Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't Ask Me How Little You Should Learn - Learn All That You Can

Dr. Harvey Floyd

A long long time ago one of the many things I studied in universities was theology.  Now understand that I was not your typical theology student.  My background was playing guitar in bars, working construction (carpenter/framer and backhoe/dump truck operator) with a bunch of rough characters, working in casinos in Lake Tahoe, and a stint working on attack avionics for the F-16 fighter jet.  At some point along the way I found myself with a full ride scholarship to a decent school and used that to earn a degree in theology.

Now the study of theology requires a bit of thought and work.  We had to learn to read ancient Greek, and had mounds of books to read, papers to write, grappling with 19th century German theologians, history, philosophy, archeology, etc., etc., etc., which in retrospect didn't have a whole lot to do with God (but that's another conversation).

One of my hardest, most difficult, and favorite professors was Dr. Harvey Floyd.  He was an old school professor who was quite eccentric, brilliant in his knowledge, inspiring in his teaching style, and his extremely high standards required the acquisition of massive amounts of information.  He was simultaneously feared and loved by his students.

One vivid memory which sticks with me - and which applies to guitar (yes, this is a guitar blog) is Dr. Floyd's response to one of my questions.  I had over 80 pages of notes to study for one of his tests.  I went to his office - a small cozy room with bookshelves covering every inch of wall - and asked him what I should focus on in my preparation for the test.  After all, I had over 80 pages of notes.

After hearing my request for him to direct me to the "important" information in my studies, he took a long dramatic look at the ceiling, breathed a long sigh, looked at me and said, "Don't ask me how little you should learn - learn all that you can."

At the time I was not amused at his answer, however as I look back on my time in school, it was one of the more profound things a professor ever told me.


Now when it comes to music and the guitar, there is much more to learn than one person can assimilate in one lifetime.  There is an unending river of songs flowing on this planet, there is a vast pool of knowledge of music theory, there is a significant and long journey of applying that knowledge of music theory to the fretboard of the guitar, there are different styles and approaches to playing - each one of which can take years to master, there is the understanding of people and how to touch them with music, there is the music "business",  there is understanding of the mechanical aspects and design of guitars, amplifiers, and effects, as well as the ins and outs of live sound and recording.

Faced with an insurmountable mountain of information, its easy to get intimidated, limit yourself, and shut down the learning machine - or advance at a snail's pace.  Yet, all of the areas I've listed above - and probably several which I overlooked - are important for today's guitarist to grasp and master.  Does every great guitarist know everything about everything?  No.  Do you have to know everything about everything to be a great guitarist?  No.  BUT, faced with a finite life span and the desire to leave your mark on the world which says, "I was here" there is no doubt that the attitude and strategy with which we approach this mountain of information will have a great bearing on our stature as musicians.

If I could go back in time and sit down with my 15 year old self, this is what I tell him about guitar playing.

  • The more songs you learn, the easier it will be to learn songs.  Learn songs!  At least one song per week.  The more you memorize, the more easily you can memorize.
  • Learn to sight read!  Kids in 8th grade marching band can read music, so it must not be that hard.  Just do it - its gonna pay off.
  • Jam - Jam all the time whenever and with whoever you can.  There is no substitute for playing live with other musicians.  Try to play with musicians better than yourself - that's how you are going to get better.
  • Learn something new about music theory every day.  It may seem daunting, but it isn't.  There is no one aspect of music theory which is difficult to grasp.  Its merely a thousand simple things.  Learn one simple thing each day and before you know it, you will surprise yourself at how much you know.
  • Take something that is "hard" to play on the guitar and practice it until it is as easy as making an open Em chord.  If you practice enough, the most difficult passage ever written will be as easy to play as a simple chord.
  • Believe and expect that its going to be easy - not hard.  If you think it will be hard, it will be hard.  If you think, "this will be easy - I just have to figure it out", then it will be easy.  Attitude attitude attitude!
  • Find teachers who are GREAT players to show you proper playing technique.  If it feels awkward to use great technique, practice it until it doesn't feel awkward anymore.
  • Think thru your musical curriculum.  You can't learn everything at once.  Determine what you should tackle when and how.  Have a strategy for mastering your instrument.
  • The bottom line is that I want you to learn one hundred times more than I did when I was growing up  and learning guitar.  LEARN ALL THAT YOU CAN!

So if I could sit down with myself today - or with you - I would say much of the same things I've listed above.  As I spoke of in my previous blog, TIME TRAVELING WITH YOUR GUITAR, time is going to pass whether you are developing as a musician or not.  Why not meet the future with some new knowledge under your belt?

Now obviously you want to take some time to develop a strategic road map to your learning, and not just begin devouring information in a random fashion.  But wherever you are in your musical journey, it's probably time to kick it into gear, take it up a notch, and believe that it won't be hard to learn - it's just a vast amount of very simple concepts that have to be assimilated one at a time.

Don't limit yourself.  You can do this. 

The Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz didn't really need a brain.  What he needed was confidence - and a different perspective on learning.

No comments:

Post a Comment