Twilight Guitar

A Music Blog and Podcast by M.J. Murphy

Learning Guitar with Micro Goals

“You can’t learn something faster than you can learn it. “

“Still Life with Guitar” by Juan Gris. 1920 Oil on Canvas Residing at Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Widimedia Commons.

Students often tell me that they are practicing every day but don’t seem to be getting anywhere. My advice: define “anywhere”.

The solution to the problem of not getting anywhere is to define exactly what the where is. What are you are trying to accomplish?

There is power in creating what are called “micro goals”.

A micro goal can be anything, as long as it is very small and easily achievable. A brush stroke.

You say “how do I know how to create a micro goal?

Well, when you sit down to practice, simply say out loud (writing these down is even better) what it is that you want to accomplish. If you are a beginner, this is not “I want to learn how to play Song X. That’s the macro goal. A micro goal is, “I will learn how to play the first chord in song X”.

Regardless of your current ability level, you choose a task that you think you can master in just a few minutes, then you set out to accomplish that thing, and only that thing. Boom. Next you put the guitar down and go celebrate the awesome feeling of accomplishment.

Success breeds success.

This is the magic of setting tiny, achievable goals. You are rewarded with the satisfaction of measurable progress, no matter how small the intervals.

This is how you begin and this is how you continue. This is the key to learning guitar (or anything else for that matter).

If the song you are working on has four chords, make memorizing each chord your first goal. Dedicate an entire day or even a week if needed to just to memorizing the chords and switching between them. Why not? Set yourself up to succeed. There is no hurry. You’re not trying to play the song just yet, you can’t until you learn the chords anyway.

First the bricks, then the building.

You next goal might be to strum those chords four times each in the order of the song without stopping your strum. You don’t have to be in perfect time yet. That’s the next goal. Let it take a day, a week or a month to perfect something.

You can’t learn something faster than you can learn it.

Just set the bar low, so you can jump right over it. Move the bar when you want to challenge yourself. If you are reading music or tablature and keep messing up the same spot, turn the  notes that are giving you trouble into a micro goal.

Maybe it’s moving from one string to another that is giving you a hard time. Just practice those two notes and the picking transition from string to string. Narrow focus on this for maybe five or ten minutes. It’s a very small goal so it won’t take long and soon you will have it. Just play that one tiny part over and over until you get it. It might just be three or four notes.

You will be tempted to move on to something else. Don’t. When you think you have it, do it three more times. Stay with those three or four notes until they are natural to you. Now, instead of being the part you fear, it becomes your favorite part because you worked so hard to nail it.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish in five or ten short minutes when you set a micro goal.

You’ll be surprised how fast obstacles disappear once you focus on them very closely and state a series of micro goals to fix it.

What matters is that your learning experience is fun and rewarding and that you can see progress, no matter how small. Discouragement leads to quitting, and the only reason for discouragement is not seeing progress because the goal (if you have even bothered to consciously define one) is too large in scope – usually way to large.

I set micro goals to achieve this post. First I decided to post something (it’s been way too long) and second I wanted to share the concept of micro-goals to help you feel more encouraged.

So when you begin to practice, start by asking yourself, “What are my micro goals going to be for this session?”.

This approach is also described by many teachers as “deliberate practice”.

Only you can decide what these goals should be, but you will instantly know them the minute you begin to practice. They pop up instantly the moment you find yourself saying to yourself,  “I can’t___” . (Fill in the blank). What follows that unfortunate phrase is almost always the micro goal itself, clothed in fear, staring you right in the face and telling you exactly what it is you should be practicing. It’s really telling you what you soon CAN do. Listen to yourself, you are the best teacher you will ever have.

Now, I will go celebrate two micro goals: getting back to this blog, and planting the seeds of deliberate practice and micro goaling into your guitar mind.

Happy New Year!


Myth, Music and Monsters

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek. ” Joseph Campbell

In the basement of my childhood home there was a big, dusty, menacing piece of furniture that nobody ever went near. My first memory of it was being warned to stay away from the “monster” because it would crush my fingers if I tried to play with it. I soon discovered the mouth of the monster was really just the hinged dust cover that protected the piano keys, and my protectors were just looking out for my fragile fingers.

But for some reason nobody else touched the piano either (there must have been a bloody dust cover accident in our family history) but I remember being drawn to it. I think at first I felt sorry for it. Someone must have played it at some time, some place, because it was beat up pretty good and had ivory broken off a few of the keys. It must have had some stories to tell. I know it could make glorious music because my sister’s friend would come over once in a while and make it thunder like they did on TV.

Every once in a while I would sneak over, open the lid on the wooden bench, pull out some ancient sheet music, lift the deadly dust cover from the keys and just start pretending I could play. I would just bang away rhythmically trying to make something that sounded like music, not trying to play any specific song at all. The sheet music was just there for show. I was just randomly pressing keys listening to the way they sounded one after another or together. I clearly remember trying to imitate the sound of a thunderstorm on several occasions.

I had to stand up and play in order to reach the pedals. I had no idea what they were actually for but I remember falling in love with the pedal on the far right. It made everything sound big and echoey and kept the notes ringing for a long time. The other pedals seemed completely useless. To this day my foot goes right to that pedal and stays there. I would sit there and improvise for hours sometimes. I don’t know if what I was playing was any good, but I was having big fun and I don’t remember anyone complaining or telling me to stop (unlike when I got my first electric guitar…). Maybe they were complaining and I just ignored them.

