I don’t believe in resolutions because I’ve never been able to stick to them. I make them during the last week of the year, and on January 1st, I diligently begin my routine. After all, it’s easy; I’m still on holiday break.
But, in mid-January, the daily grind begins again, and my initial resolve is overpowered by my usual busy schedule.
Then, tomorrow becomes my favorite day of the week, and indolence begins to creep in.
So two years ago, I tried something new. Instead of the usual new year’s resolution, I created a plan of action for February. My goal was to record myself for 2-5 minutes daily and share them with a guitar community.
The concepts I recorded are less important than committing to a process and being accountable, which are the two most important concepts required for change.
So, this year we’re not going to make any empty resolutions. Instead, we’re going to make Musical Commitments. Who’s with me?
Bottom Line Up Front
This lengthy piece can take 12-15 minutes to read. I added a step-by-step review of the bullet points for each section. You can find these at the end of each section for those who want to skim the article.
It’s challenging to hit all of the variables in an overview. But I covered most of the common areas I’ve experienced with myself as a one-on-teacher, university professor, and virtual instructor.
The main topics are being accountable, defining and sticking to your goals, finding resources, staying focused, measuring your progress, and achieving your goals. Please feel free to jump to any section and bookmark this article.
You may not find every topic is immediately applicable to your current situation, but you will encounter it at some point in your development. Enjoy the journey!
Learning Something New Is Easy Until It Isn’t
This is always the exciting part. We think about what it would be like if we could play fingerstyle, strum the chords to our favorite songs, improvise a smoking solo, record our song ideas, and any other guitar-related topics. S
ometimes the biggest challenge is narrowing down the options and deciding on one or two subjects to design your new practice routine.
The problem with so many options is that it’s easy to get sidetracked when the learning stops being fun and starts becoming work. We then switch gears and try something else.
I tell my students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it, and playing guitar would lose its magic.”
In my experience, both as the teacher and the student, the problem is not learning something new and getting my fingers to cooperate. Instead, it’s being patient and diligent with myself enough to let the learning happen and not forcing the learning to happen. And we’ll talk more about this in a little bit. First, let’s talk about commitment.
Making a Musical Commitment
There have been times when I wanted to work on something new but couldn’t decide. In the past, it was about technique and becoming more proficient with the instrument. But, in the middle of last year, I had a scare that made me refocus my strategy to become a different type of player.
It seems that when I hit 50, 50 hit me back—and hard. All the years of taking my health and physical well-being for granted left me with arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis. I was rehabbing my knee when I blew out my shoulder during one of the exercises. Now, I couldn’t sit with the guitar, and I lost the feeling in my fretting hand’s thumb, index, and middle fingers.
Then, COVID hit, and I was forced to reassess my personal, health, and musical goals. But this isn’t a self-awareness, I-saw-the-light-and-now-I-want-to-share-it-with-you article. It’s about strategies for hitting your guitar goals.
My situation forced me to reflect on what was necessary, and one of the things that I love about the guitar is that the journey never ends. There have been many detours in my journey and times when I felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. But, whenever I was clear about my goal, I put the time in and made progress.
The reason that I made progress in those instances is that I didn’t make a resolution. I had a clear idea of my goal and committed to staying the course.
Here’s a typical scenario when I first sit down with a student. For the first few minutes, we have a get-to-know-you session where I ask them about their musical interests and playing experience (if any) and gauge their learning personality. More on this in a moment.
The truth is that most of us have qualities from both of these learning personality types. But, at the very least, it gives me a place to start. I talk about this in my article, What Are You Missing with Online Guitar Courses, which I suggest you read if you’re serious about taking your learning and practice to the next level.
During this first lesson, I explained to my misguided young apprentice two essential ideas:
- What they can expect from me.
- What I expect from them.
In both cases, it’s commitment. I commit to preparing for the lesson and expect the same from my student. And this isn’t about being a hardass; it’s about building trust and accountability.
In my article, What Are You Missing with Online Guitar Courses, I break down learning personalities into two categories, introverts and extroverts. The introvert is a motivated self-starter, and the extrovert is a social learner. And this helps me set up a learning path for them. For example:
- Find a Structured Program Online
- Setup a Schedule with Milestones
- Focus on Learning Songs and a Project
- Check-In with a Real Teacher Once a Month
- Find a 1-on-1 Teacher or Interactive Program
- Set Up a Practice Routine
- Create Short-Term Goals
- Join a Guitar Community
What Are Your Goals
Also, during my get-to-know-you lesson, we discuss goals. In some cases, it’s apparent. Absolute beginners need to follow a
Non-beginners are trickier because it depends on which direction they’re taking. Here are some examples from some of my students:
- The Guitar Virtuoso (Shredder Intraining): single-note techniques, improvisation techniques, and music theory while building their scale vocabulary.
