I started using the phrase “perpetual beginner” to refer to guitar enthusiasts/hobbyists/students who have played for months or years but don’t feel like they’re improving any more. Almost everyone hits plateaus and blocks, but so many people build that basic vocabulary and never go beyond it. Some have learned lots of information – chords, licks, “strums” – but still can’t through a song confidently. This blog is meant to offer guidance and methods to break through to that next level of playing. But no matter where you are in your guitar journey, the concept of the perpetual beginner can apply to everyone.
Advancement without improvement
When I was teaching kids primarily, I would start with a new student by asking them to play for me. Obviously a complete beginner wouldn’t be able to do that, but I would see many students who had taken lessons for years and still couldn’t! They might have a list of pieces they had learned to play, even difficult ones. But they hadn’t built a repertoire.
Building a repertoire means that you have a list of songs you CAN play. And often, learning a song or piece once isn’t enough. Learning happens in stages, a series of gradual climbs punctuated by plateaus. The best way to get past a plateau and start climbing again is to back to basics. So I brought these students back, sometimes from a level 5 book back to level 1. Almost all of them found it frustrating at first, because no one likes to be demoted. But that changed almost immediately, because they almost always found they could play the beginner music in a way they hadn’t been able to before. This is hugely motivating, and also allowed us to get into musical details that would have been too advanced the first time.
Peeling the onion
I believe learning music is a circular process. I experience it as working through layers of detail: from the big picture, we move into specifics. Work on that detail for a while until you’ve gone as far as you can. Then leave it alone and move on to something else. After a while, come back to it and take another look.
Each time we come back to the song fresh, we have peeled away another layer and can attack problems more clearly. We have absorbed the basic things to a point where we can focus clearly on the trouble spots. With repeated practice, muscle memory takes over and the fingers know where to go. But knowing how to play a piece of music well takes more than knowing where to put your fingers!
We can break down the process into five stages or layers:
1. The right notes/chords in the right order
2. Committing those notes/chords to memory, in sequence
3. Playing accurately with consistency
4. Playing with feel
5. Playing without thinking
This is a simple process, it just takes time. But it’s very effective because it allows your mind and hands to learn consciously and then allows time for you to absorb that information into your unconscious. In thirty years of teaching and thirty-five years of playing, I’ve watched this process and experienced it myself over and over. And the beauty is that it works no matter what you’re working on. It can be simple or complicated…the complicated stuff just takes longer because there’s more to learn. But either way, the way to solve any problem is to break it down to its most basic elements. Approach it like a beginner learning it for the first time. The difference is, the process happens much faster on the second go-round. By moving from the macro to the micro, we reset our learning process and come at the new challenge with a fresh perspective.
Keeping practice fresh
Advanced players know this process, because they’ve gone through it over and over. They also know that without repeated new challenges, improvement stops. So let your practicing stay fresh by breaking it up into sections or categories:
1. New music you’re just beginning to learn
2. Specific challenges in music you’ve learned before
3. Developing fluidity and flow in music you know well
In other words:
1. Learning music that’s completely fresh
2. Taking a fresh look at music you know
3. Progressing from conscious to unconscious playing.
It’s a powerful process, and you’ll go through it again and again for your entire musical life. Very simply put: approach everything you practice as it it were new to you. Find things that are new to you in music that isn’t. And take new approaches to music you know well. In Zen philosophy, there is a concept called “beginners’ mind”. Cultivate this and you’ll always have a way to keep practice engaging and effective.