I still don’t consider myself a “real” piano player, I play just for fun. I play the way I always have, just improvising away with no specific song in mind other than what I feel like doing at the moment. Because of what I have learned about music theory from my guitar studies I know enough about building chords, rhythms and melodies that I get lucky sometimes and play something interesting. In fact the reason for this post is that just last night I played something I couldn’t believe was coming from my fingers. It was an improvisation of course, and will never be heard by anyone again including myself, but it doesn’t matter. To me, that’s what a piano has always been about – pure uninhibited musical adventure and experimentation. I’m not sure I want to know how to play it right.

When it comes to teaching yourself music, it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t got a clue what you are doing. In fact it can often be for the best. Solo guitarist Tommy Emmanuel often tells the story about how not knowing the “right way” can sometimes pay off big. When he was first learning guitar by copying notes from records he learned how to play the bass line and the guitar part at the same time. He didn’t know at the time that there were actually two kinds of guitars on those records! Today he is a master at finger-style guitar and simultaneously incorporates moving bass lines, rhythm parts and melodies into his playing. Because he was never afraid of doing it wrong he was able to develop a unique and exciting style all his own.

The point of telling these stories is that music doesn’t have to be something you fear to explore or something you necessarily have to study as you would a school subject. When you approach it from a basic primal level there are absolutely no rules to follow. This is a tricky thing to teach any music student. It’s probably more accurate to say that it can’t be taught. It can be demonstrated. You can inspire someone to try. You can lay out some general principles. But when it comes to improvising you just have to enter the dark cave of uncertainty and start lighting it up with notes. Let them hang in the air and listen to them bang into each other. Don’t judge them to be good or bad at first (that comes later).

You don’t know which ones you will like or dislike until you try them all, in all possible combinations. To restrict the notes you play would be taking someone else’s word for it, and what kind of artist would you be if you just followed all the rules set down by music teachers. The composers we consider the greatest are always the ones that broke the rules. (Granted, the best reason for learning them is so you can more deliberately break them).

Playing or practicing without fear of doing it wrong isn’t just good advice for beginners. It is something musicians need to continually remind themselves of. Joseph Campbell’s quote: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” is an even better way for advanced musicians to re-examine their methods and discover new ways to untangle the knots of musical stagnation or complacency.

Joseph Campbell and other mythologists teach us how myths are the time honored stories and legends that we pass on from generation to generation. These stories help us understand the crazy complexity and contradictions in the world around us. There are are ancient and modern tales of our battles with monsters, evil empires, psychological tortures and moral dilemmas. In his quote Campbell addresses a certain kind of fear that keeps us from pursuing what we are truly passionate about in life. This type of fear hides our desires in dark caves that promise failure, ridicule and criticism. If you explore writing, art or music with any depth you risk getting lost in a maze of imagination, or even worse: having your heart and soul exposed for all the world to plainly see and laugh at. So how do we go about pursuing new creative challenges when our doubt’s and fears are holding us back?

Campbell might say that our myths and legends demonstrate how confronting our fears directly is the best way to overcome them. Psychiatrists treat fear of heights by exposing patients to gradually increasing levels of height. A fear of snakes may require a patient to practice being in a room next to a caged snake, then entering the room, then looking at the snake, then, eventually, touching the snake. It is all done very gradually until any irrational fear is completely gone. The healthy, rational fear hopefully still remains.

We all have experienced that great sensation when fear turns to pure adrenaline. Some people deliberately seek this sensation out by jumping out of airplanes or off steep cliffs – on purpose. Exploring music or the arts creates a different kind of fear but it is no less intense. We have all heard stories of great performers who had to overcome crippling episodes of stage fright. I never had it as bad as some, but every time I perform in public (and sometimes even when deciding to practice) I experience a level of this sensation. I eventually came to expect it and then to even look forward to it. It tells me that something is about to happen. It’s a little bit like the feeling of just starting down a steep ski slope. It is this sensation that either provides the energy and motivation needed to hit the slope, or sends you shuffling back to the lodge for a cup of coffee.

If you are tackling a new technique or instrument, stuck in a musical rut, or find that music is becoming less exciting or fulfilling than it once was, it is likely that fear is standing in your way of taking the next step. You will know it’s fear when you find yourself avoiding the very thing you love. Take this as a sign that you are about to make a breakthrough. Take the smallest step you can toward moving forward. If you a songwriter with writers block, buy a new notebook and just start brainstorming titles. If you are a rhythm guitarist who wants to learn lead guitar, practice just one scale. If you have been avoiding practicing, take your guitar out of its case and put it on the stand where you can see it.

We all have a certain fear that prevents us from progressing; but we can use this to our advantage because it leads us straight to the mouth of the cave. We just need to light a torch, take a deep breath and storm right in.

Adagio: At the Speed of Nature

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The musical instruction “adagio” comes from the Italian phrase “a dagio” which means “at ease”. It’s a good word, and it got me thinking.

The question always comes up: “How long will it take me to learn to play guitar?” as if there were a secret equation for calculating it. There is of course no way to answer this question. The only answer that can honestly be given is “It depends”.

“Depends on what?” is of course the next question.

Most teachers will answer this question with “well, it depends on how often you practice.” This answer is as true as it is obvious.

But I believe there is a great secret to learning how to play any musical instrument, and it is a very simple one, one we hear about all the time but, because we hear it so often, we don’t consider it deeply enough – the secret, in a word, is patience.

