidence you see in players that are comfortable onstage has to do with their ability to go through all the motions smoothly in real time, and that’s something that requires practice in itself.
The timing of each of these segments is somewhat arbitrary, and you may spend more or less time on each depending on your specific goals. But don’t make the common mistake of disregarding one of these elements because it doesn’t seem relevant to what you do. As I’ve pointed out, playing chords comfortably and easily (not to mention learning new ones) requires the kind of coordination that finger exercises develop. Scale practice serves a similar purpose while also training the ears to follow melody, and training the fingers how to play a sequential pattern on the guitar neck. Song practice develops your sense of structure and dynamics, and prepares you for any kind of performance setting in which you need to be able to play the entire thing through.
With a little thought, it shouldn’t be difficult to adapt these ideas and create a practice routine that will help move you towards your playing goals.
If you find it challenging to figure out what to work on, a good teacher will be able to give you the guidance you need. Do keep in mind, though, that ultimately you are responsible for your own improvement. The best teachers will teach you the problem-solving process so that you can continue to do productive work on your own.
There’s no better way to master a piece of music than to perform it.
Practicing alone can only take you so far. Many people find that when they learn a new song, stubborn trouble spots persist even when everything else has become fluid. These might be very obvious things, like a difficult lick or chord form. But they might also be musical factors, the things that make a performance smooth and natural. Either way, the player is left feeling that the song gets to be about 80 percent there and then stops improving.
This is a very common problem, and in fact is a natural part of the learning process. Mastering the song completely requires another step: adding the listener’s ear. That ear might belong to a person, but it could just as easily be a microphone or camera. The simple fact of the performance being documented, or experienced by an audience, changes the player’s awareness. Weaknesses are magnified and stand out more prominently. The natural jitters that most performers feel take their toll on technique as well. The bottom line is, performance is a stress test: how well can you keep it together under challenging circumstances?
The improvements are subtle and don’t happen immediately. If you’re new to performing you will have more frustrating experiences than satisfying ones at first.
But if you continue to do it, you start to become more comfortable. You begin to realize that even an obvious mistake is fleeting, and as long as you can regain your balance most of the audience won’t notice or care. Most of all, you develop the ability to maintain concentration and flow in an unpredictable environment full of distractions. All good musicians need to be able to keep track of multiple things at once, and not all those factors are musical.
Preparing for performance also forces you to zero in on a specific set of music. Without an imperative to perfect particular songs, you’re less likely to push through the work of polishing and refining. It forces you to take a closer look, and work out details that you might not of been aware of or found easy to overlook. Best of all, once that work is done it tends to stick.
Some people just don’t enjoy performing, and it’s certainly possibly to hone a performance without ever stepping on a stage. But for goal-setting, developing flow, and building overall confidence, there’s no better method.