Why I Teach Guitar

About 26 years ago I was asked to take my first guitar student. I had been in and out of the guitar shop for six years leading to this. I struggled to teach myself guitar for 5 years and had one year of classical guitar training (I was a rocker at heart but they only offered classical at the university).4181823128_a8b4b9c806

The kid they wanted me to teach was considered to be difficult by the guitar teachers at the shop. They said he was tone deaf and had no rhythm. They thought that these traits were a permanent part of the kid, unchangeable, and not things that could ever improve. I didn’t know any better than them. I was a 19 year old who never taught anyone anything (at least not intentionally).

I worked with the kid for about a year, and gradually I noticed his rhythm and his ability to hear differences between notes improving. At the time, I didn’t realize the influence this would have in my life. I began to realize that anyone, with a desire to do something, could eventually do it. In retrospect, I think the other guitar teachers, by branding the kid with the traits mentioned above were actually working hard to cover their own shortcomings as teachers.

Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and adults and I learn something new every day. Every guitarist plays and learns differently, is motivated by different music, and different parts of the music, and brings me new challenges. There is no right or wrong way to play beyond the basics that keep our wrists free of tendinitis or carpal tunnel and our bodies free of stress. Listen to what your teachers say because they most likely have your best interests in mind, but remember, anyone who tells you they know the only right way to play is a fool.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve grown to feel strongly about is the idea of student-centered teaching. Each guitarist who has come to me over the past 26 years has had his or her own vision of how the music should sound, what music is good, what aspects of the guitar are most important.

From shredders to folk guitarists to classical guitarists to straight ahead rockers, they all knew what music they wanted to play. Most of the time, this vision was radically different from my own, and if I had tried to force mine on any of them, their learning experiences would have suffered, and worse, they might have abandoned music altogether!  It’s easiest and far more motivating when you’re learning what you want to learn. We should use the music the students love as a bridge to the musical concepts they need us to teach and we should help them to find their own voices in the music so it becomes a greater affirmation of who they are!

Dissonance Makes It All Worthwhile

Dissonance is the most hated, least understood, and most important aspect of music. Simply put, dissonance gives music its purpose, much like the villain in a movie. There would be no movie without the villain – at least not a good movie. This is true for music too, though to varying degrees and depending on the purpose you have in mind. It also depends on your understanding of dissonance.

Let’s begin with the chord. One chord holds consonance and dissonance. A C major chord, for example is built within the frame of a perfect fifth, less consonant that an octave, but still considered a perfect consonance. The note nestled in between the C and G that make up the fifth is an E, which, in this context is still considered by many to be consonant, though the major third between the C and E, and the minor third between the E and G are less consonant that the fifth. For the sake of example, we will also consider the thirds consonant entities.

In the key of C, there are two other major chords – F and G. Let’s move now from the C to the G. The G chord is built with the same relationships as the C – its notes are G – B – D. Once the G chord sounds, it is the same kind of consonance as the C chord. However, in relationship to the C it causes dissonance! Though we can’t hear the C chord in the physical world, our minds hold it, creating an implied dissonance. It’s this tension which is mostly just in our heads that, in my opinion, gives music purpose.

If you played the two chords together, you would hear a nice clash between them, especially between the B and C notes, which is a minor second (or major seventh), the harshest of our tonal dissonances. Because it is only an implied dissonance when the two chords don’t sound together, it doesn’t hit someone who hates dissonance the wrong way. It does, however, create a musical longing to return to the C chord. Even more so if you add the seventh to the G chord.

It’s the dissonance that makes our ears return to that C chord throughout the course of a piece of music. In most of the popular forms of music today, the relationships are pretty simple. The song writer starts with a chord that they usually return to again and again. Good examples are the standard 4-chord songs we hear. in C the most popular is C – G – Am – F. Right away we hear implied dissonance between the C and G. Moving from G to Am adds even more dissonance, though the move to Am actually brings us closer to C because the two chords share two notes (C has C, E, and G and Am has A, C, and E). From the Am we move to F which, in relation to the C causes as much tension as the G but it shares two notes with the Am (F has F, A, and C). When we finally get to C you can feel the relief.

Try it yourself. Play the four chords in a row. First, stop on the F chord. Pay attention to what happens in your mind. Do you finish it in your head by thinking a C?

Next, play it again and this time, add a C chord after the F. How does this feel?

This is a simple exercise, though many people aren’t consciously aware of the pull dissonance has. The clearest example of tension and release is Bdim to C. Play the notes B and F together a few times followed by C and E. This will do it.

I’ve just scratched the surface – entire college courses could be taught about dissonance. The best way I know to deeply understand it’s power is to experiment and trust your ears. If you really trust them, they won’t lie to you.

Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.

Music isn’t changing…

It’s just being explored… and much like the Earth, there isn’t much left to explore. After the work of the mid to late 20th century, nearly all harmonic combinations were pretty much exhausted. Then came the rhythmic exploration. What’s left?