Our society has become an extremely impatient one because we live in an age of instant gratification. The world now offers us so many things instantly that in previous generations took much longer to acquire.

Think about how easy it now is to by a book, a newspaper, a music album, a song, a movie, or for that matter anything else that is information based. It’s all just a click away. Even material goods can be ordered online and delivered the very next day if you are willing to pay a little bit extra shipping fees.

When it comes to acquiring knowledge, or wisdom or skill however, things have not gotten any easier. You still can’t buy the ability to understand particle physics or calculus or molecular biology or purchase the ability to hit a ninety mile per hour fastball, and you can’t buy the skill to instantly play a musical instrument either.

You can however choose from thousands of books about how to play guitar or piano or cello; and if you are wealthy enough you can hire the best teacher in the world, or subscribe to expert video lessons on the Internet. But none of these things will help you learn any faster than the next if you don’t bring a healthy dose of patience to the effort.

The good news is that patience comes completely free, and it is free in more than one sense of the word

Patience is free because it requires no money to obtain it; but more importantly, it is free because it also requires absolutely no effort to manifest it. It results from the very absence of effort. That is, the absence of energy spent worrying or fretting that your practicing is not getting you anywhere. In fact, it is getting you everywhere and taking exactly as much time as is required – no more, no less.

Impatience, on the other hand requires a vast amount of energy: energy in the form of the worry, stress and anxiety you feel when you desire something that you don’t yet possess. This “something” could be an object, a skill, or simply a state of being. This type of desire is effectively negative energy and it charts the shortest path to quitting.

Paradoxically then, our desire is both our inspiration and our nemesis. Many philosophers urge us to let go of our attachment to intended outcomes as a way of manifesting the things we want to accomplish. This seems counterintuitive at first but it really isn’t.

In Deepak Chopra’s book “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” the sixth law is called: “The Law of Detachment”.

“The law of detachment says that in order to acquire anything in the universe you have to relinquish your attachment to it. This doesn’t mean you give up the intention to create your desire. You don’t give up the intention and you don’t give up your desire. You give up your attachment to the result.”

This is a difficult concept to communicate in a single quote, so I urge you to read the book. It is a short but fascinating book and I have read it several times, always finding some new revelation in it.

What Deepak is advising is to free yourself from the urgency of obtaining what you desire by not being so bound by instant or for that matter even inevitable success. Urgency causes impatience and impatience creates the illusion that you are making little or no progress when in fact, if you are practicing at all, you are always making incremental progress – even if you don’t readily perceive it.

Accepting the fact that impatience requires energy, and patience requires zero energy means that learning to play music just got a whole lot easier.

In the movie “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray’s character found that every day when he awoke, he lived the same day over and over again. This initially drove him crazy, to the point of trying to kill himself because he feared facing the same exact events day after day, night after night. Killing himself was of course impossible because each day simply started over at 6:30 in the morning regardless of whether he killed himself or not.

He eventually figured out that worrying about his situation was of absolutely no value and he stopped stressing out. When he released his fears and accepted that he had all the time in the world, his life changed in miraculous ways and he soon became the most talented, loved and respected person in his community. He learned many new things with this new sense of time, one of them was how to win the heart of the woman he loved, and another was how to play the piano like a virtuoso.

What he actually learned was patience; and he learned it by letting go of fear and worry about how long the things he wanted might take him.

What this means in practical terms is that you should go about your daily practicing with no worry about whether or not you are getting anywhere. The simple truth is that if you are practicing at all, you are most definitely getting somewhere.

The number one reason that students quit learning a musical instrument is that they feel their efforts are not getting them what they want fast enough.

Patience is the simplest yet most profound secret to learning music. Simply pick up your instrument for a while each day and work a bit on your lessons. That is all you need to do.

I would repeat that tired phrase “just be patient” but saying this has become so cliche is it meaningless and it implies that you have to DO something or BE something in addition to practicing. You don’t, the practicing is enough. It may be better to simply say instead, “practice, and then don’t worry”. You will achieve your goals in time.

When a student of mine expresses regret that they aren’t learning fast enough, I always ask them. “How old are you?” When they answer “ten” for example, I say “Let’s say it takes you five years to learn this song (which of course if won’t) but even if it did, by the time you are fifteen you will be a great guitar player, so don’t worry about it, just take your time and keep at it.“ As you can see, this applies equally well to students of all ages, whether they are ten years old or sixty.

Patience simply means letting go of your preconceived notions about how long something will take and just know that it will happen when it happens, all in good time. This is exactly how nature operates.

To quote from Deepak Chopra’s book again:

“Nature’s intelligence functions with effortless ease… with carefree-ness harmony and love. And when we harness the forces of harmony, joy and love, we create success and good fortune with effortless ease.”

It seems at least Chopra and Emerson are in agreement then:

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

The 8 Ways We Practice

This article is about how you can maximize your productivity during practice sessions. It is also about rediscovering how to enjoy practicing again.

We all know that having clear goals is the most important thing you can do to accelerate your rate of learning. But what exactly does it mean to say that we should learn how to practice?

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I have noticed a decline in my own ability to focus when practicing. To cure my ill, I decided to take a really hard look at what it is that I actually do when I pick up the guitar or bass. I have discovered that I was always doing one or more of the following things. Let’s call these things modes.

