Avoiding Common Pitfalls as a Student

Avoid Pitfalls

 

The learning process can often present challenges. All too often, these challenges can be seen as obstacles that cannot be overcome; a conclusion is then made by student decides to quit his or her musical journey entirely. Here are some of the most common pitfalls students encounter and ways to surpass them:

Don't Worry About Being "Good"

Ever notice when children play for the sake of playing that they have the most fun? The nature of playing when playing has no purpose and no goal is very much different to playing that has such attachments. Ever observe what happens when one of the kids or an adult judges the playing qualitatively? 

Now more than ever, the notion that one has to be particularly good at an activity pervades our society. In turn, the pressure we end up placing on ourselves to be seen as accomplished can slowly turn an activity that we love into something an unpleasant experience. 

Some students start out already feeling pressure to be good, while others (e.g. yours truly) are carefree but change perspectives later on.

When I decided that I wanted to play the guitar at 11 years old, I never considered being good or bad at it. Such an estimation never even crossed my mind. I found playing the guitar fun, intriguing, and exciting. By approaching music this way, it never became a chore, nor was I constantly wondering what others thought of my playing. 

Not until later on did I find out how much pressure I was eventually putting on myself. By 19, I decided to become a perfectionist; this alone nearly caused me to quit what I loved entirely. Never was I satisfied with anything I played. How could I be? I was holding a giant club over my head just waiting for the chance to clobber myself whenever a "mistake" was made.

Fortunately, I managed to give up on this and began to question whatever made me decide to become a perfectionist in the first place. (I had read that one of my favorite guitarists was a perfectionist, so I should be, too.) 

When I reached the point of either quitting or continuing, I recalled how the fun had vanished from when I was a kid first starting out. I decided to return to that approach where I was not concerned with any type of validation whether it was from my ego or the judgment of others; this lifted all of the pressure and the enjoyment came back immediately.

Whether you are a beginner or longtime musician, keep in mind the enjoyment you experience playing. We generally want to improve. And this will happen without having to worry about sounding good. In fact, the youngest students tend to advance faster because they avoid this pitfall; they delight in just playing and naturally become more proficient over time.

No Need to Compare: You Are Already the Best You

Another source of consternation for students that may (and does) lead to quitting is when they realize that they do not play as well as others they know or will never sound exactly like their favorite guitarist(s).  

Many a student has expressed to me how frustrated he or she feels because some personal friend or acquaintance is so much more advanced. Often these comparisons are unreasonable at best. For example, a student recently told me she felt she will never be as good as her friend who plays.  This student has been playing for about six months; the person to whom she compared herself has played for several years.

She took little comfort when I pointed this giant difference in playing between her and her friend. When I asked if she got into playing the guitar so she could outplay her friend, she said, "No, I have always wanted to learn to play." Have you largely enjoyed learning how to play the guitar?" I asked. "Yes, I would have stopped if I didn't," she responded. "So are enjoying playing and learning not enough? Does playing have to also be a competition?" She laughed and said, "Yes, it is enough."

We are always comparing this to that so making comparisons to others is very understandable. When the aforementioned student realized the impact her comparison had on enjoying learning music, she was relieved and could allow for the fun to return. Music is an art, not a competition. If anything, it is about communication, expression, and sharing. 

Your greatest strength is that you are one of a kind; no one is better at being you than you. By simply being yourself, you will avoid the discouragement that presents itself whenever you hear another guitarist who you feel is so much better than you will ever be. Focus on learning how to play so the guitar can best express you. After all, no one can better express you, not even the greatest technically accomplished guitarist in the universe.

Look at other guitarists as sources of inspiration, not in a competitive or adversarial sense. 

"i am such slow learner"

One of the most common remarks I hear from students is that they feel they are learning at a slower-than-usual rate. This is especially common for adults with at least 75% expressing this within the first month of lessons.

99% of the time, the student's growth is average or above average. Surprise is the most common reaction to my assurances to them that they are not deficient or slow learners. When I ask how they determined that they are learning at such a slow rate, they almost always mention an accomplished guitarist who has been playing for many years. 

I point out that those guitarists have been put in many thousands of hours into the instrument. All of these countless hours are not considered by most listeners.

Observing one's own progress is not often all that reasonable because the student uses unreasonable or fictional measuring sticks. This is one reason a competent and honest teacher may be so helpful: the teacher gives you a perspective and feedback that is virtually impossible to obtain from the student's viewpoint.

Students actually learn at a faster rate and with far more enjoyment when not worrying about the rate of learning. Much of this is due to the fact that they are more relaxed when they practice. Stress and anxiety not only takes the fun out of playing the guitar, it creates a counterproductive condition.

"I Thought Playing the Guitar Would Be Much Easier"

Another element I never considered when I began playing is how easy or difficult it would be to learn. All I knew is that I wanted to play, and I did what I felt necessary to eventually get the guitar to speak the way in which I wanted. Had I concerned myself with how easy or difficult it was going to be, I almost surely would have quit.

Certainly, I was inspired by other guitarists and many things did not come easily to me; they required tons of practice, but the thrill of being able to slowly get the guitar to sound as I wanted was more than enough to keep me interested. I did not want to be a carbon copy of those guitarists who inspired me. I felt I wanted to be able to understand and execute what those guitarists had mastered because I felt these were ways in which I could hear myself playing.

