“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The ‘Bounty’, Tall Ships Belfast 2009, near to Newtownabbey, Ireland. Photo by Ross. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

For those brave, maybe crazy people we call explorers, the best part of the map is where it ends. They know the adventure truly begins where the map trails off into a blurry obscurity. For a musician who wants to advance, it’s really the same thing. But in order to know where the map ends, and where the adventure begins, you may want to have a map of some kind to start with.

We are all encouraged to set goals. You hear it from everyone, all the time. But, before setting lofty expectations isn’t it just as important to understand what kind of learners we are? Where have we succeeded in the past? What do we love to explore? What inspires us to ask the tough questions and to actually set out looking for some real answers?

It’s obvious that a teacher needs to be concerned how different individuals learn. It is less obvious, but just as important, that a student should study his or her own methods of learning. Where did this all this music stuff start? What has lead to what? How have I managed to accomplish these things? Where should I go from here?

Questions like these aren’t easily answered. At least not without a little introspection. You might hear a song and say to yourself “man I wish I could play like that,” or “how does someone write something so beautiful?” But you usually leave it right there and go on playing the same old chords, licks and lines that you feel comfortable with.

Mind Mapping with Reference Points

I have been experimenting recently with mind mapping as a way of deciding on a subject for my next book. When I set out to do this blog post, I hit on the idea of mapping out some musical concepts as a way of thinking about new subjects. This led somehow to the realization that everything we learn is built on the foundation of something else. We use these bits of knowledge or understanding as points of reference, like a sailor navigating by the stars and charting a course as he goes.

To a navigator, stars are reference points, reliable guides, confidence givers. They are welcome assurance that no matter where we wander we can find our way back.

NASA Public Domain Star Chart
NASA Public Domain Star Chart

To a musician reference points are simply things you have achieved: songs you have learned, concepts you have grasped, and techniques you have mastered. When you are just starting out, they may be as basic as a fingering for a new chord, a particular scale pattern, or a power chord riff. When you are more advanced, it may have more to do with theoretical concepts such as harmony, chord construction or composition.

Regardless of your proficiency or knowledge of music theory, you can use these reference points either as springboards to propel your playing to the next level, or as safe ports in a storm to fall back on when you need to just play some good music.

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it. ” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Example of a Reference Point

As an example, I will use the concept of the pentatonic scale. I use this example, because for me, the pentatonic scale was the beginning of my understanding of several key musical concepts.

When I was just starting out, I was in a band with a drummer, a bassist, and two other guitar players. When it came to the three guitarists, each of us had strengths and weaknesses: one was a master at learning chords and fancy riffs by ear, one was an excellent rhythm player, and one of us was pretty good at coming up with improvised solos. I was the one that had the knack for the solos, so I got the job of lead guitar, at least in the sense that when a song called for an extended jam, I was usually the first to take a crack at it.

The reason for this was that I had learned the most basic form of the pentatonic scale and could improvise with it. It was my reference point. At that time, I think I knew exactly one and one half of the five pentatonic scale shapes. It’s amazing how much soloing you can get done with that much under your belt!

I eventually learned by experimentation that I could add certain notes to this scale and some would sound great at times, while others would sound horrible. I had no idea why, I just took my chances here and there and tried to avoid hitting those klunkers. It was no way to play lead guitar, I had to learn why notes worked sometimes and sometimes not.

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. ” – Leonardo da Vinci

The point in this story is that the pentatonic scale became my first reference point. It was where I shoved off on a musical expedition. It allowed me to ask questions and to venture out from the shallow waters of what I understood, into the deeper ocean of what I didn’t know. It was also like a safe harbor, or a star I could rely on to find my way back if I got lost.

There were other reference points too, we all have many of them; but in a sense everything we learn about music evolves from these first tentative steps we take into the unknown.

By piecing things together somewhat randomly and little by little, we begin to understand the larger picture. It works the same way for any subject of study, be it astronomy, engineering, archeology, architecture or map making.

Now for the practical part of this post. To understand where you are in your musical growth, it’s a good idea to make yourself a flow chart, or mind map, of your current progress, your inspirations, these are your reference points.

Making a Mind Map

1. Begin by listing the very first things you accomplished or understood musically. Put down a few things that inspired you originally, what you were initially good at or that you now feel you understand about music.

2. Examine for a while and look at how the items are related. Attach items to this that you feel resulted from that understanding or ability. Keep going and draw connecting lines to related ideas until you have a matrix of your musical understanding. Don’t worry if it is entirely accurate or not, this is just a tool to get you thinking about how your mind works and how to go about setting and achieving new goals for yourself.

3. Draw some new branches and add areas where you would like to improve your execution or understanding. Depending on your current level, you may be surprised at how complex and interesting this can become.

Sample Music Mind Map
Sample Music Mind Map

Above is an example of how I have begun a mind map. It is not even close to finished. I include it here as an example of how charting out your own musical growth in this way can open your eyes to so many important areas in your musical life such as:

1. How you learn things by association
2. What you have already accomplished
3. Where your strengths and weaknesses are
4. How small things can lead to bigger and better things
5. What you have yet to explore

You can see how thinking in this way is very natural. I think it is because building networks like this is how our mind actually works: nonlinear but logical, random but associative, coincidental and synchronistic.

The connections we make in our mind and the routes we take to true understanding are hardly ever, maybe never, like the ways lessons are laid out in books. It is best to understand this early on in the learning process and embrace the power of this randomness, because in that very chaos you will find a certain order.

The pattern reveals the shape of your mind’s network, your own personal and idiosyncratic method of learning, and may help you understand how you learn and become inspired. Hopefully, the process of reliving your adventure in learning will push you ever further into the unknown.

Each time you add a node to your network, your understanding and inspiration will increases a little bit. This is because each link strengthens the logic behind those formerly random connections you have made. After a while it may start to resemble a constellation of stars, a sprawling city or a computer logic diagram. Whatever it looks like, you can be sure it is your own.

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck