All the lessons in the world won’t teach you to play if you don’t learn how to put the pieces together yourself.
The explosion of educational content on the internet is a wonderful thing. I wish YouTube, Ultimate Guitar, JamPlay, and the thousands of other online resources existed when I was first learning to play. But despite all these tools, I constantly hear from students that are becoming frustrated. One told me recently, “I have hard drives full of terabytes of guitar lessons, and I still can’t play”.
The problem is not with YouTube, the nature of learning online, or the strength or weakness of anyone’s teaching technique.
The problem is that really learning to play requires a specific skill that you can’t get from watching a video: the ability to manipulate musical ideas in real time.
I’m not talking about the difference between playing prepared parts and improvising. Even if you’ve practiced every detail of a piece of music, a good performance still requires a strong delivery. That means playing the music with your mind as well as your hands: not simply repeating a sequence of learned movements but speaking to the audience as clearly as if you were using words. Shaping a line with the right emphasis just in the way you might deliver the turn of phrase that brings the message home. This is what “performance” is really about, and the only way to learn how is to do it.
It’s possible to learn a part and execute it consistently based on muscle memory alone. It’s also possible to play on autopilot. Even more often, it’s possible – and even common – to play without really hearing yourself, or listening to what’s going on around you. I’ve been onstage with musicians myself that were playing at the same time I was, but we weren’t playing together. Without real-time interaction and sensitivity to each other, musicians can play simultaneously but not as a real ensemble.
This gets back to the recurring question of whether you should be thinking while you play.
I think that being completely in the moment and “in the zone” is the highest form of music-making.
It’s a goal to shoot for every time. And there will be moments in that state when the music just happens. But just as often, there is thought in the form of observation and reaction, and in conscious choices. Think of it like driving: you don’t think about moving your foot from the gas to the brake, but you do pay attention to the traffic around you. In other words, though directs action but not the mechanical movement. It’s the same with playing: your choices direct the musical gesture, but the physical movement comes from muscle memory.
Even something as seemingly fundamental as strumming a song from beginning to end requires conscious attention. The chord sequences and form of the song should absolutely be memorized, as well as the lyrics of course. But no matter how thoroughly you’ve practiced, there are aspects of the performance that need real-time attention. You may have rehearsed when to build a crescendo, for example, but you still need to feel it as it happens. Dynamics are really enhanced by conscious performance, because we feel the music that much more strongly and respond to the emotional energy in the song. After all, when we talk about a “dynamic” performance we’re not really talking about soft and loud. A dynamic performance is engaging because it draws the listener into the flow the performer is experiencing. You can accomplish a lot practicing with a metronome or backing track, but it’s still not the same as playing with or for someone else. The simple presence of another set of ears in the room will make you self-conscious enough to hear differently. It’s also sufficient distraction to disrupt the performance if you haven’t learned the music thoroughly.
Real musicianship is developed and tested in performance.
I’m not suggesting that playing in a group or on a stage is the only way to get better. This is actually an area where social media can he helpful, in that you can learn to perform for the camera and then post videos. Aside from starting a YouTube channel, there are also numerous Facebook groups and other forums where a beginner can post videos and document their progress. But sometimes you might just corral a friend or loved one and ask them to sit down and listen to you play.
When it comes to improvising, conscious choices matter as well. There’s a fine line between going with the flow and going on autopilot. I find that the simple thought “now do something else” can be enough to keep me out of stock clichés and mindless licks. A good improvisation should tell a story, so it’s best to choose your words and not just babble.
A good teacher can absolutely help you develop these skills. I work with my students on developing listening skills and reactivity both in private lessons and in my weekly group classes. But 30 minutes or an hour a week of supervised practice are a check-in, a tuneup. The real work has to be done on your own.