There are still composers across all genres doing great innovative things. What we see becoming popular across most genres, however, is pretty much just old ideas with some new orchestration slapped on and no innovation at all.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to return to old ideas. In the evolution of Rock we see a direct development from the blues, then an infusion of folk, classical orchestration, back to the blues, etc… and this is just in the first 10 or so years. This is how music has always evolved and become something new. But, as I said above, all we see now is the plunder of old ideas.

Although there isn’t much new coming from most of the “popular” artists, this isn’t an accurate reflection of the human spirit. Rather, it’s the result of an industry that’s in panic about losing everything because all of their old models have been destroyed by new technology. They’re only concerned now with pumping out a hit song that will make at least a million bucks.

And the artists they’ve chosen to work with are either pretty and pliable people, or diligent researchers of what has made songs hits in the past. They either smile and sing whatever is handed to them or dissect old hits, extracting the elements they need to construct a new one. Facade, sterile and surgical… no art allowed.

If you look deeply past all of this, all the fireworks that explode once, blinding you for a while, but then disappearing forever, you find the underground. The fertile ground where new ideas actually take shape.

Sites like Made Loud help you to navigate this new and vast terrain. There are others. Just search indie or underground or DIY and the genre of music you love the most. Unfortunately, as powerful as the internet is, there is so much garbage to wade through but there’s also a lot of gold buried there! You’ll find it well worth it in the end!

Missing the Past

There are sounds from my childhood that I miss dearly. Like the sound of my grandfather’s grandfather clock or the perk of his coffee maker in the morning – two sounds I could conceivably replicate today. But there are other sounds I fear I’ll never have again.

The sound of summer without the ring of tinnitus! Rotary phones. The pop and crackle of a vinyl record. The sound of a manual typewriter.

Our world is changing. These sounds are unknown to most people under the age of 25 today. Arguably it’s not a bad thing. These sounds are replaced by others.

The beep of a cell phone, the pure music heard from digital recordings (though i still think the warmth of sound from vinyl is unbeatable!), the soft click of the computer keyboard… All these will change too. What will replace those?

In 100 years all these sounds will predictably be completely different. In 1000 years those will be completely forgotten… and in 10000 years every bit of history we’ve ever known up to this point will be completely forgotten.

Is this why we feel nostalgia? Because we also know how fleeting everything is?

Man… what a bummer!

Do You Want to Play?

You might say you wish you were good at playing an instrument. You might believe that musical talent, and perhaps all talents (sciences, languages, drama, etc) are something you are born with. Over the years I’ve come to think this belief is completely wrong.

There are studies (which I alluded to in the Bruce Lee post) that demonstrate that people gain expertise through an investment of time and energy – through practice. Anyone can play! Waiting for a divine gift of talent will probably only be an exercise in frustration… If you don’t put in your own energy, the most likely outcome will be nothing!

To play for pleasure, which most musicians do, you need a smaller time investment than you would need to become an expert. Pros play for 4 – 8 hours a day! As a hobbyist, half an hour to an hour a few days a week would probably be perfect.

So ask yourself, “do I really want to play?” If the answer is yes, the next question is “what?” What kind of music do you like? What instrumental sound in the mix seems to always catch your ear?

The next step is to get yourself an instrument! I suggest an inexpensive one – just in case. It’s been argued that when a serious investment is made then you will be more motivated to practice… I’ve seen that this doesn’t always work.

Now, do a little research. Look for a little info about your instrument, who the best players are, maybe where there is a good teacher nearby, and by all means, make noise! Experiment with your instrument, see what kinds of sounds you can make. At first, it’s most common that everything you do will probably sound terrible!!!

The penultimate step is to find time in your busy schedule to play. This is usually the most difficult. Especially since we’ve been programmed to think it’s frivolous and selfish to play. The studies show that the benefits of playing an instrument go beyond just making music. It has positive effects on you intellectually, socially, and emotionally. It just happens to also be fun! Let yourself have fun.

Which brings us to the last step – enjoy.

Bruce Lee was the Jimi Hendrix of Kicking Ass – Why People Become Exceptional

There are people in this world who are exceptional. People who seem to have god given talent. Bruce Lee, in my opinion, is in the same category as Jimi Hendrix. His ability was mindblowing! They both had that kind of talent.

How does someone reach this level of skill? Is it something you’re born with?

Studies show that expertise comes from a lot of practice. Not just sitting and playing, but conscious, focussed practice! I’ve been there, sitting with my guitar, and I zone out… When I come back to consciousness, I know I’ve been playing but I wasn’t there for it… That kind of practice doesn’t count! According to the studies, you need to put in at the very least, 3 hours a day for 10 years… Seems like a lot, but in interviews, virtuosos tell that they have done this very thing – usually more.

People like Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix, as well as a host of others like Michael Jordan, Andres Segovia, John Coltrane, Vaslov Nijinsky (and hundreds of others I could name right now) go beyond our understanding of expertise. Theoretically, anyone who puts in focussed and deliberate practice or study, can become an expert. To achieve the levels that masters like Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix have, you need to live your passion. For these people I argue that their art was not just something they did, but something inside the depth of their souls. It wasn’t just there while they were practicing or performing, it was there in everything they ever did. It wasn’t something they chose, but something that chose them.