Aggressive Practicing

How we think, whether we think, and what we are feeling emotionally about ourselves when we practice...

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I have a student, who shall remain nameless but not blameless, who has often illustrated very nicely how NOT to go about learning the guitar. She will come in for her lesson, and in a helpless little voice, ask me something like "Oh Jamie, I need your help with this, I don't understand what to do here. How do I play this chord? It's so HAAARD!" I will then do a couple of things. First, I calm her down, and have her collect herself, and focus. Then, I ask her to take a hard look at the "problem". I have her take a really good look at that chord that is so "haaard". We look at each note, one by one. We look at each finger written next to each note. I ask her questions, like where each note is. I don't tell her anything. I only ask her questions, which she answers. Within a few minutes, she has figured it all out, and solved the problem. There is much to learn here about the right and wrong way to go about practicing, and much to understand about why some people progress so slowly. It has nothing to do with musical ability, it has everything to do with how we think, whether we think, and what we are feeling emotionally about ourselves when we practice. I will explain. In the case of the student mentioned above, each time we would solve a problem in this manner, I would point out to her that I had not done anything for her that she couldn't have done for herself. I simply acted as an outside agent to help her focus on the problem. Then I asked her the proper questions in the proper order, step by step, until the problem was solved. She on the other hand, while practicing at home, for no good reason, had not done this. Instead, when confronted with something she didn't immediately understand, she panicked, got more confused, didn't really even look at the problem, and concluded it was unsolvable, impenetrable, or HAAARD! In essence, as I would tell her, she had sent up the white flag and surrendered. If she had just tried a little bit, she would have made progress, and eventually solved the problem. Most of the time, the answer is staring us in the face. Unfortunately, we are not staring back. One deeper note here, as I touch on a theme I will write about later. In order to really make progress with this student, it was necessary to not just describe what she was doing wrong in her approach. But also to explain why. Because I have taught her for many years, I know her personality, and I know that this behavior is part of her overall psychological pattern. She likes to pretend she is helpless, so that she can be rescued. She likes to be the damsel in distress. The rule here is, student or teacher, you must be aware of yourself on the most intimate levels to be the best you can be. Know what you are doing, and why you are doing it. (By the way, she is much more powerful in her practicing now).

Passive Practicing

The above description of how not to practice, I call "Passive Practicing". Wimpy, in fact. It is the opposite of Aggressive Practicing. This is an extreme case, I admit, but not uncommon in some form with many students. The worst part is that when a student does this, they lose a whole week of progress. (Let me add here that I have constantly found myself doing the same thing. No one is immune from this. As you get more advanced, you just do the same "avoidance" behavior in a more subtle, harder to recognize form. The trick is to always be open minded enough to catch your own blind spots. Every time I have solved a problem in my playing, it is because I am now paying attention to something I didn't bother to pay attention to before.) As I have told the above mentioned student, and many others, you must be very Aggressive when you practice. Whenever there is a problem or something you don't understand, you must attack it like a pit bull, and not let go until you have solved it. You must take it apart, and put it back together again, over and over. If, after making your best effort, and finally you conclude that there is something you don't understand, and you must have outside help, then fine. At that point, get the help you need from your teacher or whoever. But don't give up at the first sign of trouble. When it comes to solving problems in practicing, I think of it as a war. (This is only one way of thinking of it, but often necessary to get the job done.) I think of the problem as the enemy, and I am Attila the Hun. Choose the fantasy that works for you! There is another common situation where passivity in practicing slows down a student's progress tremendously. It is a passivity of mind and thought processes. To make the fastest progress possible, a student should be thinking all the time while practicing. Every time something new is learned, or a new understanding is achieved, everything should be reviewed in terms of the new understanding. If you just learned that too much tension being allowed in the pick hand was the source of a particular problem in playing, the aggressive student will immediately start looking for all places in his of her playing where that same condition is causing a problem. The passive student won't. The aggressive student will raise the entire level of his playing by doing this. By always working this way, the aggressive student becomes the best they can be. The same applies to musical knowledge. I couldn't believe it, when a student didn't know what a half step is, after completing Mel Bay Book #I, and after having had it explained and written down in his notebook. He had never bothered to look back and review, or even think about it after learning it. This kind of laziness will get you nowhere. The Aggressive student will hold on to everything he learns. He will think about it and use it. He will ask questions, and never be satisfied until he understands. If he learns a concept, such as key signatures, he will look at the key signature every time he plays a new piece. (Of course, as his teacher, if I had not caught it, that would be my fault. I would then have been the The Lazy Teacher, who is not constantly checking and testing the student). The attitudes and working habits of the Aggressive Student can be learned by anyone. If you are not used to working with this intensity, it will take some time and a lot of your effort to change. If you want to be the best you can be, you have no choice. If you fully appreciate and understand what has been said so far, you will understand the 17th Principle of Correct Practice.