Do not get caught in thinking how easy or difficult it is to play. If you keep thinking, "Wow, playing the guitar is so difficult," you will feel exactly that. I guarantee that it will be much easier to learn if you are not constantly opposing yourself. The player needs to assimilate the guitar, to unify the instrument and not treat it as something to conquer. 

"mistakes" are your friend; in fact, they are absolutely necessary

Know anyone who learned how to walk without having ever losing balance and falling down? (If you do, please send me documented footage.)

Do we know how to balance when we stand without having experienced a failure to balance properly? 

The greatest, most accomplished musicians of all time have not only made many mistakes, they continued to make technical mistakes even when they were at the virtuoso level. 

Rather than fear making mistakes, embrace them for your accuracy and skills will not improve without them.

play for fun, not for validation from others

Any student I have ever encountered whose primary motivation behind learning the guitar is to impress others has quit within the first year. This comes as no surprise. After all, who can avoid the ever-increasing pressure created when your music hinges entirely on the hope of receiving favorable reactions from others? 

Instead of trying to impress others, play for sheer enjoyment. A large pitfall forms whenever other conditions are attached to an activity. If the level of fun is not sufficient enough on its own to continue, then you may want to reconsider playing music.

Everything in Moderation

As students begin learning, many eventually become overwhelmed by just how much there is to develop and practice. Some reach the point where the possibilities leave them daunted. Such apprehension can bring much frustration and pressure, making the learning process an intimidating one.

Keep in mind that students fare much better when they practice fewer things more thoroughly than many things haphazardly. By approaching practice from more of a qualitative rather than a quantitative angle, the student can save his or herself from anxiety.

Shortly after I began studying with one of my music mentors, I began to realize that there were hardly enough hours of practice in a day to go through every single concept. As concepts were combined, the number of possibilities rose exponentially. 

When I shared how stressed I felt in not being able to practice every single concept, he told me that it is better to take one concept at a time. Eventually, I would be able to work through all of the concepts and maintain a relaxed approach to practicing. 

A traveler who sets out to walk 100,000 steps can become quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number, especially if each step is counted one-by-one. If a traveler simply walks and takes one step at a time, the 100,000 steps will be covered; the journey will be far more enjoyable and feel much quicker.

 

 

Caveat Discipulus: Save Yourself Lots of Time and Money And Pay for a Skilled Teacher

Students Beware - Caveat

For someone passionate about teaching music, I am pained whenever I meet a prospective student who has been horribly misled by a former guitar teacher(s). In many cases, the students would have likely been better without the instruction for which they had paid.

The unfortunate reality is that there are many teachers who do not take a vested interest in their students. Moreover, there are teachers who simply do not have the experience and/or the skills and education; these teachers often overlook crucial elements at the detriment of the student.

Recently, I met with a young prospective student who had taken two years of guitar lessons. His other had explained that she and her son had grown disenchanted with the teacher over the past several months and was looking for a new guitar teacher.

His mother said that despite her son's assiduous guitar practicing, he felt his own musical interests were not being addressed by the teacher. This was a bit of a surprise since most teachers tend to address the musical interests of their students.

While assessing the student's musical and technical abilities, I quickly noticed some other major deficiencies. After two years of lessons, he could not play anything without reading it in either standard music notation or tablature (i.e. TAB).

In over 25 years of teaching professionally, I have come across many prospective students who should have been much further than where they were considering the amount of time they spent taking lessons; however, never had I encountered one who could not play a single open-chord or simple melody. 

When I tested his music reading ability, I was dismayed to find that his music reading level was one of a student who has been studying for five or six months. And this amount of time would likely be three or four months for a student whose lesson was focused completely on music reading.

The silver lining is that he and his mother began to recognize that he was not as advanced as he should be after two years of lessons. Some students take many more years to notice that there are many deficiencies in their playing that are not being properly addressed.

His mother asked what about my tuition rates. I stated that my current base fee is $40 per half an hour for students who see either of my teaching studios.

She met my quote with reluctance and asked if I could teach for less. I then asked the mother what she had been paying her son's former teacher. $30 per half an hour was her response. At this point, I asked the following questions:

  1. Did the former teacher have more close to or more than twenty-five years of experience?
  2. Did the former teacher have a degree in music education?
  3. Did the former teacher have a Master's degree in Music?
  4. Did the former teacher have a Ph.D. in Music?
  5. Did the teacher have any well-received music education books published?

"No," was the answer for each of the questions above.

With me, her son would have taken only four months of lessons to accomplish the same music reading level or better. Additionally, he would have also learned at least several songs of his choosing and have a vocabulary of at least two-dozen chords.

Let's look at the math:

  • Two years of lessons @ $30 per half hour (46 lessons/year) = 92 lessons = $2760
  • Four months of lessons @ $40 per half hour (4 lessons/month) = 16 lessons = $640

Not only would her son have advanced almost 10-times the rate; they would have saved over $2000 even while paying me $10 more per half an hour.

When it comes to finding a quality teacher with decades of professional experience, the highest degree of education possible, and well-received publications in his or her field, you may have to spend more than the average or below average teacher; however, this will save you much more time and money as the example above demonstrates. 

An ineffective or incompetent teacher may also do more to hinder a student's ultimate progress and interest. In many cases, a student may be better off studying on his or her own. Even if a more experienced and competent teacher is $10, $20, $30 above the average teacher's fee, the speed at which the student will advance will be much faster and proportionately less expensive.

