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Guitar Mastery: Tip #4 – Buy a Notebook

The next tip in the series based on Dan Coyle’s book, The Little Book of Talent, starts to get into the ideas of how to practice, and sets you up to start your regular practice schedule. If you missed the first 2 articles to start the series, please go and read those first.
 
There is a common saying that states, “What gets measured, gets managed,” which means that unless you can measure and track progress, you will not make any real motion forward and risk meandering or hitting a plateau because you are not sure what to work on or how to improve. If you do not know where you have been and where you are now, then you cannot steer the proverbial ship toward any meaningful destination. While there will be much focus on how to actually practice further along in the series, the first step is to prepare to measure and take notes. Of course, you can choose to take notes in what ever format is convenient and easiest for you, but I strongly recommend a physical notebook (as opposed to an online note) that is kept with all of your practice materials and instrument. Part of the reason for the physical recommendation is that you may wish to convey an idea with written music or drawings or sketches. 
 
This all begs the question, “Exactly, what notes am I supposed to take?”. The beauty of having a notebook to track your practice sessions, is that it becomes your personal road map to mastery. Each session builds upon the last and as your skill level increases, so does the level of detail in each practice. Generally, you want to take notes on at least these 3 criteria:
 
  1. what you practiced
  2. any trouble spots you encountered
  3. what you will practice next time
Of course, the more detailed you get with your notes, the more set up you will be for your next practice session, and that is the main point with having a notebook. However, If you start with these 3 basic ideas, then you will have enough to at least keep track of your progress. As Coyle puts it, “Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for next week.” Follow this simple method and you will always know where you are and what to work on, therefore, you will always be making progress.
 
Next, we’ll explore some more in depth approaches with the notebook using some of Coyle’s tips further along in the book.
 
Tip # 22: Pay Attention Immediately After You Make A Mistake
 
Coyle writes that we have a very small window to catch our mistakes (0.25 seconds to be exact!) and he stresses throughout much of his research that one of the key differences between masters of their craft and amateurs is the ability to hone in on mistakes and ruthlessly correct them. He also writes that people have a choice, either ignore the mistake all together or pay attention. It is extremely easy to just let most mistakes slip by with a thought like, “Well, that wasn’t perfect but it sounded good enough.” The “good enough” part is exactly what you should avoid!
 
Train yourself to pay attention to your mistakes and then bring them squarely and clearly into focus in order to work on them. This is where the notebook comes in. For a deep, focused practice session, you will write down or indicate where you made the mistake, what the mistake was and dissect the reason(s) for it (were you playing too fast, the rhythm wasn’t quite right, you hit the wrong note on the 3rd beat, your hand had trouble stretching, etc.) the more detailed and examined your reasons for the mistake, the more you will be able to correct it. Practice intently while listening for mistakes and then document it in the notebook. Take corrective action to fix the mistake and write that down in the notebook. If you reach another part with a mistake, stop and make note of that for the next practice session. We will explore more in depth with more tips related to how to practice and how to fix mistakes in a future article, but start the habit of noting your mistakes now. 
 
Tip #39: Practice Immediately After a Performance
 
This next tip goes hand in hand with noticing your mistakes. Right after a performance, you know what felt right and what went wrong. Coyle suggests getting that notebook out and jotting down those rough spots from the performance while they are fresh in your mind. That way you can go back to correct the mistake during your next practice session. I would caution to note these down and then forget about them to enjoy the afterglow of your performance. Your friends, family and audience members will respond to your overall mood after a performance and they will be excited for you – so go enjoy good company after a nice performance and leave the work for later – just make sure you wrote down your thoughts and observations!
 
Tip #29: When You Get It Right, Mark the Spot
 
On the flip side of your mistakes are the times when you just nail the execution. It just feels right and sounds great. When that happens, take out your notebook and jot down a few points: what did it feel like, what were you thinking about while performing it, what did it physically feel like to play it. etc? This is most important after you have identified a mistake and worked on it until you hit a perfect execution of that musical passage. You should freeze and make notes of all the sensations as mentioned above and take as clear a mental picture of the action as possible and incorporate the ideas above. This then becomes your new starting point for practicing. Repeat that for the rest of the practice session until it becomes automatic. Again, we will go more in depth with how to develop a practice routine with future tips in the series. 
 