Principle of Correct Practice #17:

"Practicing is the process of solving problems. Your ability to solve problems will be equal to the strength of your desire, awareness, and understanding." Copyright 2007 Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. www.guitarprinciples.com

54 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    zippidyduda
    Been playing a year and a half and I can play the solo to Fade to Black(all 3), Eruption, All of Thunderhorse(Dethklok), and All of Battery(metallica). Better than my friends that have been playing 4-12 years
    . Um, im sorry, but i find that hard to beleive... Great article!
    shwilly
    She likes to pretend she is helpless, so that she can be rescued. She likes to be the damsel in distress
    Heheh, I once taught a girl for a few months and my first impression of here was something like that too, only I'm a guy and it felt pretty sweet having her act all sad until I would come to the rescue, I must say... but after a while it gets pretty annoying and you realize that she isn't learning to deal with these issues herself at all. And I can't say I'm a stranger to this "passive practicing" thing myself: I never walk away from difficult chord transitions or exercises, but when I'm learning a difficult tune which involves doing some research (looking up some regular sheet music or listening to a song note for note to find out what I'm exactly supposed to play) I do tend to get lazy and switch to another song instead. Shame on me!
    br4vw
    Awesome definatly applies to me - and I think a lot of new players fall in that rut of focusing what they are "good" at rather then exploring and forcing themselves to attack things that are more difficult and therefore harder to see results from. Instant gratification VS. delayed gratification - Delayed is generally much more fulfilling!
    sum41freak8733
    "Been playing a year and a half and I can play the solo to Fade to Black(all 3), Eruption, All of Thunderhorse(Dethklok), and All of Battery(metallica). Better than my friends that have been playing 4-12 years" ya i find that hard to believe too.....ive played for 9 years and my friends that have played for a year and a year and a half cannot play that stuff .....but then again some people do pic it up faster than others
    strq010
    redundant in my opinion, but good nonetheless. basically kids, listen and ACTUALLY THINK ABOUT YOUR PLAYING. real simple and dont be lazy with your playing, b/c its so cool to find something new
    jthm_guitarist
    A helpful point, but it didn't need to be that long. And it's not even long. So that's saying something. I'll apply it.
    garthunkle
    zippidyduda wrote: Been playing a year and a half and I can play the solo to Fade to Black(all 3), Eruption, All of Thunderhorse(Dethklok), and All of Battery(metallica). Better than my friends that have been playing 4-12 years. Um, im sorry, but i find that hard to beleive... Great article!
    Lol so true... Frankie Sparks is so full of shit. And Neo-classical shred isnt crap. Nice column. I learnt a thing or two about how to improve the way i practice.
    tenkz
    "Lol so true... Frankie Sparks is so full of shit." I have to disagree with you there. Maybe they other people were practicing like s**t, being lazy, or something, and maybe Frankie Sparks was practicing like hell.
    DMguitar1
    +RIPdime+ wrote: FDream Theater : i don't have any problems of practising... and.. girls + guitars Im not saying they're bad...but i don't know any girls that can play guitar very well.... you are SO so wrong, its a typical male thing to say though, im a girl and i consider myself to play extremely well, i also teach guitar at 3 high schools and i can play songs from slayer, pantera, dream theatre, Deicide and pretty much whatever else you can throw at me, how bout that hmmmm?
    true... im working on stream of consciousness =D
    Bongofdestiny
    Jehuty wrote: ClickClick wrote: You are a smart man sir. I would recommend you to click on the link and then rephrase your statement.
    lol
    Bongofdestiny
    zippidyduda wrote: Been playing a year and a half and I can play the solo to Fade to Black(all 3), Eruption, All of Thunderhorse(Dethklok), and All of Battery(metallica). Better than my friends that have been playing 4-12 years . Um, im sorry, but i find that hard to beleive... Great article!
    I think you will find its not so hard to believe when so many guitarists just learn easy tabs or intros for like 5 years and say they play guitar when they don't even know a song all the way thru
