I’ve been teaching guitar for around six years now. For the majority of those years I’ve been also studying and learning; I value the spread of knowledge, whether in a formal or casual setting, and whether I am the student or teacher. I’ve also gotten to try out a variety of instruments – guitar, bass, drums, alto sax, trombone, clarinet, cello, among others – in many different settings.
I find music to be such a multi-faceted world, where people play different roles, with different strategies, for different reasons. One can be paralyzed as a result, not knowing where to start; in addition, small assumptions can hinder how we work on our growth. Often we don’t even know how learning works; we need to learn how to learn, too!
As I’ve tried sorting out how to do this, I came upon this principle: we must see building skill as juggling small things, instead of tackling one large one. I began to notice this when I started working at a local music school here in Irvine, CA.
Early on, many guitar students have difficulty coordinating their hands; for example, though their left may be fretting the string correct, their right picks the wrong string, fractions of an inch too high.
After a few seconds of frustrated groans and sighs, they throw up their hands, saying something like “I’m simply not talented enough; music is too difficult!” Have you ever felt this way? Perhaps you can relate to this popular Youtube video (warning: lots of profanity).
But see, it’s only one piece of the puzzle – a slightly misaligned picking hand – that has a problem. Throwing up both hands in frustration would be a step backwards, as they’d lose the correct left hand position!
Underneath this situation is a false assumption: “music is one big hard task, and I’m not good enough” But in reality, it’s a collection of small, relatively simple, digestible things – in this case, finger strength, the right string/fret, picking height – that come together. It follows that small calculated changes can make a world of difference.
No matter your instrument or genre, these small things are also called fundamentals. On one hand, weakness in one fundamental – say, the inability to play at a consistent tempo – disrupts everything else. On the other hand, hitting each fundamental one at a time means slow and steady progress, resulting in practical skill; building and leaning on these good habits and skills gives us freedom to make and enjoy music.
One could be a better teacher by acknowledging the nature of music as many small tasks; after all, a truly qualified teacher has experienced this learning process for himself, and hindsight is 20/20.
However, in the hard process of learning, it’s overwhelmed students who often fail to see this; my frustrated students remind me of my own early attempts at understanding jazz.
Learning from Wes
In “Music Tip #1 | Sleep on It,” I talked about how learning difficult jazz standards seemed impossible, and that a small shift in my learning and sleeping schedule helped me handle the intake of knowledge; sharing a little more about that journey here may be helpful.
My first transcription was Wes Montgomery’s solo on “Four on Six,” and it seemed to be a Herculean feat. My technique was inadequate; on top of that, I could not even understand what I was hearing. How do people keep track of these chords? What were these seemingly random notes, and why did they sound good? Are people just born with this skill? Maybe I wasn’t born with it? It was a frustrating moment.
The very first “small thing” I needed to fix was my music notation. I simply did not know around staff notation well enough to write the notes down!
Afterwards, I had to figure out how to hear the notes; there’s no point of notation if you don’t know what to write.
Technique came next. Years later, at LACM, a teacher corrected my tense hands; the left was at an odd angle, and the right held the pick clumsily. I then revisited the solo and was able to play it.
But the solo itself only made sense after I studied harmony. I realized that I relied too much on analysis by way of large scale shapes. Smaller triads, chord tones, and 251 phrases helped me grasp note choice; tension and resolve (chromatic approach tones, the altered scale, and other ideas) explained why some of the weirder notes could still work.
The big picture finally came into view. I could play the solo, comprehend it, and use the ideas in my own improvisation. And it isn’t over; this month, I revisited Montgomery’s music, discovering more things I had previously missed! Now, I’m not saying we should academize everything; at some point, we’ll never be able to know or label everything about music. But as a student, it was a lifesaver that teachers emphasized these small ideas with the authority of experience.
Like the beginning guitar students I described earlier, I would have given up right at the start, assuming that jazz was this big, scary, incomprehensible task; instead, by recognizing the value in practicing small things, I haven’t stopped learning. I’m not the best, but I’m surely better than yesterday.
As a student – of music, or of anything really – realize these small things take time. Though the big picture may seem impossible or incomprehensible, acknowledge that growth isn’t immediately apparent. Find a good teacher, find out what the small things are, and trust that they’ll get you where you want to go. Ask all questions you need to; don’t merely pretend to understand.
Then pick a few of these small things and hit them everyday; really learn to tune your guitar! Give yourself time with those chords and scales. For wind players, have faith in those long tones. Understand each note, one by one. Don’t rush it!
Above all, keep listening to and playing music. Before you know it, all these small things will snowball into some well-earned skill.