 

 

 

On Finding Your Own Voice: Steve Vai's Wise Words

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Many who ask me about my influences are surprised to know that Steve Vai is among the greatest of any. Even more than Eddie Van Halen, who inspired me to play the instrument, Vai had a style and voice that resonated with me immediately. I spent a lot of time studying his playing on the albums Eat 'Em and Smile and Skyscraper with David Lee Roth and on his seminal solo album Flexable. Without realizing it at the time, I was trying to transform myself into a mini-Steve Vai.

Around the time Skyscraper was released in 1988, MTV aired an interview with Steve Vai. What he said created an epiphany and has resounded ever since. The topic was teaching:

What happens when you teach is you learn a lot about yourself and your relationship with your instrument. The important thing—if you are going to teach—is to get them to realize that their own expression on the instrument is the most important thing and not being able to do the same lick I did in "Big Trouble"...

As much as I did not want to admit it at first, I was much more interested in the licks he played than in finding my own voice. In fact, I had not even considered such an exploration. From that point on, I stopped imitating Vai's playing. 

This realization also coincided with my first experience hearing live jazz. My then guitar teacher, Mark Burkert, took me to hear Jimmy Bruno's trio at a venue in downtown Philadelphia. Prior to this introduction to jazz, music improvisation was completely foreign to me. I was intrigued by how musicians could make up accompaniments and solos on the spot.

Learning how to improvise forced me to pay attention to my own voice as a guitarist, among many other things. Fortunately, I heeded his words and avoided becoming a second-rate Steve Vai. Little did I know that the same message that had such a substantial impact on a twelve-year-old kid would be the same one I continue to exhort to students today.

Please leave comments below.

 

 

Listen (To Your Body): Avoiding Pain and Stress When Practicing

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when Playing IS a Pain

You are likely familiar with the philosophy of "no pain, no gain", especially as it applies to getting physically stronger. But such an ignorant approach to playing the guitar will likely lead to injury.

As they should, many teachers stress listening to their students. Listening develops an awareness of your playing and performing in ensembles. To not listen to what is going on around you is to be out of touch. The same holds true for listening to your body when you are playing.

If you are playing and part of your body begins to experience pain, listen to it. Pain alerts you that something is not working as it should. Sometimes this means you need to take a break; other times, your body may be telling you that your posture and/or technique needs adjusting. 

With beginner students, the only discomfort, if any, should be soreness on the fingertips. Even sore fingertips should last a couple of weeks at most if the student is playing the guitar several times a week. If sore fingertips persist beyond this point, the string height may need to be adjusted on the guitar.

Proper Posture and Technique

If you play in a supported position that is natural, you will play with much greater ease. Here are some general guidelines to ensure proper posture:

  • Keep your back/spine straight
  • Relaxed neck, shoulders, arms, and hands
  • Relaxed breathing 

You might feel these guidelines are obvious, but they are the most often ignored by players. Many times a player is so focused on a part of the piece or an element of the performance that one or more of these guidelines are overlooked. 

Programming Relaxation and Unprogramming Stress

Even if you have proper posture, stress can wreak havoc on your ability to perform. Your muscles, tendons, et al. need to be relaxed in order to work with easy. Unfortunately, many players program in stress by constantly reinforcing it.

Have you ever made a mistake while you practicing and felt a pang of tension? And when you decided to practice the part again, you made the same mistake, but this time the tension was more pronounced? So by now you are ticked and are going to really show those notes who the boss is, etc...

If this sounds familiar, you are reinforcing stress into your playing. But do not worry: you can unprogram it, too. Anytime you begin to feel stress or anxiety, check your breathing. Why? Because this is most often the first thing to go. Once your breathing is no longer relaxed, the rest of your body begins to tense up.

One of the most counter-productive things you can do is practicing under tension. If you are frustrated, put the guitar down and take a break. Return to it only when you are relaxed. Depending on how ingrained the habit, this might take 10-15 minutes or an entire day.

Naturalness and Ease in Playing

If there is one common element shared between virtually all of the master musicians it is how effortless they play. Even the most technically demanding pieces sometimes look like a casual stroll through a park for many of them. Watch some of these virtuosos:

 

Did any of them look stressed? Was there a physical struggle with their instrument? Did any of their techniques look or sound forced? 

In order to achieve such ease, the player has to experience the ease of it. Developing the habit of practicing with proper, supported posture in a relaxed state will work wonders for you. Not only will your body thank you, your performances will improve, too.

Where are some of the areas you experience most tension when playing the guitar?

 

A Guide to Guitar Lessons for Parents with Children 4-12 years old.

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Introduction

Over the last 25 years of teaching, approximately half of my students have been kids between the ages of 4 and 12. This article sets out to address many of the common questions asked by parents and provide insight into the music learning process.

Common Questions

  • How old does my son or daughter have to be to begin guitar lessons?

Although I have never taught a guitar player younger than 4 years of age, I feel that is about the youngest practical age due to the size of the instruments available and attention span of the student.

  • How frequent and long are the guitar lessons?

Most kids who are total beginners respond well to 30-minute lessons. For students who have previous musical experience or are very motivated, sometimes 45-minutes works best. In very few cases, a 30-minute lesson needed to be shortened to 15 or 20 minutes.

  • What kind of guitar should we purchase?

