Teaching Yourself

Should You Try to Teach Yourself?

More and more, people come in and tell us they’ve been trying to learn from YouTube videos, websites, or from friends or family members. Let’s see what it is that makes this a good or bad idea.

  1. Good Idea: Lessons are free, you can learn at your own pace. The temptation to try and learn on your own is very strong, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If you have patience, desire, and time to practice, it can work out for you.
  2. Bad Idea: In the case of videos and websites you may have no idea who your teacher is, you can’t ask questions and most important, they can’t see you. No feedback, no correcting mistakes that will catch up to you later, no hands on teaching.
  3. Terrible Idea: The most common mistake we see is that there is no logical, gradual way that you’re being taught. A lot of beginners come in trying to play songs and chords that are way beyond their current skill level.

Our advice is to at least take a few lessons to get started so that you don’t develop bad habits, so you have some goals and direction, and so your teacher can help you map out a plan.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” Yoda


Finding Time to Practice

I Didn’t Practice Much This Week

We hear it all the time. I was too busy, we were out of town, I was swamped at work, (insert your own excuse here!). What can you do to find practice time?

Set Aside a Block of Time:

I know it’s difficult, but if you REALLY want to learn to play you make the time to practice. It’s like going to the gym, starting a diet, or vowing to exercise every day at home. You start out totally dedicated, pretty soon you miss one day, feel guilty and get back on track. The next time you miss 2 days, again you feel guilty, but by day 2 you start making excuses. You miss several more days, give yourself a lecture about self-discipline, and restart again. Remember, the more you miss the easier it is to justify. Picking a specific time, not making excuses, and setting goals is the way to be successful at practicing.

Record Yourself, It’s Easy:

The days of having to have expensive recording equipment, a dedicated studio and hours to achieve perfection are over. A cell phone, computer or tablet is all you need. You’re not trying to make a perfect recording, you’re trying to see what you really sound like. I tell students all the time “recordings don’t lie”. I can guarantee you’ll be shocked at how much different it was than you thought. Record a couple songs, but them away for a while, record them again and you’ll be shocked again, but this time it will be at how much better you sound. That’s provided you’ve practiced.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

Playing through songs, making the same mistakes, and going through the motions isn’t practicing! You’re trying to improve your playing by fixing the parts you have trouble with. If you’re learning a new song, you’re trying to commit it to memory and make it sound better.

That’s it for this time. The next post will deal with specific techniques to help you improve your playing.

Don’t Pull the Plug Too Soon

How long should you give it before you decide to quit taking lessons? It happens every year, students look back  and wonder what they’ve really accomplished by taking  lessons. If it’s been a relatively short time, less than a year for example, they really need to assess the situation.

A recent example of not giving yourself a chance. Right after the holidays I had a student cancel lessons, even though it had only been a few months. (He started in October.) During that time he missed lessons because of working overtime, having car trouble and being sick, so he took about 12 lessons. He felt like he hadn’t made a lot of progress and he was right, but how much time and effort did he give? I had him playing several chords, working on songs that he liked, and doing what I would consider reasonably well considering the circumstances and his previous skill level. The skills amounted to playing a couple of months on his own and trying to learn from the internet. Unfortunately I didn’t have a “talent pill” to give him and he started to realize that with or without a teacher, you need to put in the time.

What can you do to change it?  The short answer is to make time to practice. We’re all busy, but the students who make the most progress find time to practice. Missing a day or two can’t be helped sometimes, but the desire to play and finding the time are essential to reaching your goals. If you don’t have goals, get together with your teacher and write some down. You may be surprised to find that he or she will suggest going a lot slower than you think you should go.

Lower your expectations. There, I said it, lower your expectations. Learning the guitar or the banjo is a time art. You need to commit to a practice schedule, set some goals, have a nice place to practice and put in the time.

Don’t think you’ll make progress every week. We’ve all been told that practice makes perfect, so we think every week we’ll get better. Sometimes psychological, physical or mechanical problems hinder our progress. It’s easy to get discouraged when you think you got worse instead of better.

Trust your teacher. I tell students this because a lot of times I can see and hear progress that they can’t. I hear them play once a week, while they hear themselves every time they practice. Most teachers will tell you exactly what they hear, not what you want to hear. An honest teacher will be straight with you, so if you indeed haven’t made much progress, or any progress, they’re not going to tell you what a great week you had!

Believe in what your teacher is telling you. I’ve had students think that I’m just trying to make them feel better when I tell them they’re getting somewhere. I take into account the fact that you’re nervous, you played better at home or you’re having a bad day. Believe it or not I can still tell whether you’ve practiced and if you’re getting better.

Be patient. I tell my students that in the beginning learning will be painfully slow. This is especially true if you’ve never played an instrument or if you’ve never played an instrument with strings and frets on it. You need to keep pushing and understand that your hours of practice will pay off with some persistence and dedication.