The 8 Modes of Practicing

1. Site Reading
2. Assimilating (learning a piece slowly by ear or from a written score)
3. Technique building
4. Studying Theory (new chord voicings, ear training. scales, intervals, etc.)
5. Memorizing
6. Improvising
7. Composing/Arranging (Not really “practicing” but you know what I mean)
8. Rehearsing

It was a bit of an “aha” moment to realize that when you have an instrument in your hands there are only really eight things you can be doing with it (besides maybe cleaning it or fixing it).

My theory is that the reason our practice sessions don’t seem as productive as they could be is that we try to do more than one of these items on the list at a time. I would be willing to bet that the best musicians tend to know which of these things they are doing at all times and remain focused on that aspect of their work until the achieve the desired result.

How to Make the Practice Modes Work for You

If you are always aware of what it is you are setting out to achieve, you are more likely to accomplish your intended goal. Try the following method out and see if improves your productivity.

1. Decide from the above list which item you intend to work on.
2. Choose the subject of your study (song, instrumental passage, theory subject, etc…
3. Choose an arbitrary amount of time you would like to dedicate to that subject.
4. Begin playing, and remain focused on that one subject for the time you have alloted to it.
5. Examine your progress and record it in your notebook

To get the hang of this it might be a good idea to write down your goal or series of goals just before beginning your session. This is a very simple but effective habit. Let’s say you have two hours to practice and you decide to break it up into four blocks. When finished, your plan might look something like this:

Block 1: Memorize first eight bars of Bach’s Bouree
Block 2: Practice site reading random score
Block 3: Practice improvising over changes to a jazz tune
Block 4: Develop tremolo technique

The plans you create will be different for every practice session, but you will always be focused and in control. Keep these lists in a notebook so you can go back over your history and see how you are progressing. A notebook is also a great way of reminding yourself what you had previously intended to work on and may have forgotten about.

If you are practicing for an upcoming gig, recital, or recording session, then your list will be dominated by rehearsing (number 8 on the list) and you may go for weeks without needing to do much creative practicing. That’s ok, just return to this method when you are free to work on your own material.

This method is especially great for teachers who have to become and remain proficient in a wide range of styles and techniques. Because of this it is easy for teachers to feel like the proverbial “jack of all trades and master of none”. If you are aware of the eight modes of practice and keep a consistent practice notebook or journal, it’s a good bet that you will see your skill and productivity greatly increase.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is simple but planning your practice sessions in this way will have a dramatic effect on the quality of your practice time and the overall satisfaction you get out of playing your instrument. You might even start to look forward to practicing again.

A Music Fan in the Age of Overload

We can thank the Internet; it is now possible to listen to nearly every piece of music ever recorded. This is staggering to think about, but it is true. Today, there are millions if not billions of recordings available for download or streaming over the Internet. I haven’t done the math, but it’s a fair bet that it would take multiple lifetimes to listen to all of the recorded music that is available today.

Before the invention of the phonograph in 1877, if you wanted to hear music you had to either play it yourself, or go to a place where it was being played. People would travel for hours and even for days on horseback or horse-drawn carriages just to attend a musical performance.

After the phonograph, if you could afford one, there was a handful of records to choose from. By the time I first started buying music (in the 1970’s, the days of the vinyl LP) you could pretty much flip through every album at the local record store in a couple of hours. Those were the days when you could take pride in the fact that you were a knowledgeable music fan. You used to have two or three local radio stations to choose from – now you can listen to every station twenty four hours a day, from every city in every country on the planet. Simply staggering.

Add to this the fact that multi-track recording equipment which once filled and entire room now fits in a device the size of a smart-phone, and you have a perfect storm, a deluge of music and recording artists. This is a double edged sword if you are a musician: on the one hand you can make your own recordings cheaply and distribute them instantly to the world; on the other hand, how do you get the attention of a potential listener when you are competing with billions of other artists?

On too many occasions lately, I have found myself spending hours searching the Rhapsody catalog (my latest subscription service of choice) for just the right music. Instead of listening like I used to do, I clicked and typed and scrolled for hours and ended up with a less than satisfying listening session.

Many of my friends are musicians like me who make their own recordings and provide samples, CD’s and Internet sites where I can go and listen to their music. It it sad but true that often times I don’t even get around to listening to the music and give it the attention it deserves, and these are people that I know personally, making great music.

Music City, We Have a Problem

I’m not going to solve the problem in this blog post, but I do have some ideas on how we can put some satisfaction back into listening to music and restore the feeling of being a knowledgeable music fan. This is just friendly advice. If you don’t have a problem then you might be wondering what I am talking about, but if you are like me and feel completely overwhelmed, read on.

Many of these ideas overlap but you will soon see where I am going with this:

1. Specialize

Pick the genre, time period, or type of music that you most enjoy and dive into it, ignoring (relatively speaking) everything else.

2. Don’t Apologize for Not Liking a Certain Type of Music

You don’t have to listen to something that doesn’t excite you just because you want to appear well-rounded. It’s just not as easy as it used to be.

3. Be a Groupie

Latch on to two or three artists that you really like and listen to everything that they have ever done.

4. Categorize and Segment

Try dedicating each week to a specific genre or artist or decade of music and during the specified week listen only to that music. You may even want to dedicate each day of the week to a certain artist, band, or genre and stick to it for a while. For example, Monday: Jazz, Tuesday, Rock, Wednesday: Classical, Thursday: Blues, Friday: Modern, Saturday: Motown, Sunday: well maybe Sunday could be an anything goes day. You get the idea. You might even decide to dedicate each day of the week to a single artist, or a single instrument. There are millions of ways to approach this and if you do it with the right spirit it could be kind of fun.