Finding an appropriately sized guitar is essential for kids. A guitar that is either too large or too small will create numerous problems for the player. 

Guitars are available in quarter, half, three-quarter, and full sizes. In general, kids between 4 or 5 usually require a quarter-sized guitar; players between 6-9, a half-sized guitar; and players between 10-12, a three-quarters-sized guitar. Prices for a new smaller-scale guitar are between $100-400, though there are some cheaper and more expensive makes and models.

The player's fretting hand (left for a right-handed player) should be able to easily reach the first fret while maintaining a bend in the elbow. The arm of the strumming hand (right for a right-handed player) should comfortably rest on side of the guitar without any neck and/or shoulder discomfort.  If the shoulder is elevated higher than it normally would when relaxed, the body of the guitar is too big.

Most guitars of a smaller scale are acoustic. Some are nylon-stringed; others are steel-stringed. I suggest choosing the guitar that sounds most appealing to your son or daughter because that is what will inspire them to play it. Unless your son or daughter is really set on an electric guitar, I recommend purchasing an acoustic first because they do not require the additional expense of an amplifier.

The type of strings are important in terms of the sound produced; however, the way in which the guitar is set up is even more important.

Unfortunately, many guitar manufacturers do not set up the guitars that come out of the factories. Stores used to set up their guitars before putting them out to try, but few of them do this any longer. (Instead, they add an additional charge to set up the guitar.)

The height of the strings and intonation of the guitar need to be properly set in order for the guitar to play properly. If the height of the strings is too great, the player will struggle and likely grow discouraged. Additionally, if the intonation is off, the guitar will not play in tune. A skilled luthier/repair person can adjust these aspects when necessary.

Based on what I have observed, Yamaha, Cordoba, and Taylor tend to produce smaller-scale guitars that play well right out of the case. I have found these do not often require a setup, though there are occasional exceptions.

In realizing how overwhelming and confusing this can be for some parents, I offer to meet with them at a store in order to help them with selecting a guitar.

  • Are there any other things I need to get other than the guitar?

  1. A guitar tuner (phone apps work fine, too, and are often free).
  2. Guitar picks (if not playing fingerstyle).
  3. Either a guitar strap or footstool to elevate the guitar when seated. Note: if you buy a quarter or half-sized guitar, you may need to ask for a shorter strap as the standard length will be too long.
  4. Music stands are useful in order not to cause any strain on the neck.
  5. Lesson and method books, but these are not usually determined until after the first lesson.
  • How long should my son/daughter practice?

At least 15-20 minutes of focused practice three days out of the week. But keep in mind that the way in which the player practices is as important, if not more so, as the amount of time spent practicing. (20 minutes of proper practice is more productive than 10 hours of improper practice.) 

For many players, establishing a consistent set of practice times helps is more effective than random times.

Practicing more than 50 minutes without taking a 10-minute break is not recommended.

  • Is my son/daughter progressing quickly enough?

First and foremost, the music learning experience should be an enjoyable one. Regardless of the age, if the student is not enjoying lessons, then finding an alternate route is best. I do not place any pressure on my students in expecting them to become virtuosos. My role is a coach who is there to encourage and guide them. 

If parents have to harangue and cajole their son or daughter week after week to practice, then either a break from lessons or a different teacher may be a good idea.

As long as the student enjoys the lessons and practices the lesson material properly on a regular basis, then I am happy; the players will progress and develop at their own rate.

Have other questions? Please write them below. 

On Perfectionism and Music

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"Jazz stands for freedom. It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don't be a perfectionist. . ." - Dave Brubeck

When I began playing the guitar at the age of 11. I was intrigued by how the instrument sounded. I wondered how players such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai were able to get the instrument to produce what I was hearing on their albums. Later, I was amazed by accomplished improvisers like my first mentor, jazz guitar great Jimmy Bruno. Despite the challenges, much fun was had in going through the learning process.

As hard as I worked at improving my guitar playing skills, I was not driven by a need to be perfect. The motivation was in working through the challenges and finding my own voice. By 16, I reached a point as a guitarist where others were willing to pay me to play and teach.

When I was 18, I came very close to quitting music altogether. I had read an interview with one of my favorite guitarists, Eric Johnson. The preamble to the interview referred to Johnson as a perfectionist. Despite not really even knowing what that meant, I immediately dove head first into perfectionism.

This rigor went on for approximately six months during which time I felt that everything I played was horrendous. Rather than easing up, I decided the solution was to drive myself even harder. The more I drove myself, the harsher I became with respect to my playing. I simply could do no right.

Eventually, I reached a point where I verbally lashed out at a member of the audience during a set break on a gig. Why? He had the audacity to compliment my playing. A close friend overheard my rebuff; he confronted me about it, and I am glad he did.

During the confrontation, I experienced a moment of clarity: I had no idea what I was actually doing in adopting such an ideal in the first place. I never even stopped to define perfectionism in music for myself. All I knew was that perfection appealed to me only because another guitarist whom I admired was said to have been one; being a perfectionist sounded like what I needed in order to get better.

If anything, the enormous stress I placed on myself caused me to play far worse than I had before. What once was technically fluid became choppy and strained; my improvised solos became forced; and the enjoyment I had in playing the guitar vanished.

