P #1: Perception
Topping the P-list at number one is Perception. When it comes to your five (some say six) senses, you may think your fingers are the most important part of playing guitar. Nope. What about your eyes? Wrong again. In fact, many people make music without the aid of vision (think Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles). So what is the most important thing you need to play guitar? In my opinion, it’s your ears. Big or small, your ears are what you need to hear the music other people play in order to incorporate what you hear into your own playing. That’s how you find your own personal playing style.
Think about this, before you could learn to: read, use your hands, walk, talk, or see, you began hearing even before you were born! That’s why you often see people talking to soon-to-be mothers’ stomachs. Hearing is your most developed sense besides touch. This is why it’s so important to use ear plugs if you’re going to be in a loud band or going to play loud by yourself. You need to save those ears! After all, it’s hard to tell if you sound good if you can’t hear yourself playing.
Believe it or not, you’ll be using your ears far more than your eyes or fingers when playing guitar. For instance, you’ve probably seen many famous guitarists close their eyes in ecstasy when they play solos or certain notes. Sometimes they’ll hold that note for a long time, letting it ring, before playing the rest of the solo (Eric Clapton is well known for this). What you may not notice is that, all the while, they’re using their ears to hear certain things. Such as: if the note is the correct pitch, if the tone of the guitar is just right, if they need to play louder or softer, if the audience is silent or cheering, etc.
Considering these points about perception, try this exercise (you won’t even need your guitar): Go someplace either where there’s lots of noise (not loud noise), like a restaurant or coffee shop (people talking), or even roll down your window in traffic. Or if you prefer, go to a quiet place such as a park or woodsy area, or maybe a lake or beach. Now, just take a moment and relax. Use your most developed sense to listen carefully. Try to clear your mind of thoughts, worries, and “to-do” lists. You might hear honking horns or blaring radios if you’re in traffic. You might hear soft caf music or people laughing and talking in a coffee shop. Coffee shops are a great place to listen and relax; they usually have low light and soft music. But also listen for music in every day sounds, not just the music in the overhead speakers. That’s where it gets really interesting.
When you hear a honking horn, can you tell if the sound is a high-pitched sound or a low-pitched sound? What musical note does it sound like (A, B, B-flat, C-sharp, etc.)? What about if you hear screeching tires? Is that sound an angry sound; maybe a hurried sound? Music expresses emotions at their deepest level, so listen for the emotions in every day things. A chirping bird might sound happy; the howl of a dog, sad. A revving motor may sound impatient or arrogant. Use your ears as a filter to help translate to your mind and heart the emotion and feeling of life all around you. Then, when you begin to play your music, it will come from your heart and soul — not just your fingers. That’s what musical self-expression is all about.
P #2: Patience
The second “P” in our list is Patience. This can be a hard one for many people. In today’s hurried and busy society, patience doesn’t come naturally. We have microwaves for faster meals, Hi-Speed Internet has replaced Dial-up, and we can barely obey the speed limit anytime we go somewhere. I’ve even seen a local McDonald’s put an extra drive-through lane up! (Two drive-through lanes?! If you’re going to learn to play the guitar (and play it well), you will need to have patience. How much patience? Well, how much do you want to learn; and for how long? When it comes to the guitar, you will never completely learn everything there is to know about it. There are so many diverse genres of music and styles of playing that you’ll always be learning. But that’s a good thing!
When you first learn to play you might be interested in one or two styles of music, say Blues and Rock. A year or so later you might like to venture out into other styles like Jazz or Classical. It takes patience to learn many different styles — much less one style — of music. But therein lies the fun! You’ll never run out of ideas or ways to express yourself, no matter how long it takes. I’m not saying it will take a long time to play your favorite songs or genres, but you’ll hardly notice the time passing once you’re really immersed in the learning process. As they say: “Time flies when you’re having fun.”
You must learn and strive to be patient; not only with learning the guitar, but with yourself as well. Regardless of how well you play, you are your harshest critic. That’s right, you. You will always see yourself in a worse light than anyone else. It’s just in our nature as humans — especially as creative, expressive humans. Be easy on yourself. There’s another saying that states “It’s not about the journey; it’s about the destination,” but I disagree. Music is totally about the journey!
So don’t worry if you don’t understand what you’re playing or how to play it, learning music is a lifelong journey, and if you love music, you’ll love the journey no matter how long it takes because time will be flying by! Pretty soon, you’ll feel like you don’t have enough hours in the day to learn more and more. Be patient here as well; you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with all learning and no play. Give learning a break and just play the guitar. Patience will make you a much better musician; much more so than impatience and discouragement ever could. Above all, learn to be patient.
P #3: Practice, Practice, Practice!!!
And last but certainly not least in our P-list is Practice. (Okay, three practice’s is actually five P’s; so sue me.) As you can tell by the emphasis on this last one, practice is the most important tool you have. Sure, your ears are very important, but if you don’t develop your concept of the way different chords, scales, songs, etc. sound by practicing actual listening, then having good perception won’t help you much. This is called “Ear Training.”
You may be asking yourself, “Self, what’s the best thing I can do to help me become a better player?” Well, it isn’t by just showing up for your weekly lesson; although, that is important. And it isn’t just by playing a song one time through and thinking you’ve got it down perfectly. (Notice Perfection wasn’t one of the P’s? That’s because you’ll never be “perfect” on your instrument. Why? Because there’s always room to improve! That’s why it’s so fun to play; you’re constantly improving and learning new things!) The fact is, if you’re going to get better consistently, you’re going to have to go out to the woodshed and buckle down. In other words, you’re going to have to practice!
Practice doesn’t have to be a boring, mindless, tedious task, however. Practice should be fun and engaging; something you look forward to every day (after you’ve done your homework, that is). Every time you sit down with your guitar you should tell yourself, “It’s my time to enjoy what I’m about to learn because once I learn it, if I keep practicing, I’ll never have to worry about having to learn it again.”
It’s thrilling to me to be able to finally figure out something I’ve constantly worked on for a while, whether it be a particular picking pattern, song progression, or developing my speed technique. Now I don’t have to spend so much time on that particular lick I learned because it’s been programmed into my head and my fingers (through muscle memory, which means that my fingers “remember” that certain shape or phrase or lick). “Thrilling” may be a bit too big a word to describe it, you may think, but go ahead; try it for yourself and see if I’m right.
Practice does involve repetition to some degree. But once you get it down, you only have to “oil the machinery” from time to time instead of plugging away at the same thing day after day after day. Just a quick brush up once in a while on that lick you finally learned is all it takes to keep your fingers nimble and ready to play it in the real world. When that happens — say you’re playing in your own band or at church somewhere — you’ll be ready for it. Why? Because you’ve practiced it! It’s kind of like taking a test; once you’ve studied hard for it and it’s time to actually take it, the answers just come to your mind without you really having to try.
When you put all these things together — Perception, Patience, and Practice — in no time you’ll find yourself becoming a better musician, able to play your instrument in ways you never dreamed possible. Just keep at it; which reminds me…
A Parting Word…
Three P’s is a nice, well-rounded number, but if I were to add a fourth “P” it would be Persistence. Closely related to patience, persistence means “Don’t Quit!” in a nutshell. Don’t ever give up. There will be times of frustration. There will be feelings of incompetency and inadequacy. But you must never, ever quit. If you are truly serious about being a musician, you must keep going no matter what. Sure you’ll sound bad at first; everyone does. And there may be people who make fun of your playing. Just remember, most of the time they’re too conceited to remember that they too were once beginners and sounded as horrible (or even worse) as you think you do.
But you’ll get better. And you know why? Because you have the three — ahem, four — P’s to guide you. You are now equipped to tackle the most difficult assignments any teacher (or you, yourself) can give from here on out. So now you have no excuse. Keep going, don’t quit, and I’ll hear you around sometime.
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