In a pro-career spanning 40 years and 5 countries, Cincinnati-born jazz guitarist Greg Chako has released ten albums and played countless shows around the world. His bi-weekly column, "Notes From The Desk Of A Jazz Guitarist” shares his expert tips on becoming a better player and person.
Make Time Disappear!
I hope to teach my students to make time disappear. If they don’t learn to do that when they’re playing their guitar, then they’ll likely end up actually wasting their time and mine.
Sometimes I hear comments like these from my students:
“I didn’t practice this week, so there’s no point in going to my lesson;” or “I don’t have the time to practice, and my guitar playing is going nowhere;” or “I’m in a rut . . . I’m not giving up, but I just need to take a break for now;” or “I need some time to ‘catch up’ with my guitar practice before I resume my lessons.”
These are all sad for me to hear and I believe that these students could benefit from a lesson to specifically address, and possibly shift, that counter-productive mindset. My role as your guitar teacher is not to ‘crack the whip!’ In fact in my experience, many of my students are already too strict and demanding on themselves. They don’t necessarily need me to add any undue pressure on them to practice more. It’s important that both the teacher and the student have realistic, and not unreasonable, expectations with regard to playing and overall progress.
My foremost goal is to encourage my students to have so much fun and focus while playing their guitar that they essentially ‘lose track of time.’ What I mean by that is like when you know your parents or spouse are expecting you to eat dinner with them in an hour, and you sit down to play guitar for a few minutes; and then when the call for dinner comes, you’re surprised, because you have no idea how that hour passed so quickly . . . It may have seemed like only 10 minutes instead of 60! . . . When we’re having fun and are very focused on what we’re doing, time can seem to disappear like that. When that happens, by definition in my opinion, we’ve put the stress, mixed feelings, and preoccupations of our daily lives on the back-burner temporarily. We basically get a sort of therapy-relaxation session simply by playing our guitar with focus.
I will even go so far as to say this:
Even if the only time you touched your guitar all week was in your 60-minute lesson, then that can nonetheless, be time very well spent. If you come away from your lesson feeling more relaxed, confident, inspired, knowledgeable, and back-on-track so to speak, then that’s very much a positive, potentially life-changing experience, albeit a brief one!
Similar to how we say that “smiles” are contagious, positive feelings about your guitar lessons and your guitar playing are also contagious. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Feelings of inadequacy can be habit-forming, and that negative attitude can hold back your progress. Through common-sense talk, realistic goals, and encouragement, just one in-person lesson with your teacher can go a long way to inspire you to overcome a rut and to continue playing with a winning attitude. For me:
A lesson is less about how much you ‘practiced’ this week, and more about helping you to sustain a joyful feeling about what you’re currently doing with the music in your life.
Something I have told some of my students recently, is to put away past lessons we’d had on fairly ‘advanced’ and involved concepts such as how to utilize Upper-Structure Triads, Fourth-voicings, Pentatonics or the Melodic Minor scale, and instead focus simply on playing songs. Too much technical or theoretical information can be difficult to assimilate in a timely manner if you’ve little time to practice, infrequent lessons with the teacher, or you feel that you’re not progressing fast enough. These issues can lead to frustration and confusion about what the focus should be for maximum results and satisfaction with the learning process. Playing tunes can help in these situations.
But by playing tunes, I do not mean ‘practicing’ them, memorizing them, or playing the same song all week-long every-which-way you can think of; but rather, to get a good Fake-book with lots of Standards in it, open it and try reading (playing) the melodies. If you’ve never played the song before, all the better! In most cases, you’ll need to play the melody one octave higher than written; for instance, instead of playing a “G” melody note written on the 2nd line of the treble staff, you’ll play the “G” an octave higher, sitting (in the space) on the top line of the staff. You want to ensure that the melody is played mostly on the highest two strings of the guitar, the “B” and “E” strings, so that you have the room to harmonize that top-note melody with a chord-voicing beneath it.
You don’t want to choose Mike Nock and Carla Bley tunes, or songs by The Brecker Brothers or Terje Rypdal. Choose songs from the Great American Songbook by composers like Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jule Styne, Duke Ellington, etc. Songs with an active harmonic rhythm and ‘ii-V-I’ progressions in them are best. You want the chords to change every 2 to 4 beats as opposed 8-bars of the same chord. Polka Dots and Moonbeams and Misty rather than Impressions or So What; Over the Rainbow instead of Inner Urge.
Exactly how to do this is best demonstrated in a lesson with me, but the bottom line is this:
You want to shift your routine to actually playing songs and melodies rather than working at technical or intellectual exercises. It can be the difference between practicing something (which can seem like work), and simply having fun with music.
Flip through the pages of your Fake-book and see how many songs you can actually play and get through. If one is too hard, go to another one. Casual playing this way helps you to develop or redevelop an intimate relationship with music and the guitar without putting too much pressure on yourself. Your phrasing, which is so vital in developing your own style, can be improved with minimal effort by the way you choose to intersperse the chords and bass notes in support of the melody. All you’re trying to do is to play the song in such a way that a listener would be able to easily recognize it if they heard you play it.
When I made a habit of doing this regularly, it was fun. And, it made time disappear! That’s the goal. Once you’ve gained confidence with your progress and reestablished the ‘fun aspect’, there is always time to direct your attention to more theoretical or technical exercises. But, never sacrifice the fun you can have by simply playing through a song for your own enjoyment for pressure-laden ‘practice’. Maintain realistic goals for yourself, and when you pick up your guitar, make time disappear!