5. Go back to Buying CD’s

If you are like me and have stopped buying CD’s in favor of Internet streaming, it might be time to consider buying CD’s again. The advantage to this is that if you have shelled out the bucks for a physical piece of plastic you are more likely to spend time listening to the whole thing rather than bouncing around on the Internet and switching artists and albums every song or two.

Related to this, why not dive back into collecting vinyl LP’s again? I recently began doing this because I wondered why my serious listening was dropping off, and wondered if it was because of the nature of the digital versus analog sound qualities. There are those that swear that vinyl records provide a depth and warmth that digital recordings just can’t match, even if you have to put up with a few pops and crackles. I happen to be one of them. Used vinyl record stores are popping up all over the place these days and many new artists are even releasing new music on the format. It’s back to the future when it comes to vinyl. Besides, think of all the cool artwork and liner notes you get to experience all over again – something conspicuously missing in the digital age.

6. Listen to the Radio Instead

If you are still too overwhelmed by the choices, try just picking out a favorite radio station and become a faithful listener. Let someone else do the choosing for you and just enjoy the ride. If you can deal with the commercials, that is. There are plenty of commercial free radio stations to choose from on the Internet these days but I find that I really miss Di’s on these stations. It’s nice to have someone that provides a little background on the artists and other commentary on the songs.

7. Start Making Playlists

Playlists are easily created in the many Internet streaming applications or on iTunes. If you are frustrated by too many musical choices, spend some time creating a few themed playlists, listen to them often and revise them to perfection as you go along.

When you can listen to everything ever recorded, what do you listen to? Where do you even begin?

Of all these suggestions, the best advice I can give for finding enjoyment in music again and winning the battle of choice overload is not to be afraid to listen to just a few things over and over. Remember when you were first starting to listen to music and you had a handful of albums that you just played again and again? Why not return to that strategy for a while?

Repeated listenings are the surest way to rediscover the magic in music again. When you hear a piece of music over and over, you hear things you would otherwise miss. The music seeps in deeper and deeper and with that familiarity comes many surprises like the ability to sing along with every word, or to know exactly how the guitar solo goes and be able to hum along with it, or to recognize the verse, chorus structure, or to hear that faint hint of an exotic instrument that you missed the first ten times you heard the piece. If you are always listening to unfamiliar music you miss out on all the magic.

The fact that there are now millions of choices, doesn’t mean you have to consider them all. It’s impossible anyway. Being a music fan is not a contest to see who can name the most obscure artist. It’s about appreciating the music you love and finding simple pleasure in it.

Music and Memory: Raising the Bar

“The true art of memory is the art of attention.” — Samuel Johnson

A good memory is the single most important skill a musician can have. If you haven’t been blessed with a great memory, don’t worry, it is something that can be improved and enhanced. Memories are like muscles and they can be developed with a little work. Recent science reveals that when a thought occurs or an action is performed, the brain constructs electronic pathways that represent that thought or action. If these pathways are traversed regularly, the pathways literally get thicker and fatter, exactly like a real path in the woods does. The more a path is traveled, the wider it gets from the use. This by itself doesn’t provide us with any new revelations about how to build a good memory. We already knew that if you want to remember something you should repeat it over and over. What it does provide is a new way of thinking about memory: memory is a very real, very physical thing. It is no longer just something that happens mysteriously in some nebulous concept of mind. It is real and it is pliable, and like a muscle it can be changed and molded by how we use it or how we don’t use it.

The Importance of Memory In Music

In today’s world where any fact or figure can be referenced digitally upon a whim, it is too easy to discount the importance of a good memory. Unlike bankers or salesmen however, musicians can’t afford to outsource their memories to computers. We have to remember melodies, chord progressions, key signatures, riffs, phrases, finger positions, scale patterns, rhythmic patterns, lyrics, and the notes several different staves; and we need to recall them instantly as a song progresses in real time. A guitarist or saxophone player can’t consult their smart-phone in the middle of a solo to find what note to play next, or respond to what the drummer or piano player just played. A musician’s memory must be quick, fluid and changeable.

Memory is not a subject that gets enough attention in formal or private music education. Most of the material learned in music schools is based on the concept of music literacy and the ability to read music. Think about it. Why is music written down in the first place? It is written down so we can remember it or to communicate it. Written music is a memory device; but it is also a communications tool. Composers write down music as a way of both remembering it themselves and as a way of sharing it and teaching it to other musicians.

What if we made the development of our memory a top priority in our personal music education? We don’t need to quit reading or writing music. On the contrary, a developed memory improves our sight reading abilities enormously. I contend that improving your memory is the absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician. Improve the memory, and everything else improves in kind. What if you could hear or read the lyrics to a song and from that moment on be able to recall them instantly at any time? What if you could read through a piece of sheet music once and be forever able to remember what you read? Even if you could not physically execute the music without extensive practice, you would have quite an advantage to say the least. What if you could read about the seven modes of the major scale and remember the whole and half step patterns of them all and apply them at will? What if you could memorize the complex chord and key changes to you favorite jazz songs after one or two run times through? What if you could listen to a Bach fugue once or twice or even three times and then remember the entire sequence of notes? Do you think you would begin to feel that you were growing as a musician?