Once I dispensed with being a perfectionist altogether, everything improved and enjoyment in performing and learning returned. To this day, I urge students to avoid the pitfalls associated with perfectionism. Instead, play with sincerity and maintain integrity (i.e. avoid getting in your own way). As long as you do that, you cannot go wrong; whatever perfection happens to be available will be present.

What are your thoughts and experiences with perfectionism? Please share your story below.

Competition's Place in Music: One Teacher's Perspective

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Few if any students, teachers, or parents, would deny that competition is very prevalent in music. More music competitions exist now than ever before with ever increasing numbers of students participating from year to year. The prestige of winning a competition can bring varying degrees of glory not only to the musician but the institution and/or teacher. Undoubtedly, many who support music competitions would quickly extol the many so-called benefits in store for players. I was about 14 when I first learned about music competitions. A friend had mentioned that he was going to be competing in a piano competition. At that time, I had been taking guitar lessons for two years but was unaware that such competitions existed. Neither of the two guitar teachers I had ever spoke of music competitions. My ignorance notwithstanding, the initial perplexity I experienced when I learned about music competitions has not waned 25 years later.

"How exactly is a music performance judged?" I wondered. Is it all about being technically flawless? Certainly, a technically perfect performance does not ensure that the music is at all compelling. Many of us have heard a musician perform a piece that was insipid and dull, despite being note-perfect. By the same token, we have also heard performances that were far from technically perfect, yet these performances were incredibly stimulating. Upon which criteria does a judge(s) assess the value of a musical performance during a music competition?

Even if you consider music to be a type of game, is it a serious game with the winners being those who achieve a preset standard of excellence on one side and the losers who fall short of the bar on the other? Or is playing music more about embarking on a journey of discovery, edification, and cultivation for oneself?

A correlation exists between the amount of stress and enjoyment we experience in activities. For most people, the more stress-inducing the activity, the less enjoyment is felt. You can easily observe this phenomenon when children play games. A fun relaxed game transforms into a more stressful activity as the level of seriousness increases; more pressure is felt by the players; and the amount of fun quickly diminishes or completely disappears. Some children decide the game is no longer worth playing and resign themselves from it, while others get caught up in the gravitas.

Seeing as how virtually every facet of life has been turned into a competition, students are often competing on an unconscious level from the very beginning of their music studies. In order to mitigate the anxiety of students, I urge them not to treat music as a competition or worry about how they compare to other players. As ice hockey great Bobby Orr's father would tell his son throughout all of the stages of his career, "Just go out there and have fun. If things work out, we'll see what happens."

Today, few students I teach begin lessons and play music without already having expectations set firmly in place. Despite my encouragement and assurances, the unreasonable expectations of a student eventually bring him or her to the point where the stress is no longer bearable. In many cases, such students become disenchanted with music; sadly, they end up taking a hiatus or stopping without ever resuming.

For those who argue that competition is a necessity for musicians to achieve greatness, I offer you the following story:

Many years ago, I would often come across the legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino at a Chris' jazz club in Center City Philadelphia. At the time, Martino often attended performances by famed guitarist and my mentor, Jimmy Bruno.

During one of the performances, Martino and I were listening to Bruno's trio. After the song ended, Martino said something that struck me as cryptic: "I never compete." He repeated the sentence once again with a pronounced smile as if he was imparting some invaluable esoteric knowledge. He said nothing more to me for the rest of the night. I was not sure what prompted him to say what he did at that particular time, but not until quite some time later did I fully realize what he had meant.

Pat Martino does not approach music as a competition. In contrary, he views music as a collaboration or a conversation. He is not interested in proving himself to an audience or the musicians performing with him on the bandstand; to do so would be an act of violence, one of separation rather than harmonization. In the end, competing against fellow musicians and/or the audience is self-defeating. Connecting with others is virtually impossible if you treat yourself and the environment around you with contempt.

Though music competitions are here to stay, I do not to encourage students to compete in music competitions. If a student is set on participating in one, I certainly will not attempt to dissuade the player; however. I feel the focus should be on enjoying the learning process and the teamwork involved in playing music with other musicians.

What are your thoughts and experiences with music competitions? Please share them below.

Issues Facing Music and Jazz Education

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As unpopular a stance as it might be, I feel the way in which jazz improvisation, is generally taught is flawed and even antithetical to the cultivation of a distinct musical identity. More information (e.g. books on harmony, improvisation, music theory, etc.) is available to the students of today than ever before; however, this has not produced greater numbers of unique players than prior to this explosion of information. 

Most students are more technically proficient and knowledgeable about music theory, yet these same students seldom develop an identifiable voice of their own; however, this deficiency is hardly the complete fault of the player. In many cases, blame cannot even be placed on the teacher, who teaches only that which they have learned. If a teacher has learned by means of copying, emulating, and working out ideas, then what would someone expect them to teach?

What players need is proper guidance to make sense of the large amounts of information available to them. Information for its own sake is useless; this is equivalent to relying only on a dictionary to learn how to speak a language. Even if a person memorizes all of the words and their meanings in the dictionary, he or she has no awareness of the grammatical underpinnings necessary to make even the simplest intelligible statement. Unless the student manages to understand through his or her own approach, ignorance will remain.

Is this some sort of campaign against play-a-longs and music books? Not at all. The central issue here is the popular fallacy that has been fed to students: if you practice all your patterns, licks, clichés, scales, favorite players’ ideas, and know your theory, you will become a great player— nonsense. If this is all a student needs to be a great musician, there would be more great players now than ever before.

