A confident player is unafraid to explore.
People learn to play in two ways. One involves the guidance of a teacher or mentor, who leads the student one step at a time. The other involves exploration and experimentation: try this, try that, and see what happens.
In last week’s Core Concepts we looked at the philosophical split between those who seek out a teacher and those that prefer to find their own way. Where you fall between those two poles will determine how you learn. Ultimately, everyone can and should benefit from both. But the ability to improvise and explore – to let your ears and fingers lead you into new territory – is an essential part of developing true confidence as a player.
Watch a child approach an instrument for the first time.
Kids aren’t inhibited by not knowing what to do, because exploration is how they learn about the world. They simply make sounds, and sometimes those sounds begin to develop into something coherent. Some begin to hear relationships and make a connection between an action on the instrument and a particular sound. This is, of course, the skill every player eventually develops, but some take to it more naturally than others.
I’ve come to believe that the thing that stops most adults from just exploring on the guitar has little to do with natural affinity. As we get older and become more accomplished at other things, we get used to knowing what to do. This makes the prospect of blindly jumping in more and more daunting over time. Not knowing where to begin or what choices to make is inhibiting, and creates an “option anxiety” that stops us from trying.
The thing is, though, that if you can make one good sound you can make another.
And as you learn to be a conscious listener, you will begin to hear and recognize different sonic relationships. The ability to make these connections is simply based on pattern recognition. Granted, this comes more easily to some than others, but it’s a fundamental aspect of the way our minds order the world. If the patterns are there to be perceived, you can learn to perceive them.
So what’s the value of this kind of exploration? Learning to find your way around the instrument builds confidence and strengthens the connection between hands and ears. For songwriters and composers, it’s essential in order to stimulate creativity and find new patterns to work with. For any player, it opens up the possibility of finding something new every time you pick up the guitar. It’s also highly liberating to feel that if you step off the path you won’t be lost in the wilderness.
Above all, it’s great fun, and a way for anyone to be creative even if you aren’t setting out to write music. It gives you a way to tap into unconscious flow and intuition, once you can comfortably make a good sound. For me, it’s one of the most gratifying aspects of playing music, and there’s nothing like stumbling onto something wonderful you didn’t expect.
So no matter what your goals and interests are, no matter your level of natural ability or skill: pick up your instrument and explore.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what’s going to happen: just play.