The above examples seem extreme. Only a savant would be capable of such things right? But the fact that some people, savants or not, can do these things is proof that the human mind is capable of these things. We call them special because they are so rare. But they are no more or less human than any one of us. The interesting thing is that most savants didn’t have to work hard, if at all, to acquire this ability. They just somehow discovered that they had this strange talent. I have heard stories of people who have been hit by lightning and suddenly can play classical piano pieces fluently after the fact. Not only do they not know where they got their newfound talent, they wonder where they even got the desire. I recall one story where a person hit by lightning never had an interest in classical music let alone any piano education, yet they were afterward drawn to the piano and to classical music and found they had amazing abilities and aptitude to learn it.

Raising Our Expectations for Memory

In the Ray Bradbury science fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451” firemen, instead of putting out fires as we know them to do, are employed by a corrupt government to seek out and burn every book in the country. People begin hiding books away and memorizing them word for word before they can be burned as a way to preserve the knowledge, wisdom and imagination contained in the books. They begin taking as their own names, the title of the books. Two people meeting on the street might say to each other, “Hello Wizard of Oz” and “Hi Sea Wolf”. The memory of the citizens was one thing that the corrupt government could not take away. Even as the citizens were thrown in jail for their crimes, the stories lived on in their memories and were transfered to others orally for safe keeping.

Can you imagine committing a 400 page novel to memory? “Fahrenheit 451” is a science fiction novel, but it is not an extreme exaggeration. In the days before books or paper (or even papyrus) were invented neither stories nor musical compositions were written down. There was nothing to write them on if you wanted to other than stone or sand or clay. This meant that music and stories were stored in people’s memories. Epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were passed orally from person to person for hundreds of years before it was technologically possible to write them down, and they are each hundreds of pages in length! The Bradbury science fiction example demonstrates the human desire and potential need for such memory; and the Homer example is a real world, historical event that demonstrates that humans are capable of remembering much more information than our culture currently requires of us.

What does all this mean for us as musicians seeking to improve our memories? It means we can and should raise the bar when it comes to what we are capable of. We have proof that memory can be expanded, built, developed and strengthened just like a muscle or an idea. It means we can be confident that if we open our imaginations to the new possibilities we can find new, or rediscover ancient ways of remembering. When we apply this to music, it also means that there is adventure ahead!

Memory Technique

Once upon a time there was a Greek goddess named “Mnemosyne” (pronounced nem-o-seen). She was the goddess of remembrance. The people worshiped her because they saw that the ability to remember brought them great confidence, power, and fortune. They may also have noticed how a lack of memory often brought great misfortune and strife. As the years passed, people began inventing new ways to remember things in order to attain such power and good fortune and avoid misfortune and strife. They soon began calling these techniques “mnemonic devices”.

Mnemonic Devices

A mnemonic device then is simply a technique for enhancing or stimulating memory. There are many ways to create mnemonic devices. Some have been passed down for generations, others we make up on the spot when we need to remember what we need to pick up at the grocery store, or the names of your neighbors seven cats.

Two popular music related examples are the ways we are taught to remember the names of the lines and spaces on the musical staff. The G Clef , which is used for instruments such as guitar, violin, and the right hand side of the piano, consists of four spaces and five lines. We remember the spaces by the convenient fact that, from bottom to top, the letters assigned to the spaces spell the word FACE. We remember the names of the lines on the staff with a slightly different technique. Since they don’t spell out a word, we assign a word that begins with each letter and create a memorable sentence: Every Good Boy Does Fine. The first letter of every word describes the name of each line of the staff. EGBDF.

These are good examples of mnemonic techniques that use the familiarity of language as the central device for remembering. But there are other ways. The ancient Greeks are said to have used a visual technique where they imagined objects representing things they wanted to remember placed in a room they were very familiar with. The more bizarre the placement of the object the better. When they wanted to recall the data, they would simply imagine themselves walking through the room, observing the items they needed to recall. The familiarity of the room and the strangeness of the placement of the items somehow burns the information into memory much better than does rote memorization.

Types of Memory

We may be able to apply mnemonic techniques to some of our fact or list based memorization tasks but a memory of the music itself is not much like remembering lists of items. Musical memory has more to do with muscle memory or the visual patterns of our fingers on our instruments or the recalling of a series of actual sounds, melodies and chord progressions.

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is built on frequent and consistent repetition of movement that results when we produce notes on our instrument or sing. This type of memory is developed over time. Muscle memory is the most reliable kind of memory because its retrieval seems to be completely automatic. It is like simply turning on a machine in your mind that recalls the notes and triggers the synapses in you brain. These synapses in turn trigger the muscles and tendons required to play the notes. The muscle memory contains not just the notes but all of the information about rhythm, tempo and dynamics as well.

Visual Patterns

Much of what we remember about how to play a piece of music is not so much related to the sound of the notes themselves or to automatic muscle memory, but comes from the visual recollection of the patterns our fingers form on the instrument. For example, piano players will remember the general “shape” of a piece by the forms their hands take over this or that section of the music. The chords and arpeggios take on a visual pattern that can be conjured up in the mind and recalled. The same is true for guitar players who memorize chords, scales and melodies by relating them to geometrical shapes on the guitar’s fretboard. When we practice visualization techniques we are using these sight based patterns as our link to remembering the music and triggering the muscle memory, not necessarily the sound of the music itself.

Sound Based Memory

Memory based on the actual sound of the music is what we are trying to access when we ask someone to “hum a few bars” so we can recall a song. We have probably all experienced moments when even though you knew a particular song extremely well, just hearing or thinking about the songs name was not enough to trigger memories of how to play it. All it would take is for someone to sing the opening notes and the entire tune would immediately came flooding back instantly.