- The Rhythm Player (The Perfect Bandmate): chords, strumming, fingerpicking techniques, song form, and music theory while building their chord vocabulary.
- The Singer/Songwriter (The Musical Artist): singing, chord strumming, and accompaniment patterns, singing and playing at the same time, lyric writing, and song performance.
In either of these cases, it comes down to two questions:
- Is there something new that you want to work on?
- What do you want to improve?
So, open up a note-taking app and ask yourself these questions.
Here are some answers that my students came up with:
- Recording Ideas at Home
- Improving Parts of Songs that I’ve Always Wanted to Play
- Learning My Favorite Songs from Beginning to End
- Learning to Solo
- Playing for Friends and Family
Sticking to Goals Advice
Let’s take the first idea from the list above and unpack it.
You want to record your song ideas at home, which means learning the basics of home recording. And, let’s say you’re starting from scratch. Then this type of goal is an excellent place to start.
Starting a home studio requires a small investment to get started. But you can use free software, an interface, and a microphone to begin the process.
Also, this is a realistic goal that will keep you motivated.
Next, set a big goal. Think about where you’d like to be a year from now. And using our record-your-song-ideas goal, my student wanted to finish writing a song and recording herself playing and singing simultaneously. That was her big goal.
This made it easy to create subgoals; in this case, there are three significant areas to focus on. And it’s okay to be general for your first list. Your skills in each area will develop over time and at different rates. Subgoals need to be reevaluated and sometimes reset.
Most of us don’t stick to our goals because we haven’t taken the time to create a clear roadmap. We know we want to record ourselves playing and singing our songs. But we need to figure out how to get there, and then we become distracted and frustrated. So, we move on to something else.
Recording Song Ideas at Home (Big Goal Example)
- Musical Capabilities: Playing and singing at the same time.
- Building a chord vocabulary
- Switching chords and playing in time
- Understanding chord theory
- Songwriting Skills: Writing lyrics, creating melodies, and understanding chord progressions.
- Understanding song forms
- Analyzing melodies
- Chord theory overlaps with the first subgoal.
- Recording Chops: Understanding basic recording techniques and using a recording program.
- These are technical, and we covered the basics in only a few lessons.
As the teacher, I put this in my notes and share it with my student. But, if you’re self-teaching or using an online lesson platform, you need to do this yourself, and you could set up a template in your favorite productivity app with reminders and to-do lists.
What’s Your Goal Review
- Set a Big Goal: Something that you’d like to accomplish by the end of the year. And, remember, be realistic.
- Create Subgoals: break down the big goal into smaller goals and divide those smaller goals into specific topics.
- Reevaluate and Reset Goals: I revisit the Big Goal every three months.
Finding a Resource and Staying Focused
Nowadays, we’re overwhelmed with the number of available resources. The difficulty is finding the right one.
But first, let’s define the resource. This could be a one-on-one, in-person teacher. But, in many cases, most of us prefer the convenience and wallet-friendly resources of the online variety. And this can be books, websites, online courses, etc.
Find the Right Supplemental Material
I like books because they can easily sit on my music stand. But PDFs and anything that shows up on my computer screen also works. The important thing is that it works for you. Here’s a bit of advice.
- Beginners: Use any
beginnermethod (book, website, course, etc.). Beginnermethods are graded: i.e., each lesson builds on the previous lesson. And all of the topics are universal for practically any style of music.
- Non-Beginners: For our purposes, a non-
beginnerknows more than 5 open chords and can switch and strum these chords in time. They can also play a scale and/or single-note melodies. These players need to refer to their subgoals and find an appropriate resource
Songs are good supplemental resources. They provide real-world examples for applying your core skills, e.g., switching and strumming chords in time, playing chord riffs and melodies, playing and singing simultaneously, etc.
Many online learning platforms also offer free trials and/or have free sample lessons on YouTube. Take advantage of these offers to find that teacher and study platform you like. For beginners, I like Guitareo, and for non-beginners, I like TrueFire.
