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Ask Damian Erskine: Learning How to Fish

Q: I often feel like I’m not sure what I should be working on (although I know there’s plenty). Should I just grab a lesson with someone or is there a way to motivate one’s self?

A: Everyone hits this wall. (At least I hit this wall constantly!)

Grabbing a lesson with someone is never a bad idea, although it isn’t the only way to set some new goals for yourself…

Most of the exercises that I’ve really gravitated towards (and, therefore, gotten the most out of) where exercises that I developed myself after assessing a need.

I always ask students (and myself) “If you’re honest with yourself, where would you say you need the most work?” I’m then spontaneously flooded with ideas on how to work on that one thing.
Basically, when practicing, I find that the more you restrict yourself in some way and do a very specific thing with great intentionality, the more effective it is for that practice session. Most of us make the mistake of either:

a) Doing what we’re already good at so we can feel good about playing well

b) Don’t dig deep enough into the things we need work on (and we all need work on a LOT of things. There’s never a lack of things to work on!)

Once I’ve assessed a need (say rhythmic variations in my playing vocabulary, or getting away from patterns, or understanding my fretboard better, or playing over changes, or…. you get the picture), I’ll then ask myself this question: “How have I NOT approached this??” or “What possible way could I explore this that I haven’t thought of yet”.

For example:

  • Have you tried eliminating harmony all together and just played rhythm with a metronome?
  • Try playing 16th notes and practice accenting every possible subdivision in different ways over a four bar phrase
  • Do that with triplet subdivisions
  • Take that great triplet slap lick you have down and try and displace where you start it by a 16th or 8th or start on the second 8th note triplet, etc.

Basically, try and turn what you already know on it’s head!! Chances are, you know a few things very well. You can learn many more things by taking what you’re good at and looking at it from every conceivable angle!

Harmonic example? try these:

  • Discard overall tonality and simply pick 1,2 or 3 intervals and play different combinations of those and see what you come up with!
  • If you find a pattern you like, now try and analyze it harmonically and see how you could make it fit over a chord or set of changes.
  • Look at the neck and perceive it as a piece of graph paper (a grid) simply play with shapes regardless of tonality
  • Have you tried singing with yourself? are you singing what you play or trying to play what you sing? Try and play chords over a standard and then try and play the chords in every inversion! (first time through the tune = root position, 2nd time = 3rd in the bass, 3rd time = 5th in the bass, 4th time = 7th in the bass)
  • Now try it with available tensions in the bass (9th, 11th, 13th) – Have you only practiced scales in one part of the neck?
  • Have you only practiced scale shapes when beginning on a specific finger? Can you play a major scale as 2nd nature starting with your pinky on the root as you can with your 2nd finger on the root?

You get the idea (I hope). When you’ve run out of ideas, get creative!! Most students I’ve come across have only worked on something in ONE way. Which means you only know how to use it in one very specific circumstance.

I find that when I get students to just sit and try of think of ways to do something differently than the way they’ve done it, it doesn’t take long to come up with a pretty long list of things they now have to practice!

When your stuck, there is usually an answer already inside of you, you just have to learn what questions to ask.

Have a question for Damian? Ask him!

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