By now you have a good idea about what it might take to really put the effort in to learning an instrument. In the upcoming article, we will go in depth and explore how to practice, define deliberate practice, learn how to structure a practice session, and learn some techniques for correcting mistakes and attain your goals on the guitar. I love hearing your feedback and ideas about the topic. Please leave a comment below and share with any one you know who is learning an instrument.

Guitar Mastery: Tip #3: Steal Without Apology

We continue with the series focused on the tips laid out on the path to mastery by Dan Coyle in his book, “The Little Book of Talent.” If you are interested in learning more about the research and how these ideas were formulated, then please check out Coyle’s books on Amazon. You can check out my post about Tips #1 & 2 here
 
Tip #3 is brief and to the point but has been used for thousands of years by people looking to master their craft. Countless quotes have been documented about the idea of “stealing” ideas to use as your own when creating art. You have no doubt heard at least one. For example, Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” In this article, we will explore this simple but powerful idea that will help take you further down the path toward mastery. 
 
First, let’s clarify what “stealing” actually means. Does it mean that we take an idea verbatim and call it our own? Does it mean we take an idea and mold it, shape it, and play around with it to come up with our own unique spin? Both are true and both should be used by an artist. I know that in this day in age, we have court cases that warn against “stealing” other’s musical ideas and using them as your own (see the case of Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye), and I have my own opinions on the matter, but despite the potential risk and punishment, “stealing” musical ideas has been used for centuries and was a common practice up until recent history. The recording music industry itself was even born on the backs of musicians stealing from other, often unnamed, musicians of their day. Whole genres have been born by stealing from other music. (Rock ‘n Roll or Hip-hop anybody?!). The point is not to argue one way or the other about the morals of stealing but just to show that it has been and still is a common occurrence and regular practice used by all artists and musicians.
 
There are only so many chords and chord progressions that have been repeated since the beginning of western tonal music and we have heard them all. What makes a piece of music unique is not based on one single element but a combination of different elements such as, rhythm, melody, harmony, harmonic rhythm, melodic development, harmonic development, etc. More to the point, “stealing” in the sense that Coyle suggests, is more about taking a specific idea, approach, technique, or form and figuring out how to use it and how and why it works. He writes how younger members of a musical family often achieve greater artistic achievements, which may be partially due to the fact that they are able to “steal” what works from their older siblings and learn from other’s mistakes. 
 
Here are some ideas of what to steal when learning guitar (keep in mind that every tip from Coyle’s book goes hand in hand and are often heavily interdependent and related. This tip relates very much to tip #1 and 2 in that you can steal from the artists you stare at and from the performances your engrave on your brain – after all, those performances and artists are some of the best): 
 
  • steal specific approach to fingering – as a side note, some classical guitarists and teachers are sticklers for fingering choices and only abide by their own methods (the infamous story involving Andres Segovia and Michael Chapdelaine comes to mind) 
  • steal a specific lick when soloing
  • steal specific chord(s) when writing
  • steal a specific chord progression when writing
  • steal a specific voicing when comping
  • steal a specific melody or motif when soloing or writing
  • steal a specific technique – where would we all be without Van Halen’s popularization of the two-hand tapping technique
  • steal specific lyrics
  • steal specific themes
  • steal a specific interpretation
  • steal specific phrasing of a piece you are learning
  • steal ideas and techniques from other art forms
  • steal raison d’être and philosophies behind the creation of great works
  • steal any idea that inspires you
  • steal a rhythm
  • steal ideas from music around the world – a raga, a rhythm, instrumentation, etc.
 
Using ideas from other art inspires me and adds to my musical arsenal.  In fact i am working on a book that details how to steal from world music to get ideas to enhance your playing and expand your set of tools.  One good example of this is John McLaughlin and his work with Shakti. 
 
I have often found myself listening to a certain style of music or specific artist repeatedly and when sitting down to write or improvise, those elements pop up. It might be a certain chord or certain melody line, or certain lick that catches my ear either consciously or subconsciously. Once i get that down in my fingers, it takes on a life of its own and inspires new connections or new ways of hearing it out of context. 
 
Think about the different elements you can steal and that will inspire you to take a deeper dive and explore that idea. Stolen ideas are a great way to find inspiration and use as a jumping off point to being creative in your own right. Play around with the ideas and combine them in different ways to create new combinations and lead to new ideas. 
 
What inspires you? What have you “stolen” from that lead you to create something new? I would love to see your comments below.