    honorthydead
    in my band the rythm guitarist isnt good with chords and he changes everything to octaves "because it sounds better" god i hate it when he does that
    Why the hell do you have a rhythm guitarist that can't play chords? Kind of ironic, and pathetic if I do say so myself.
    mercurymay
    in my band the rythm guitarist isnt good with chords and he changes everything to octaves "because it sounds better" god i hate it when he does that
    what tuning do you play in? for your rhythm guitarist i would recommend drop tuning- it's easier to switch chords. or pm me with a mailing address i can send you a really handy chord book i got with total guitar magazine.
    Night
    that1l)ude wrote: sometimes though the person practicing does not always know what questions to ask themselves to solve a problem they have run into. I realize that was obviously not the case here, but sometimes it is. I am often in this situation and my teacher would think i weren't trying hard enough. another thing "The Aggressive student will hold on to everything he learns. He will think about it and use it. He will ask questions, and never be satisfied until he understands." this also can not be the students fault, as he may be given too much information at one time to be able to 'hold on to it'. just some situations i find myself in, in the process of learning.
    being a songwriter, and self-taught.. of course you cannot always abosrb EVERYTHING at once or a short or even long period of time(w/e the case may be) but take what you do know, and incorporate that into your playing and (inmy ase) i apply it to my songwriting since its what i do most of the time and keep of recor of what you went over fyi *take notes* and normally you would have a book on this would you not, i mean if you were serious about taking lessons ect, or had a music class as part of your curriculum w/e that way, even if you didnt take in everything at one time.. you could at least go over it and fill the gaps yourself
    CalgaryMetal
    i would respond to that: if your lazy and wont practice and learn everything you can, either u don't actually like guitar or you're just lazy as sin and need to get some work ethic lol.
    monster_inacup
    Jamma wrote: What a shit post, all of that is obvious unless you're a total retard...
    i wouldnt go as far as this but i agree to an extent. surely this just sorts the guitarists from the poeple who play guitar? you cant force people to be more interested in music, u can inspire them and encourage them, but if they dont wanna keep learning, challenging themselves with new things, then thats up to them and deep down they dont want to be the best guitar player they can be. So called 'passive' students are just learning guitar because they thinks it cool or someone told them to do it or they want to but there happy to plod along. I understand the frustration part though. When your teaching someone and you start explaining things and talk about things that u have a passionate interest in and they just shrug it off in a why would i need to know that way. Or u try and teach them an awkward chord and u get a its too hard i cant be bothered. those people dont deserve to be taught.
    CalgaryMetal wrote: i would respond to that: if your lazy and wont practice and learn everything you can, either u don't actually like guitar or you're just lazy as sin and need to get some work ethic lol.
    bang on. i look at music in quite an academic way now. having taught myself for 3 years with the only prior knowledge of grade 1 piano around 10 years beforehand, i find teaching myself interesting, i find it fun to make little challenges like play something in 7/8, or 13/16 just for a laugh. no one believed me when i told them i was self taught. then i got a teacher for the last 3 years. hes an absolute hero, doesnt teach me, more just me through problems by going, try play this (seemingly unrelated) instead, i play it, now try it again. and bang you can play. Ill be left astonished how he knew exactly what to tell me, and what i should practice instead in order to play something. Thats where teachers should come into the equation. not forcing people to practice, but helping them when they get stuck on a musical voyage, (and teaching them things which books cant and you cant really figure out for yourself) End of the day, i dont think you can make other people as interested in music as you are. you can show them the door and give them an insight but thats it.