Attention: Let The Music Remember You

It seems the best way to retain music in memory is to use all these various ways in combination. When we practice we put them to use both consciously and subconsciously. When we practice we are paying attention to the music and that attention is the key to memory.

Think about a piece of music that you have memorized extremely well and ask yourself how it is that you came to remember it so well. The first thing that comes to your mind is that you “just know it”. It is this feeling of “just knowing” that is what we are aiming for in our remembering. But think a bit more about it. Most likely you didn’t actively try to remember it, and you probably didn’t use any sort of trick or gimmick to force your memory. You probably practiced it a lot because you loved the music and spent lots of “quality time” with it. You simply had given the song so much attention it has become part of who you are. You remember it not just with your mind but in your fingers and toes and heart and soul. You couldn’t forget that song if you tried.

This tells us that a good memory is not achieved with gimmicks for recalling things that you carelessly stuff into dusty pigeon holes in your brain. Good memory is earned by putting your attention on the music long enough and consistently enough that is seeps into your physical body aswell as your spiritual essence. The best way to learn music is to love it and attend to it. If you do this, the music will take on a life of its own and you won’t have to worry about remembering it, it will remember you!

This article is taken from a chapter of my eBook “Choosing Notes”.

Quick Guitar Tip: Improvising for Beginners

First, let’s define what “improvisation” means:

We improvise when we make up music purely from our imaginations. It is the act of simply making it up as we go along. Comedians improvise jokes, actors improvise lines and engineers improvise solutions. Each of these instances has a slightly different meaning because the context is different, but basically improvising is the act of “winging it”. We improvise when we try to invent something on the spot without a plan.

“Pick up my guitar and play. Just like yesterday. ” – Pete Townsend

The Who Hamburg 1972

Many solos that we hear on records were improvised in the recording studio on the spot. This is something that to many non-musicians seems miraculous. Many guitarists will have a general idea what they want to record, but when the red light goes on they just start playing and see where it goes. After several takes they will listen back to each solo and decide which one they like the best. That one goes on the record, and the guitarist might then memorize it to play at live shows the same way each time. Or they may not.

Joe Perry

Joe Perry of Aerosmith takes pride in saying that he never plays the same solo twice. On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Lifeson of Rush nearly always plays the recorded version of a song and solo note for note during live performances.

It is really a wonderful thing isn’t it? We can pick up a guitar and start playing notes in a certain (or even an uncertain) rhythm and like magic, music fills the air.

Improvisation Tips for Beginners

1. Put on a favorite album or song (or just pick up your guitar).
2. Find just one note that sounds good.
3. Keep playing that note over and over until it stops sounding good.
4. Try a different note.
5. Play the new note over and over again until it stops sounding good.
6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.

This might sound simplistic to the point of being ridiculous, but it is the essence of improvisation. There is a lot going on here. You are choosing a note, randomly at first, listening for its effect, staying on that note or not based on how it sounds, or how it makes you feel, and then choosing another note as you seek a new sound or feeling. If the note you pick doesn’t sound good simply pick another one that sounds better.

Did you notice I’d didn’t say to think about this or that scale? That is because not everybody knows the same scales. Some of you might not know any scales whatsoever. We are all at a different level if understanding and experience when it comes to knowledge of music theory.

This exercise teaches us how to begin listening with the ear of a soloist, it also begins to eliminate the fear we naturally have of playing horrible music. Start by saying to yourself “this might sound completely awful but I don’t care.”

If you do this often enough you will eventually learn to improvise, you simply cannot fail. There is absolutely no knowledge of music theory required and the music that you will play will be as authentic as it gets.

When you do this, all of your instinctual and primal knowledge of music and rhythm will come to the surface. What you may or may not know about scales, chords and intervals will only help you on the subconscious level, where it belongs.

It’s helpful to think of tones as colors, making strokes and dashes as a painter does, true to your source of light.

Music, Across Time and Space

Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.” – Yo Yo Ma

A few years ago I attended a cello concerto by Yo Yo Ma at Powell Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the time I was studying classical guitar pretty seriously and was doing a lot of thinking about how old the music was that I was studying. Hearing and seeing Yo Yo Ma play that night was inspirational because it brought home a very real sense of timelessness. His program that night was made up of music from many different time periods, cultures and styles, yet the way he presented them made it seem as though they could have all been composed by the same composer in the same year, from the same place. I realized that he had the ability to find the essential human quality in each of the pieces he played and communicate that somehow in the way he expressed each and every note. This is testament both to the great cellist that he is and to the timelessness of the music he had chosen. His music made the time honored walls of Powell Hall ring out in sympathetic vibration with centuries of composers, performers and conductors who had gone before him.

It made me realize that when we practice music we should try to find what it is about the piece we are practicing that speaks across the generations. What is the basic, primal human feeling or emotion that the composer is trying to communicate with the composition? This can be done whether the piece was written five hundred years ago or five years ago. The impulse to create is a basic human urge and has been with us since the dawn of time. Styles may come and go, but the reason we practice has been the same all along.

We all know music fans who won’t listen to or admit to liking music that is more than a few years old. For this type of fan, music is more akin to a fashion statement than a timeless art. That’s okay. Everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to music. Those who see music as something more than disposable pop culture have no problem embracing it for its own sake and not just for whatever the latest, popular take is on it’s cultural significance.