An emphasis on playing “hip”' is more frequently placed on students today. Ironically, many fail to realize that the players such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter all started out playing inside the harmony for many years before they began exploring modality and bitonality. This lack of vision has led to the cart-before-the-horse syndrome in which students attempt to go straight into modal and bi-tonal music without having any foundation in playing tonally. This makes as much sense as trying to learn calculus without first knowing basic arithmetic.

What is the answer to all of this confusion, you may ask? As with anything, there is no one solution. An awareness of the problem is the first step. All too often, the student gains awareness after many years have already passed.  In my case, I was fortunate to have had two fantastic mentors in Jimmy Bruno and Jimmy Amadie. The former helped teach me the guitar, while the latter taught me harmony and how to find my own improvisational voice.

Bruno and Amadie have published books, which I highly recommend. Bruno's books on guitar fingerings and picking technique are excellent for students of the plectrum-based guitar. Amadie's books on harmony and improvisation are a godsend to students who have experienced great frustration at being unable to find their own musical fingerprint.

To the cynics who believe I recommend my mentors’ works only because I was a student of theirs for many years: you are very much mistaken. I doubt there are many who would argue that Amadie and Bruno are hacks who have not a clue how to teach. Many players I teach and have taught have benefited from the approaches these two men pioneered that it would be horribly selfish to keep it all to myself.

Although there are exceptions, most of the books I have come across contain a lot of information, yet they offer the student little or no direction. The student is left to make sense of the information with little or no guidance.

Unless the student has a tremendous ear and can come up with a system  on his or her own, the student will continue to struggle. As someone who has struggled, I can empathize. However, in the seemingly endless sea of information on playing music, there exist approaches that can help. But the student has to be aware enough to recognize the works that will best assist them.

If there is anyone to be blamed for the pervasive ignorance of students,  it is the so-called educator who is aware of these helpful approaches, but refuses to acquaint themselves with them. Sadly, this phenomenon is not rare: many teachers are too lazy to have to learn about a new system, especially when they have fallen into a convenient routine. Who loses most in this situation? (Hint: not the teachers)

Have you been through a jazz course? What was your experience like? Please share below.

In Honor of the Legacy and Memory of Mentor Jimmy Amadie

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aAs my usual Sunday afternoon routine went, I sat down at Jimmy Bruno's kitchen table and began to take my guitar our of its case. But this Sunday was very different from the previous lessons with my mentor. I had been Bruno's student for four years, and, for the first time, he recommended that I consider taking a few lessons with another teacher based in the Philadelphia area.

Bruno sat down at the table and presented a book authored by the teacher. I looked at the cover: "Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It" by Jimmy Amadie. Intrigued, I started leafing through the pages of the book.

"I just got this book; it looks great. Jimmy Amadie was a great pianist who had to stop many years ago because both of his hands gave out," Bruno informed me.

I thought, "Why would I study with a pianist? I am a guitarist!"

He continued, "You might want to take a lesson and see how it goes. You can still take lessons from me, but I think it will do you good to get another perspective on playing. There are other approaches than the one I teach. I looked through Jimmy Amadie's book and think he is really onto something."

Despite Bruno's appeals, I still felt a strong resistance to his idea. I had no desire to study with anyone else and could not see how a pianist could help me improve my guitar playing.

Coincidentally, my high school music teacher asked if I had ever heard of Jimmy Amadie a few days later. I told him I had only heard of him. Mr. Stairs then made the same suggestion Bruno had earlier.

Finding it uncanny that the two teachers whom I respected most mentioned Jimmy Amadie within a few days of each other, I decided to contact him. I asked Mr. Stairs for Amadie's phone number; he jotted it down on a piece of paper.

The sun had set; dinner was over. I retrieved the piece of paper Mr. Stairs had given me. I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A man's voice that I assumed to be Jimmy's answered. "Hello Mr. Amadie, I got your number from Michael Stairs. He and Jimmy Bruno recommended that I call you to see if you'd be willing to give me a lesson."

Amadie asked about my background and told me he would set up an evaluation for me to see where I was as a player. The arrogant voice inside of my head replied, "An evaluation? I told him I have studied with Jimmy Bruno for four years. Why would he need to evaluate me?"

With some reluctance, I agreed to Amadie's terms. The evaluation date was set, and when I arrived I set out to impress him so much with my guitar playing that he would feel foolish for not wanting to accept me as a student from the beginning.

Jimmy greeted me at the door leading to his music studio. "Go in and warm up. I'll be right there." Upon entering his teaching studio, a gray foldout chair awaited me next to a small Ampeg amplifier from the 1960s. I plugged in my guitar and turned on the amp. My hubris ever present, I began to play my scales and arpeggios as fast as I could. I was confident that he would be bowled over by what he heard." I did this for the next fifteen minutes, stopping only when I began wondering why he had not yet returned.

A couple of minutes later, Amadie entered the room. "Okay," he said as he sat down in a green rolling chair, "let me hear you play a tune—any tune." Without a single remark about my warm up, he reached over and selected a cassette tape next to his tape recorder.

"You are going to record me?" I asked.

"Yes, that way I can refer back to your playing," he responded. "Jimmy Bruno had never recorded me during our lessons," I thought to myself with some annoyance that stemmed from not receiving the reaction I had thought I would receive.