    Frankie Sparks
    Been playing a year and a half and I can play the solo to Fade to Black(all 3), Eruption, All of Thunderhorse(Dethklok), and All of Battery(metallica). Better than my friends that have been playing 4-12 years. And btw, that thing about girls not knowing how to play guitar is WROOOOONG!!! I went to guitar center and tried to impress this good looking girl, and OH MY GOD SHE WAS AMAZING, she could do all of that neoclassical shred crap, everything oh my god i felt so embarassed...
    seargentkitty
    "As you get more advanced, you just do the same "avoidance" behavior in a more subtle, harder to recognize form." that is so true in my band the rythm guitarist isnt good with chords and he changes everything to octaves "because it sounds better" god i hate it when he does that
    kalamari
    too true! it's frustrating seeing students not fulfilling potential purely because they don't try hard enough, especially looking back to how I used to keep plugging away at things I couldn't do (and still do!) until finally had got the better of it, it's so much more rewarding. But a student will be what he/she wants to be and they can't be forced to be aggressive learners unfortunately!
    Jamma
    What a shit post, all of that is obvious unless you're a total retard...
    Anarchy_Ant
    Jamma, unless you teach you wouldn't understand how frustrating it is when you're teaching someone and they don't try because of low confidence. What is obvious to you could be a mystery to another, so have some respect.
    that1l)ude
    sometimes though the person practicing does not always know what questions to ask themselves to solve a problem they have run into. I realize that was obviously not the case here, but sometimes it is. I am often in this situation and my teacher would think i weren't trying hard enough. another thing "The Aggressive student will hold on to everything he learns. He will think about it and use it. He will ask questions, and never be satisfied until he understands." this also can not be the students fault, as he may be given too much information at one time to be able to 'hold on to it'. just some situations i find myself in, in the process of learning.
    Orneblad
    "As you get more advanced, you just do the same "avoidance" behavior in a more subtle, harder to recognize form." Very true.
    BigBall
    i have one rule for teaching, if the student don`t make progress its my fault. This is not always true, but the way of thinking works.....if the student dont practise its my problem, my teaching should make the student really WANT to practise, etc
    strikingtwice
    @Bigball I agree with you, and I am constantly BEGGING my students to give me feedback and making sure that they are learning EXACTLY what they want to learn at all times. It's so hard sometimes getting it through to the kids who want to learn to write that theory will greatly aid them.
    UNIe
    Probably the best advice anyone could give to a guitar player
    FDream Theater
    i don't have any problems of practising... and.. girls + guitars Im not saying they're bad...but i don't know any girls that can play guitar very well....
    +RIPdime+
    FDream Theater : i don't have any problems of practising... and.. girls + guitars Im not saying they're bad...but i don't know any girls that can play guitar very well.... you are SO so wrong, its a typical male thing to say though, im a girl and i consider myself to play extremely well, i also teach guitar at 3 high schools and i can play songs from slayer, pantera, dream theatre, Deicide and pretty much whatever else you can throw at me, how bout that hmmmm?
    Jehuty
    ClickClick wrote: You are a smart man sir.
    I would recommend you to click on the link and then rephrase your statement.
    HavokStrife
    I think this was a great article! I always believed there were just as many psychlogical hurdles involved with learning guitar as the general learning experience. I may not have taken some things the way they might have originally intented, though.. For example.. " In the case of the student mentioned above, each time we would solve a problem in this manner, I would point out to her that I had not done anything for her that she couldnt have done for herself." More solidifies my opinion I don't need lessons.
    Phillitalian
    Jamma wrote: What a shit post, all of that is obvious unless you're a total retard...
    Why the hell are you reading it then -.-;