You can’t move online for ‘top tens’, or ‘best ever’ lists. Those, or ‘Top rules to be the bestest baddass’ guides to instant success.
I’m very much ‘down with this sort of thing’, particularly when it comes to learning the guitar. It’s not easy, there’s no ‘quick fix’. Learning any musical instrument, I think, takes good old-fashioned hard work, commitment, care and sensitivity.
I found it quite refreshing to read this article, by Mark Sisson, online fitness and healthy-living guru, which gives a balanced view of approaches to exercise and sport…
I often find there are a lot of similarities between sporting and musical progression, and we musicians can learn a lot from sport science. The way we improve and develop in musical terms take a great deal of the same skills and attitudes as in sport. Both require physical training of some form, both require dedication and practise, and both are as much about taking a thoughtful approach to progression.
In his latest top ten Sisson sets out some very reasonable and achievable approaches which I think can be applied in a musical setting. I’ll set out his list here, and attempt to explain how I think it may work in a musical context:
- Do the thing you love
Rather than take the attitude that ‘if it’s not hurting, you’re not doing it hard enough’ Sisson takes the position that for your practice to be sustainable, you must enjoy it. Relentlessly practicing scales undoubtedly make great technical improvements, but how many of us, in our busy modern lives, can dedicate the time required. The alternative for so many is to give up, because they can’t face the work. Rather than kill yourself, how about approaching (to use a sporting term) the ‘long game’. Isn’t it better to play something you love playing?
- Get a workout buddie
Apparently, studies show that working with other people increases the benefits of your activity, makes it feel easier, and is motivating. Taking opportunities to make music, or just have a bit of a strum, with others, will have many benefits.
- Work out Outside
Ok, so I’m not claiming you need to go al-fresco with your guitar, especially this time of year, but the sentiment is still of interest. Rather than confining ourselves to dour and clinical places of work, make sure you’re enjoying the environment you’re working in. It goes back to point one – the more we enjoy our study, the more we’re likely to do it.
- Incorporate play
Mess around, mix things up. Rather than just playing set technical studies, pieces and scales, be creative. I like to use improvisation and chance in lesson activities, to explore the possibilities of the unscripted. As soon as you know a few chords and techniques on the guitar, you’re ready to play, and to write. By incorporating variety into your learning of a skill, you’re always awake to new experiences and possibilities.
- Make your workouts meaningful and purpose-driven
This is one of the points which are more difficult to make tangible in this context. I would argue though, that simply enjoying the act of playing an instrument, and of making music, is meaningful and purposeful enough.
- Find Flow
This is an area which interests me, despite it’s potentially happy-clappy pseudo-spiritual connotations. How do we make our practise effortless, almost Zen. Do we need to? I know from experience and study, that we’re at our best functioning state when we’re in a relaxed, contented, even place. Get in that ‘zone’ people go on about, but in a different way. Remove distractions, and aim for an almost meditative state when playing. This may feel a bit ‘serious’ at first, but everyone, from beginning strummers to concert twiddlers, should consider their practise important enough that you treat it with care.
- Savour how it makes you feel
If you’ve found your ‘flow’, drink it up. Enjoy the unique buzz you get when you’re creating your very own sounds and timbres. Another modern phrase, being ‘in the moment’ is relevant here. This is the instant feedback you deserve for dedicating your time and care to making progress. Enjoy it as much as you can!
- Release your attachment to the outcome
This I think this is really refreshing, and so good to hear from an athlete and sportsman. It really is the taking part that counts, not the winning. By allowing yourself to just be playing for the sake of it, you’re allowing yourself space and time to enjoy it for what it is. This can create a positive loop too, which allows you to get more ‘flow’ (because you’re not riddled with anxiety about achieving a goal) and allows you to ‘savour’ your playing more. So what if I can’t play Asturias perfectly, I probably never will, but I’ll enjoy playing what I can, and the more I enjoy playing, the more I’ll play it, and the more perfect it will get!
- Decide if you’re training or exercising
It seems strange to have to define what you’re doing, but these two words imply quite different things about your motivation and reason for coming to your instrument. I have friends who only ever go for a run when they have a big organised race to work towards, and they call it ‘training’. It sounds serious and important. I run all the time, I love exercising, but I’ve not done a fun run or organised race since I was in school. If I train, I’m training for the sake of just getting a bit better. So, are you practicing, or playing?
- Try something new
Similar to point four, this suggests mixing your activities up to keep things interesting, and making your development more ‘all round’. As a guitar teacher, I’m very much interested in making learning and progression holistic. Classical guitarists, as well as being able to sight-read, should be able to learn by ear. I think as well as being able to read a chord from standard notation, being able to name chords and shapes in the way a modern guitarist can, is important. All the things I’ve mentioned above – creativity, composition, improvisation, all lend us a new take on our instrument. The easiest way for a musician to try something new of course, is to have a go at other styles and genres. A blues piece on Classical guitar, a fingerpicking piece for an electric guitarist, each divergence will give the fingers and brain something new to incorporate, and have a huge benefit to all-round ability and motivation.
What do you think? Are there things that we musicians can learn from ‘exercise thinkers’ like our Mark?