An uneasy feeling came me as I knew that I was about to be recorded. "What tune are you going to play?" Amadie asked. I thought for a moment. "I'll Remember April," I declared. "Okay, you got it."

I started into the chord-melody I knew so well. Fewer than ten measures into the song: "Stop, try it again," he said. Slightly annoyed, I started again only to find myself interrupted even sooner the second time.

"Just play the melody-forget about your arrangement," he said. I began trying to play the melody but quickly faltered after my first mistake.

His facial expression bore no resemblance to the one I had imagined before the lesson. He had a look of concern, even bewilderment at times. His final request: "Solo for me." I felt this was my big opportunity to really dazzle him. I played as fast and fiercely as I could before he stopped me at the bridge of the song.

He leaned back in his chair, adjusted his glasses, picked up a pencil, and pressed the eraser under his chin. He looked up and away for a moment and then back at me. I knew he was about to say something that was going to be anything but complimentary.

"I don't know how to tell you this, Prez, but your playing is completely in left field. In fact, I don't think I have heard someone play worse than you. For one, your time is all over the place; you don't know the basic melody to the tune; you only have your arrangement."

He paused again and continued, "Look Prez, there are two kinds of players: there are the players who think that music serves the technique, and there are the players who have the technique serve the music. Clearly, you are in the first category. You have all these chops, but the music is secondary. No one cares about your technique if you can't tell a story—if you cannot communicate musically. Plus, when your time is bad, no one will want to play with you. The biggest drag in the world is to play with a cat who has bad time. Listen to the recording—the tape doesn't lie."

As we listened back, I could not help but wonder why I had adopted such a stupid attitude. I felt I deserved the pointed criticisms. He stopped the tape and asked rhetorically, "Am I saying something?"

Disheartened and annoyed with myself,  I nodded my head. He got up and patted me on the back, "Don't worry, Prez, you have a lot of work ahead, but I will help you." His assurances made me feel only slightly better. Shortly after leaving his house, I was filled with an intense desire to do whatever I had to until my musical shortcomings were rectified.

For the next ten years, Jimmy Amadie became much more than a teacher; he was another mentor, another father, an inspiration, and a great friend.

His genius as an educator was not only in developing concepts for improvisation and harmony; understanding that music, as with life, does not exist in a vacuum. He also espoused practicing under "game conditions": creating a context as close to the one you would face outside of the practice room during a performance.

I am forever indebted to Jimmy for inculcating so many life and musical lessons during my time with him. As much as I miss him, his indomitable spirit and passion remain and continue onward through me, and those whose lives he touched. Thank you and much love, Prez.

Have you any stories about Jimmy Amadie? Please share them below.

Coming Full Circle: Teaching for Your Teacher

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Last week, I had the honor of returning to my Alma Mater, The Haverford School, to give a master class and performance; both events were part of the 2012 Arts Festival. My return was the first since my graduation nearly eighteen years earlier, and the changes I observed, particularly in the school's support of the arts, were heartening.

In the thirteen years that I spent at the all-boys preparatory school, only a few of teachers made such an impact that I still reflect on them today. All but one, Mr. Stairs, my remarkable high school music teacher, have moved on in one way or another.

Stairs, as students today continue to fondly call him, was one of the few teachers who encouraged me (and other students) in my musical endeavors. In an environment where pursuing any artistic vocation was considered anything but noble, Stairs offered steadfast support; this support is as strong today as it was when I had him as a teacher.

Though the grounds and buildings of the school had undergone many changes over the years, the music room was nearly identical to how it looked when I last saw it my senior year. To have given the master class in the very room where music classes were held when I was a student made the experience all the more gratifying.

Prior to my arrival, three students were selected to be the subjects of my master class: two guitarists and one electric bassist. I opened up the class asking the three, who were seated with their instruments to the right of me, in which musical areas I could assist them. All three gave the same answer: improvisation.

About ten minutes into the class, I looked up at audience directly in front of me for the first time. (Previously, my attention was focused on the three students.) As I scanned the faces across the room, I came across Stairs’. His countenance wore a beaming smile, and, at the moment I caught sight of it, time stood still. Never would I have thought I would be in the same high school music classroom teaching students of the same age when I was there last and have Stairs looking on with a broad smile.

His smile was not one of pride, as most would be apt to think. It certainly was not pride, because it often implies haughtiness. The smile conveys a feeling of delight in having been a part of a student’s growth process. Stairs’ smile is one I have had occasionally while watching one of my own students do very well during a performance.

Few times have I ever felt such an honor as profound as teaching before one of my favorite persons and most respected teachers. I felt such joy during and after the class. I could not have asked for better students. My only hope: that I inspired any of those in attendance that day even a small fraction of how much Stairs inspired (and continues to inspire) me.

Thank you for everything, Stairs!

Have you any stories about Michael Stairs? Please share them below.

Tips on Finding the Right Guitar Teacher for You or Your Kids

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I teach guitar and music lessons in the Berkeley and Pleasanton areas. My passion for teaching is as strong today as it was when I began to teach guitar lessons in Philadelphia 25 years ago. I have taught well over one thousand students at every academic level (elementary school to university) ranging from 4 and 5-year-olds to seniors in their late 80s. Unfortunately, I have encountered plenty of music students who have been led astray by a former teacher(s) over the years. Many students do not make this realization until they have sometimes spent five or more years searching for a teacher who can genuinely help coach them; some end up quitting completely and never come to realize it. This is especially the case with adult students who decide that they are either unteachable or lacking in talent.