Even the most-disciplined person among us needs help staying on task. When I go through these periods where I’m super busy and running around like a crazy person, I make it a point to sit down and stop for 10 minutes. I sit with the guitar for 10 minutes, but I don’t have to play it—which is impossible. I’ll noodle a few things and the 10 minutes becomes 20.
The next day, at the same time, my goal is to practice one thing for 10 minutes. In 3-4 days, I’m back on track. I’ll also remind myself of the big goal if I’m self-teaching. For my students, I remind them every few lessons of the big goal.
Also, supplemental material (like learning songs) can keep you on track. Songs are fun, and once you have the basics down, playing songs feels like something other than practice. And this is the idea behind the supplemental material; it’s supposed to be fun.
Create a Practice Ritual
I’m a problem solver; that’s the role my family sees me as and one I’m comfortable with. But that also means that I get pulled into many different directions at various times during the day.
The 10-minute practice ritual I described above is performed at 7:30am every morning except the morning after a gig when I’m unpacking my guitar and gear and leaving it ready to play.
I love my morning routine because it prepares me for the rest of the day, and it’s my time. I suggest that you do the same:
- Set up a practice area that is always available when you can practice.
- Make sure that you have everything you need easily accessible
- Chair, music stand, and/or computer
- Amp, headphones, cables, etc.
- Books, PDFs, sheet music, or notebook
- Start by sitting with your guitar every day for 10 minutes.
- Begin adding 10 minutes per topic and focusing on three topics
- Scales, chords, and playing in time
- Chord switching in time, alternate-picking scales, and eighth-note rhythms
- Don’t add topics; add time in 5-minute intervals
- 10 minutes per topic is 30 minutes of practice
- 15 minutes per topic is 45 minutes
- 20 minutes per topic is 60 minutes
- If you have more topics, then rotate days
- Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are topics 1, 2, and 3.
- Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are topics 4, 5, and 6
Staying Focused Review
- Find the Right Supplemental Material
- Create a Practice Ritual
- The Big Goal is Motivation
- The Supplemental Material Will Keep You On Track
- A Teacher Can Help (Supervised Guidance)
Measuring Your Progress
We’re always the last ones to notice how much progress we’ve made. Let’s face it, we’re working daily on the little details, and the improvements are only sometimes apparent. But, if we look at where we were when we started, we’ll see that we have improved. Here are a couple of techniques that I used to measure progress.
You can use your cellphone or computer to record a video of yourself teaching the topic. Let me explain this with this story.
When COVID hit, I lost my online students—which was all of my students. So, after a month, I asked their parents if they’d be interested in video exchange lessons. Here’s how it worked:
- I make a video teaching a specific topic to the student and send them the video with a PDF via email. The PDF includes a brief explanation and practice methods.
- They then make a video explaining and demonstrating the topic.
- In their video, I could gauge their progress:
- They understood the topic and could play it.
- They understood the topic but couldn’t play it.
- They didn’t understand the topic but could play a part of it.
- They needed the topic explained differently.
I sometimes provide workshops and use this technique by asking one participant to ‘teach back’ while the other participants offer feedback. It has since become my go-to progress-measuring technique.
This uses the principles of “Teach Back” but for self-evaluating progress.
- Record yourself.
- Listen back for mistakes, time feel, and expression. Be objective and patient with your feedback.
- Save the video, date it, or attach it to Evernote, Notion, Notes, et al.
- Revisit it after a few practice sessions to see how you’re progressing.
- Now you have something to share on social media.
Break Down Sub-Goals Into Small Parts
Let’s say that you’re stuck or feel that you need to improve. An infinite number of reasons can be part of the problem. But, one of the main culprits is that you may take on more than you can currently process.
So, you need to break down your daily practice goals into smaller parts. For example, most problems with playing something are:
Technical: Problem areas can be broken down into smaller parts.
- Chord Progressions: only work on the two chords at a time instead of the entire progression. Or, focus on the chord-switching issues playing in free time. Slowly speed up and then add a metronome or drum app to switch in time.
- Can’t Play at the Speed of the Recording: Divide the tempo in half and try executing the chord riff, chord movement, lick, or musical phrase at a slower tempo. Then slowly speed up in intervals of 5-10 bpms.
- Lead Guitar Phrases: Work out the fingering first and focus on the notes in free time. Once you can connect the notes, begin adding phrasing like hammerons and pulloffs, slides and bends, and dynamics.
