Tag Archives: Instrument

The Depths of the Unknown, a Post for Teachers

Well, that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

The Depths of the Unknown is a tenet of my teaching philosophy.  It means that we teachers need to reach the understanding of what, exactly, is not known by the student; that which is preventing futher progress as a player.

I have discovered that most young students practice exactly what they are told and little more. Perhaps young students, (below age 20), are afraid to explore. This would cause them to need ‘Permission’ from teachers and themselves to experiment and explore the instrument and its possibilities. Be sure to give all your students permission to explore their instrument as well as the assigned development work.

Older students, especially those old enough to be parents of the younger students have a strong tendency to have no idea how to learn a new skill; especially a new physical skill. The primary issue of this group is that most of their ‘learning’ is simply a different application of the hard skills already possessed.

For example, if an adult decides to learn the Microsoft Office Suite of applications, they are really just applying skills already posessed in a different format. Adults usually have some writing, math, formulaic, and design skill just from having to function in everyday life. So, in this case, there is no ‘new’ skill being learned, just a new use of current skills.

Learning to play an instrument requires physical repetition and mental development that usually hasn’t happened in a couple decades or more for most adult students. We often need to encourage adult students to be patient with themselves and to understand that learning a musical instrument is often completely different than most of their daily ‘learning’.

I often realize, (When will I get it through MY thick head?), that a student is not progressing because I have not discovered their Depth of the Unknown after weeks, sometimes months of working with them. The problem almost always rests in the time spent with the instrument at the student’s home. I can forgive myself for missing these issues because I am not able see students practice at home each week. The only clue I have to go on is that the student is obviously not progressing and I am half of the equation. It is important to frequently ask questions about a student’s thoughts, feelings, practice habits, etcetera at each session. This is how we (eventually) discover the Depth of the Unknown for each student.

This process often takes a while because most people don’t know what I need to know about these aspects of themselves and I just haven’t come upon the right question to receive the needed answer.

However, once the problem is discovered, the solution usually just a few steps away. There is a very simple formula to playing music, and that is: Play the right notes in the right order at the right time.

Funny enough, most people are very sensitive to timing and tempo, especially tempo. What I hear from nearly every student when I ask them how their playing of a section of a tune compares to mine is: “I’m not playing fast enough.” Rarely am I told: “Well, I played the first note three times because it didn’t sound like I wanted it to sound. I skipped the fifth and seventh notes. I played everything with only a downstroke. I cut off every note the moment I played it in my rush to the next, not realizing that unless there is a rest, each note I play should BECOME the next without a gap of silence.”, etcetera.

In the reading of language, we use a technique called ‘Clumping’. When clumping, we are accepting the visual of three or four words at a time, then grasping the next three or four words while processing the first ‘clump’. When we learn to read, and subsequently when we learn to play specific music, clumping is not possible to do accurately. If you have heard a child learning to read, you probably noticed that they work through it one word at a time.

Most beginning students of an instrument have already been reading for years. This will cause them to attempt to use their clumping skill when learning an instrument, but they do not have the technical facility nor experience as a music reader or player to do this effectively, and as such, will play phrases full of mistakes. For this reason, as does a child learning to read, the beginning student of a musical instrument must work through a piece one note at a time.

I encourage students to break songs into many phrases which can then be repeated to a certain level of proficiency before moving to the next. It is easier to be patient enough to work through a short phrase one note at a time rather than an entire tune or A, B, or C section of a song. This technique seems to give a frequent sense of accomplishment quickly followed by another opportunity to repeat the process.

Simply put, the student must look at the note, play the note, and then be cognizant that what was seen and then played match each other before moving to the next note. While slow, plodding, meticulous, tedious, mind-numbing, or whichever adjective you prefer, it is a guaranteed, fast-track way to develop a clear understanding of the music at hand.

If hours are spent allowing mistakes to occur, there will be subsequent hours spent untying the mind and fingers to produce the right notes, in the right order, at the right time. This time can be saved and put to better use if we adopt the attitude of: “Let’s aim to be right the first time.”.

Believe me, this will transform your students’ progress; possibly your own as well.


Preparing as a Substitute Musician

I have a band called, Rock & Roll Fantasy. It is a five-member Hard Rock outfit and we have a gig at an event called Day In the Park. Day In the Park is an annual event that is held in a local park (hence the name) with many vendors and organizations having displays. I have played that last two or three years as a solo performer; this is the first time with a group.

Our bassist is unavailable for the date because he has requested the day off for a gig we have September 29. So, we needed a substitute bassist. Luckily, I know a great guy and bassist, Ken Harris who was gracious enough to agree to play with us for this one date.

We had our first rehearsal with Ken on Tuesday, August 28 and he did a splendid job; especially since we just called him a week or so ago.

This week, I was asked to sub for a guitarist in an oldies rock band called, the Olde Stuff Band.

Here is a video:

The gig is this Saturday and the setlist was just confirmed today. The songs are not difficult, but I will certainly be taking a good bit of time to get comfortable with them. One thing that I find to be a bit of a challenge is playing tunes in keys other than what is in my head. Also, sometimes the key changes are extreme enough to make big changes in how things sit on the guitar.

One example of an extreme key change would be Old Time Rock and Roll, which is originally in F#. This group plays the tune in the key of D. In the key of F#, the first chord is on strings six and five, with the second and third chords on strings five and four. To play in the key of D, all of this is in reverse.

This is where knowing your entire instrument and having a solid understanding of keys is imperative. Eventually, I take all my students through the process of developing the ability to play any tune in any key. It is very important if your desire is to play either a wide range of music, or if you will be playing with vocalists to be able to play in any key.

Short charts are also very important; having everything charted in some way definitely keeps one’s head from exploding trying to remember all the tunes and the new keys.

I will write a post-gig entry to let you know how I think I fared,

…off we go!