If you really want to keep growing as a player, look for bigger musical concepts in the songs you learn.
We all start out memorizing songs as finger patterns, but that way of looking at things will only take you so far. That’s far enough for some people, but if you find yourself feeling limited you might be surprised by how much more there might be to what you think you already know.
Practicing ultimately breaks down to just two basic areas, technique/theory and application/performance. We can practice exercises to build technique or to illustrate musical concepts, but what we all really want is to play music. So an ideal way to put these two things together is to look more closely at the songs you learn.
From a mechanical perspective, anything you might do to play a specific song can be broken down to the techniques it requires.
For example, a difficult chord change can be deconstructed into a finger exercise. Part of the difficulty in anything new is that it’s unfamiliar, not simply that it’s hard to do. We often tend to assume that when we can’t accomplish something that it’s just beyond us. But even the most advanced techniques are a combination of simpler ones. Getting clear on what those simple things are sets you up to be able to accomplish the more complex ones.
From a musical perspective, it’s really valuable to understand how the songs you play are put together. Not everyone sees the value in this right away, but chalk that perspective up to impatience. It’s also shortsighted. Every song you learn should be a step towards making the next one easier, for both technical and musical reasons. First of all, there are particular patterns that show up again and again in every style of music. That repetition is part of what defines the sound of a style in the first place. Think of it as a specialized vocabulary or dialect within the greater language of music. When you learn to organize sounds into categories they become easier to recognize and understand. So if you learn a song that follows a particular chord pattern, you’ll be more likely to recognize that same pattern when you hear it in a different song.
This musical understanding works on many levels.
On one level, there’s the simple sequence of events: one note or chord followed by another. When we first learn to play, this is often all we’ve got to work with. So we memorize the patterns until we can repeat them from memory. But beneath that mechanical level is the musical relationship that creates the pattern in the first place. Some people can hear those relationships intuitively, but even the naturally gifted can benefit from knowing how to name what they hear. For those of us that have to learn to recognize these things, the naming and categorizing helps the learning process. In fact, the speed of your learning might be directly tied to the depth of your understanding!
Listen for form
Form is the deeper level beyond the specifics of licks, melodies, and chord sequences. All music has structure of some kind: even the absence of form is an organizing concept. Good musicians are able to hear these larger patterns, and understand the specific details in context.
If you’ve ever learned to play or sing a song from beginning to end you understand that songs have sections. This might be articulated mostly by the words: verses that tell a story as it unfolds, choruses that repeat a refrain. But these sections are usually musically distinct as well, and the chorus is recognizable because of its melody as well as the repeated lyric. That’s simple enough, and not news to anyone.
But think about how we often learn songs, especially from the internet. The most common online format is to have the song lyrics accompanied by the chords that match them. This should make it easy to recognize the patterns, but the focus is on the words. It can really be challenging to follow a chord chart without the lyrics, try it and see! We’re used to the form of the song being organized by the words. But the music articulates form as well, and your ability to hear and follow musical form really enhances your ability to learn new songs.
Perhaps most importantly, every new song you learn gives you an opportunity to practice your flow.
“Flow” is something every performer and player needs to master. It’s simply the ability to play a song confidently from beginning to end. This goes beyond your ability to execute each specific change or musical gesture. It extends to things like concentration, focus, and the ability to recover from mistakes. In the larger sense, it’s the ability to communicate a piece of music as an unfolding story without ever breaking the spell. This is something many people miss, even long after they’ve built the skills to actually play the music.
This has very little to do with the relative difficulty of the song. Ideally, you should be choosing music that’s a good mix between technical challenges and musical expression. So the music you use to practice flow should be within your reach enough that you don’t struggle with too many details.
Ultimately, you do want to divide your practice between focused technical work and the more musical expression of flow. So there will be things you practice that aren’t close to being ready for performance. But you should make an effort to use both mechanical and musical practice to work towards building a repertoire. You may find that you become more motivated, progress more easily, and learn more quickly.