10-Minutes a Day
I was asked to play “Lover Man” by Jimi Hendrix with a guest artist for a festival. I couldn’t play that opening lick cleanly, and the festival date was approaching. I decided to not worry about it and focus 10 minutes a day on playing the lick slowly.
The lick consists of a sixteenth-note rhythm with bends, hammerons, and pulloffs. It’s also repeated several times at 138 bpm, but I needed to perform it more effectively at that tempo. And the more I worried about it, the more poorly I played it.
I applied practicing that opening lick for a 10-minute session at 70 bpm. Once I could cleanly play it 10 times in a row, I’d bump up the clicks by 10 bpms. After a couple of sessions, I got the lick under my fingers.
This is my go-to solution for everything. From taking a 10-minute break for a mental reset to a 10-minute focused concentration session, I use this short-time sprint to reset my mind or concentrate on problem-solving. Give it a try.
Measuring Your Progress Review
- Teach Back: Teach Yourself What You’ve Learned
- Record Yourself (Observe Your Time Feel and Expression)
- Break Down Subgoals Into Small Parts
- 10-Minutes-a-Day Focus Sessions
Achieving Your Goals
This part gets overlooked more than I care to admit. We focus so much on what we want to do and can’t do that we miss (or avoid) the opportunity to recognize how far we’ve come. So, here are some areas to add to your practice routine.
Appreciate How Long It Takes to Learn Something
The next generation of virtual learners will miss out on the beautiful bonds made between teachers and students. Every student that I had the pleasure of teaching has made an incredible impact on my life. But this new generation will open doors and soar to new heights that I can’t imagine.
Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the lonely plight of the musician. Sure, they shower us with applause, appreciate our talent, and thank us for our performances. Everything from a recital in front of schoolmates, and family members, to club and concert events, we receive our fair share of accolades. But what goes unnoticed is the hours alone with your butt in the chair and the metronome mocking us with every annoying click as we trudge through the monotony of our daily musical exercises.
BTW, thanks Mom for tolerating my Pete Townsend windmills, EVH splits, and Angus Young gyrations across the living room. So, here are some tried-and-true rituals that I use.
Today I Can’t Do It, But I Can Do This
When a student gets down on himself, they’ll say something like, “I can’t play anything right.” I’ll then ask them about something we worked on, like a song riff. And they’ll respond with some version of “but that’s easy.” And I reminded them that it was challenging when they first tried to play it.
Then I’ll ask them to rephrase their saying from “I can’t play anything right” to “I can’t play the intro riff right.” Next, I’ll ask them to add “yet” to the end of that phrase so it becomes “I can’t play the intro riff right, yet!” They usually let a smile escape after they repeat the statement.
Next, I’ll ask them to say, “I can’t play the intro riff right yet! But I can play this crappy power chord.”
It’s a mental reset. I often use myself when preparing for a gig, and some lick or riff gives me a hard time.
Acknowledge Small Wins
This is where a practice journal comes in handy. Sometimes, it’s the lesson notebook or the PDFs from lessons learned a short time ago.
Remembering when I played my first riff, lick, and solo. It probably sounded horrible, but I managed to chain the notes and phrases together well enough to recreate the memorable passage from one of my favorite songs. I felt like a Rock God.
Recognizing small wins lets us know that we can do this!
Building on Your Current Skill Set
Remember that if you continue your musical journey, you will only get better. Your current set of skills is the foundation for what’s to come. And every one of your guitar heroes was sitting where you are right now.
Skill Set Is More than Musical Chops
And, here’s the best for last. Your musical skills are not the only skills that have increased. Your confidence, perseverance, memory, coordination, etc., have increased. And these are only a few skills that immediately come to mind as I write this.
Achieving Your Goals Review
- Appreciate How Long It Takes to Learn Something
- Today I Can’t Do It, But I Can Do This
- Acknowledge Small Wins
- Take Your Current Skill Set and Build on Them
- Skill Set Is More Than Musical Chops
The beautiful thing about learning the guitar is that you get out what you put in. And there’s something that becomes addictive about practice. It turns into work you want to do instead of work you have to do.
Thanks for hanging with me through this. I know it’s a long article and, believe me, I can go on for days about this topic.
I hope you bookmark this article and revisit it when you need to.
I wish you the best and, as always, practice smart and play from the heart. Thanks for reading.
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