This is not to suggest that all of these teachers intended to lead their students down the primrose path. Most music teachers, self-taught or not, teach the way they were taught. Sometimes this works well for the student, but there are plenty of instances where it does not.

Central to the problem of selecting a good teacher is that most people make many assumptions when estimating the merits of a teacher; all too often, these assumptions are false. This applies to everyone from parents searching for a guitar teacher for their kids to an adult who has already had years of private music lessons.

False Assumption #1:  Great Guitar Players Are Likely Great Teachers

Being an excellent musician does not mean the player must be a great teacher. Unfortunately, playing and teaching skills do not go hand in hand, and while there are some who excel at both playing and teaching music, they are a rarity. Just as there have been many great athletes who later became ineffective coaches, there are plenty of world-class guitarists who are poor teachers.

From a purely business-oriented model, it comes as no surprise that a famous musician is favored by most music programs, even if he or she teaches poorly. After all, these programs know that a well-known musician will draw more students to a school's music department than a very good teacher with little or no name recognition.

On the other hand, there are musicians who may be mediocre performers but possess all of the skills necessary to be excellent teachers. Therefore, it is unwise to choose one teacher over another because one is a more accomplished musician.

Assumption #2: A Classically Trained Teacher Is Best

Another common fallacy is that it is best to seek out a teacher who was classically trained. Many fail to understand that there is a multitude of schools and methods; some are draconian, while others offer varying degrees of flexibility.

In the realm of guitar teachers, a classically trained teacher may not necessarily be a good fit for a student. For example, if you are a beginner guitar player interested in playing jazz or blues,  a classically trained teacher may be of little help.

Different styles of music are essentially different dialects. A teacher may be fluent in Mandarin Chinese and be an excellent teacher, but that is not very helpful for someone interested in learning Cantonese.

Consider what style(s) of music you are most interested in learning and seek out a teacher who has familiarity with playing and teaching it. If you are interested in learning classical music, then research some of the different schools and approaches to see which will most likely be a proper fit.

Assumption #3: More Teaching Experience=A Better Teacher

Although we encounter people with many years of experience in different fields who are utterly inept, an all-to-often tendency is to place too much importance on the experience of the teacher.

Who would you prefer as a teacher: a mediocre guitar teacher with 10 or 20 years of experience or a very good guitar teacher who has been teaching for three or four years?

Experience certainly has its importance, but to assume one teacher is better than another based on this aspect alone is fraught with problems.

Assumption #4: Showing Is Teaching

Many teachers teach strictly by showing or telling the student what to do; while this may be helpful up to an extent, it is not true teaching. For example, if I write out all of the chords to a song on a piece of paper and then ask the student to watch me play them, the student will only be copying me. Essentially, I have provided all of the answers for the student. Unless the student figures out his or her own way to make sense of the information, there will be only a superficial understanding of what is happening.

I doubt anyone would consider someone to be a good math teacher if the teacher asked the students to watch him or her solve the problems and have them copy the answers down afterward. Would that really be teaching math?

More than 90% of students who have come to me following lessons with other teachers have had teachers who simply showed or told them what to play. Seldom, if ever, did the teacher(s) did not challenge the students by having them discover the answers for themselves. Instead, they simply wrote out the answers and asked the students to memorize them for the next lesson.

A teacher who relies solely on showing and telling the students what to do is only hampering the student by creating a dependency on the teacher. A skilled teacher presents an approach to the student that fosters creativity and cultivates confidence in his or her abilities.

Since no two students are identical, a large component of the art of teaching is in finding an effective approach for each student. Some students may understand a concept when presented from one perspective, while other students may not see it at all. Therefore, the teacher must be creative and figure out different ways of presenting the same concept, so it may be apprehended by all students.

Assumption #5: Strict Teachers Are Better For Students, Especially Kids

Although some students respond well to strict demanding teachers, this is far from being the case most of the time. In some instances, a strict teacher can absolutely destroy a student's interest in music.

Finding a good match between the temperament of the student and teacher is crucial. If you know you or your child responds well to pressure and criticism from teachers, then finding a teacher with such a temperament makes sense. (Both of my musical mentors were this way; however, I respond very well to this mode.)

If you or your child is genuinely interested in learning music but has not a fierce intensity, then finding a teacher whose temperament is more balanced is likely going to be preferable.

Some students do not fare so well with demanding teachers. For one, it is very difficult to experience enjoyment in the learning process when the teacher is constantly pushing the student. In the end, these students end up feeling that they are simply not talented enough and should give up, rather than driving themselves to press onward and prove themselves to their teacher.

The finest teachers know exactly if, when, and to what degree they should push their students; this is one of the arts to teaching.

Summary:

When considering a music teacher, do not stop with how well the person plays or how much teaching experience he or she has acquired. Ask questions about their teaching philosophy and approach. You will get much more insight into the depth of a teacher by asking such questions. If the teacher has an unreasonable or superficial philosophy, then you may want to continue on with your search.

As a passionate teacher, little pains me more than observing a student who has formed counterproductive practices and habits.

Poor teachers provide more problems than solutions for students. Improper instruction and advice from a teacher(s) may mean many years of unlearning down the road, so take your time and choose your teacher wisely.

Have you any additional tips regarding ways of selecting the right music teacher? Please share them below.

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