If you choose classic material that has stood the test of time over many generations, you can dedicate your entire life to a piece and never worry that it will go out of style. This is one of the many benefits of studying classical music. The music has stood the test of time and has found a way to reach out and touch generation after generation of listeners. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia once said about Bach’s Chacconne that “one should never attempt to perform it before the age of fifty.” That was how much respect he had for the demanding nature of the piece and the value of working an entire lifetime to perfect music that you love.

One of the biggest obstacles to mastering a piece of music is to get bored with it before it is fully synthesized and memorized. Usually it is not that the music itself is boring. Something inspired you to want to play it in the first place right? Most likely there is a technical hurdle that is keeping you from fully realizing the piece. Often times that technical hurdle is really just a failure to understand what effect the composer was trying to communicate. Instead of giving up, ask yourself, “why did the composer include this or that type of passage in this particular spot? What is the feeling they are trying to evoke? Why is it important to the piece? If you can connect with the intention of the composer you stand a much better chance at solving whatever technical problem you may have. Examine the parts of the song where you continually get frustrated or stuck and ask this question. By overcoming one small problem, you can transform a piece from being a source of stress and fear into perhaps being your signature musical statement.

In practical terms this all means that you need not feel compelled to always be practicing new things. If you truly enjoy a piece, practice it as often as you like and know that it will become better with age. Resist the feeling to give up on it or pass over it because it has been played so many times before by so many other artists. There is a reason it has been done so often. Besides, it is much better to know a few things very well than many things poorly. Choosing time-tested music need not be limited to classical music. Enough time has gone by since the dawn of blues, jazz, rock and country music that there is now plenty of material to include in the “classic” category.

Imagine that before you die, you will get the opportunity to play one concert for the world on your way out. Ask yourself what songs would be on your list and never stop working to perfect them. Choose music that you love and that expresses all the fun and adventure that drew you to music in the first place – regardless of when or where it was composed. Be true to what inspires you musically. If you do this you can be sure that you will never tire of practicing those same old songs. You may have played a particular piece a million times but remember, much of your audience may be hearing it for the first time ever.

I have learned to embrace older forms of music by recognizing that music does not come from, or exist in, a specific time or a specific place. Music transcends not only time a space but it also transcends any particular individual’s thoughts or emotions. Like a great novel, poem or painting, music reaches out across generations and communicates things about the nature of the human heart mind and soul. Ancient music reveals the imagination as it was then, and modern interpretation brings it back to life for us in the here and now. In the hands of a true artist, a musical statement can be just as relevant now as it was then. It can last for eternity; or at least for as long as there are those who wish to listen and to care.

“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.” -Kenko Yoshida

First Novel is Available

Kindle Version

OK. Here is the blog entry I meant to post earlier tonight.

This is just a quick note to let you know that I’ve just completed my first (short) novel. It’s a self-published ebook called Dream Tangle. It’s available at the Kindle and Nook eBook stores right now and will be at the Apple iBooks store in a week or so.

What’s it about? Well, here is the official blurb:

Dream Tangle

In a future where dreams are recorded as holograms and marketed like Hollywood movies, a deadly secret is exposed, and rebellious celebrity Angela Pavane must pursue hallucinogenic clues to save lives (including her own) from a mysterious, lethal poison. But she has stolen a core technology that her pursuers will kill to get back. Inspector Ray Lake and three of Angela’s friends find themselves in choppers, deserts, jungles, caves and city skies, seeking an antidote while evading a CEO/scientist and his murderous thugs.

“Dreams were once a place impenetrable to the camera eye. For a time, they were the last remnant of privacy, a dark corner reserved for our battered souls to hide. Into a world already infested with networked cameras, microphones, data tags and motion sensors, the once mysterious and sacred realm of the subconscious now lay exposed and bleeding, sacrificed on the altar of technology. “

The genre is a mix of science fiction, fantasy, crime/detective, action and thriller. It is set in the near future in the U.S. and Mexico and has some new technology at the center of it – notably the ability to record dreams. The main characters include a cellist/celebrity, a scientist/CEO) a retired detective, and a computer programmer along with his parents (a doctor and a green energy entrepreneur).

A first novel had to be somehow related to music (I can’t help it) so the main character, Angela, is a cellist. It gave me a chance to throw in some character traits that musicians could relate to, but the bulk of the story is not directly music related. It’s a quick read, about 150 pages, and kid friendly (apart from a few mild expletives). In other words, PG.

The goal was to tell a good old fashioned story with some twists, turns and surprises. I wanted it to move along quickly and have interesting characters in compelling situations. I’m a fan of snappy dialogue, action and intrigue in stories so, after the first chapter which introduces the publisher/scientist and the core technology, the dialogue and action get moving quickly.

I have been writing short stories, poems, and (starting) novels since high school, letting them mildew in faded notebooks on a bottom shelf. Before e-readers, tablets and self-publishing technologies, the prospect of getting “traditionally” published just seemed too daunting, uncertain and unachievable. This wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I worked at a major medical publishing company for several years, and discovered how authors really get their publishing contracts. Some traditions deserve to die.

Another reason for this post is that I haven’t got a single clue how to market a fiction ebook. (Wait, maybe that’s what publishers are for.) So I’m posting this with the hope that you might be interested enough to give it a try, or to let someone know about the book who you think might be interested. In addition, I’d love to hear from other writers about what strategies they have used to market a fiction ebook.

I’ll be back to writing music articles soon. Thanks for your time!


Here are the links to the Kindle and Nook versions.

Kindle Version
Nook Version
Nook Version

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