Sep 11

Floating into the Blues

One of the most valuable techniques my teacher Jim Goelitz has taught me is his “trademarked” method of learning chords, which he calls “float and drop.” The goal is to learn the chord shapes as a grip that your hand remembers with precision. To practice chords, you very slowly position your fingers just above the strings (float) and frets you want to press for a chord. Then you very slowly drop your fingers to the strings and strum the chord to make sure it sounds clear. You repeat this process with the next chord.

I find this is an especially helpful way to practice two or more new chords when I’m having trouble getting reliably from one chord to the next. Recently, Jim had me demonstrate “float and drop” for a couple of chords that were bothering me. He noticed that I was moving too fast. He stressed that the movement needs to be like slow motion in a movie. This helps ensure accuracy and precision. Before your fingers touch the strings, they need to be in the exact position for that chord.

It may seem obvious, but in working on a transition from one chord to the next, I realized it helps to notice the most direct path your fingers can take between the two chords. Perhaps a finger stays on the same string and just moves up or down. It’s more effective to practice following this path in slow motion with “float and drop.” It may take a lot of repetition, but eventually it leads to improvement.

Once I’m starting to get familiar with a chord grip or transition, I find it helpful to practice it with my eyes closed. The ultimate goal is to “find” the chords without looking.

Jun 11

My Third Anniversary

On Wednesday, June 25, 2008, I took my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan & Gaines in Forest Park (a nearby suburb of Chicago). Except for a few gaps of a week or two, I’ve taken a lesson every week since then.

For the first year or so, I took an hour lesson, but then cut back to 30 minutes for reasons of economy. Having a weekly lesson to prepare for has been important in helping me maintain a regular practice schedule. In the beginning I practiced 20 to 30 minutes a day–most days. More recently, I’ve tried to practice at least an hour (usually in two 30 minute segments). Sometimes I practice a total of 90 minutes, but other times I miss a day. I usually average around five hours a week and always wish I could manage more. I’m convinced that more playing time leads to more improvement.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been playing guitar for three years. In some ways, I still feel like a beginner. Given how much there is, potentially, to learn, perhaps I always will. At the same time, when I look back, I can see how much I’ve learned so far. Scales, chords, riffs, techniques or music that once seemed challenging, if not impossible, I now can play comfortably. There are always new challenges, but fortunately I love learning new things.

Dec 10

Learning from Listening to Music

When I was focusing on learning to write short fiction and took several writing workshops, the writer-teachers often expressed dismay that aspiring writers didn’t read enough good fiction. How could one learn to write without reading a lot?, they wondered.

If you’ve ever spent any time around young children, you know that one of their primary paths to learning is imitation. They pay keen attention to what’s going on around them and soak up every detail. It seems natural for them to “practice” the behaviors and activities they see adults doing–until they can do them as well.

Adults who want to learn any art form or creative activity would do well to remember the example of children. Instructional media, teachers and classes contribute to learning, but a key element is paying attention to good examples of the art one seeks to master.

Just as aspiring writers need to read, study and deeply experience good writing, so do aspiring musicians need to listen widely and deeply to the music they care about. Since I started taking guitar lessons, I’ve listened to music much more often than I used to–even though I’ve always enjoyed and loved music. Listening to music, especially blues by the masters, nurtures and encourages my love of the music and also helps me learn to play the music better.

Now that I’ve learned to play a little, I hear music in a different way. The more I know how to play, the more I can hear in the music I listen to. At the same time, I’m also trying to hear new things. What is that riff? How is the guitarist playing that passage? Could I play that?

My teacher has had me do Music Listening Analyses to encourage me to focus on certain elements in a song. In the process, I’ve listened to songs over and over. There is always more to hear. Even a relatively “simple” song has so much going on in it that it requires multiple listenings to absorb it deeply.

Whether listening for an analysis or just listening, it’s important to pay attention to the feel of the music. Music isn’t an intellectual exercise, nor is it just a matter of good technique. The ultimate goal is for “technique” to fall below a conscious level and simply play out the feelings.

Since I started taking lessons, I’ve also gone to hear live music more often. I find it helpful to see what a guitarist is doing as I’m hearing the music. However, I often can’t tell what is going on even as I’m looking, because it happens too fast.

Before I took guitar lessons, I hadn’t given any thought to ear training, but it’s obviously as important to playing music as finger training. Fortunately, listening to music I enjoy is never an onerous assignment.

In a sense, listening to music is also a form of goal-setting. I don’t expect ever to play at the level of blues mentors like Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker or Hubert Sumlin. However, as I sail over the wide seas of music, they are like the North Star, a point of orientation that guides me and keeps me on track.

Aug 10

How much practice is enough?

As I perfectionist, I’m inclined to believe that no amount of practice is “enough.” More is always better. If your fingers are sore, it’s time to stop, but short of that, you can probably benefit from more practice.

When I first started taking lessons, Jim Goelitz, my teacher, suggested I practice twenty minutes, then spend ten minutes sitting quietly to let what I’d done sink in. I was to repeat this routine twice a day.

After a while, forty minutes a day of playing didn’t seem enough. There was so much I wanted to learn. Now I aim to practice at least sixty minutes a day. Sometimes I’ve managed to practice two hours in a day, but then there are others days when I barely manage thirty minutes. Sometimes. to my regret, the day gets away from me entirely.

In late March 2010, I started keeping a log of daily practice time, so I would know how much time I was actually spending. My weekly average so far is 5.3 hours a week. There are some weeks when I’ve managed an hour a day or close to it.

I’ve read of musicians who play several hours a day. I wish I could make the time to play more, because I have observed that practice does make a difference. As I play songs over and over, I notice improvement. I can play more smoothly, with less stumbling. My fingers gradually take over and I don’t have to consciously micromanage their movements.

I aspire to make playing the guitar “second nature,” so that through repetition and practice it becomes essentially automatic, not requiring conscious thought. The most common example of this is learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve learned, your body “knows” what to do and you no longer have to “think” about what needs to be done.

Some aspects of playing are already approaching “second nature,” but I still need to extend that to things I haven’t even begun to learn. Learning music is a never-ending process. It’s a journey without a destination.

Jul 10

Guitar Practice

This week I’ve focused on exercises and songs in the Key of G from Kenny Sultan’s Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001). I’ve been practicing “Blues in G” (p. 23) for three weeks or so and am feeling more at ease with it and can play it more smoothly. I haven’t quite mastered the patterns in measures 6 and 11, but they’re getting easier. Compared to some songs earlier in the book it’s not a difficult piece, but there are new moves that my fingers haven’t quite gotten used to. My little finger, for example, doesn’t always make it from the first string to fret the third string reliably.

On Sunday (7/25), I started practicing “Step It Up and Go”(p. 25), which adds the C and D7 chord to the G chord. Again, it’s not that difficult, but my fingers are still getting the hang of it.

Meanwhile, I continue to practice scales, chords and the songs in E and A that I’ve learned. It’s frustrating to go back to a song and discover how unruly it’s gotten during the period of neglect.