So there’s your answer. Give it a chance, be patient, work hard, don’t make excuses and believe in yourself. A few lessons or a few months of trying to play isn’t always an indication of what your results will be down the road.

Learning to Tune

Playing in tune is an essential part of learning any stringed instrument.

I have students who come in all the time and haven’t tuned once during the week. There are all kinds of electronic tuners available, so there is NO EXCUSE for playing out of tune! Why is it necessary to play in tune and what difference does it make?

It helps to develop your ear.

You can get used to an out of tune instrument as easily as you can an in tune instrument. Not everyone is blessed with the ability to hear the difference. You definitely don’t want to think the instrument sounds good when in reality it’s out of tune.

Playing in tune with others is essential.

Nothing is quite as annoying as playing with someone who is out of tune and doesn’t know it. This is more common than you would think. Using an electronic device to tune is a good way to get used to hearing what an in tune instrument should sound like.

Good tuners are very easy to find.

Back in the day, like all electronic equipment, electronic tuners were expensive, cumbersome and hard to use. My first tuner had two knobs on top, one to select the note and one to select the octave. It was also quite big and cost a couple hundred dollars. The new ones can be the size of a credit card or smaller, some clip on to the instrument, and they know what note you’re playing. A couple of the tuners I recommend are: Martin Tuner: a free app from the Martin Guitar Company, it features several different guitar tunings, an ear trainer, and a small slide presentation on how to change strings. The Snark clip on tuner attaches to the peghead and senses the vibrations to tell you what note you’re playing. There is no built in microphone which means it won’t pick up outside noises. There are too many more to mention, but it’s difficult to make a bad choice. The price and ease of use should be your guide.

What the different tuning modes mean.

There are guitar tuners, bass tuners, ukulele tuners, bluegrass tuners, chromatic tuners and the list goes on. If you think you’ll be playing and tuning with other instruments, the best choice is a chromatic tuner. Chromatic means that the tuner has all of the notes on it, so you can tune any instrument as long as you know what notes to tune to.

Pitch Pipes, Harmonicas, Pianos and Relative Tuning.

Pitch pipes are usually round or in a holder, you blow into them and then try to tune to that note. The biggest problem is they sound like a harmonica, not a string vibrating which makes it very difficult to tune to if you’re not used to that. Harmonicas, same problem.

Tuning to a piano you need to find the correct note and then try to match the sound.

Relative tuning means you tune the instrument to itself. If you’re not tuning to a fixed pitch or concert pitch, your instrument will be in tune but not to other instruments.

How Much Should I Be Practicing?

To make steady progress everyone needs to commit to practicing. The single most important thing is to DO SOMETHING EVERY DAY! If you can only practice for 10 minutes, do it. We recommend no less than 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, but we also realize that sometimes that’s just not possible. The more days you miss the easier it becomes to not practice. Pretty soon you’ve convinced yourself that you just don’t have the time to put into learning to play. Try to set a specific time to practice each day, and if you’re on a tight schedule practice what will benefit you the most. Each practice session should consist of warmup exercises, picking techniques, working on songs and making practice enjoyable. See if you can play that difficult part 5 times in a row without a mistake, the whole song twice without a mistake, you get the idea. Remember to practice slowly so that you’re not practicing mistakes. Play through the whole song or exercise, then go to the trouble spots and work on those. Not sure what you should practice? Ask your instructor.


Getting Started With Lessons

What you need to get off to a good start.

  • A decent, playable instrument. Make sure that your guitar, banjo, bass or uke is good enough to get started on. A common mistake is buying or borrowing an instrument without knowing much about whether it’s ok or not. Your teacher will be happy to help you when you’re in doubt.
  • A music stand. Music stands range in price from $15.00 up to $100. The low priced ones fold up and are easy to carry around. They work fine unless you have thick, heavy books. The middle price range is like the ones we have in the studios. Heavy duty and sturdy. Prices start around $45.00. Anything above that is just a cooler looking stand, more ornate and usually made of solid wood.
  • Electronic Tuner. Tuners are not very expensive, and they help you learn what your instrument sounds like when it’s in tune. They start at about $15.00 and go up from there. You can also find a free tuner on the internet. Two that work well are the Guitar Tuna, and the tuner from the Martin Guitar company, available on the app store.
  • A sturdy case. You don’t need an expensive, hardshell case, but a decent gig bag or soft case works well.
  • Metronome. The metronome helps you keep the beat and gets you to play your songs without stopping in between notes. They range in price from $15.00 for an electronic metronome, to over $100 for one that has a clock movement in it. If you buy an inexpensive one be sure it’s loud enough, especially if you play banjo or an electric guitar or bass. Continue reading “Getting Started With Lessons”