Ask Damian Erskine: Shortcuts

Q: Are there any real shortcuts to learning how to play?

A: NO!!!!!!!!!!!

Okay, I’ll go on…

I have been frustrated by many a student who is disappointed when, at the end of a lesson, their not magically better but, rather, have a years worth of studying and homework to tackle. Not just kids, but adults, too. People seem to hope that there will be a magical phrase or “A-HA!” moment that propels them into the next level of musicianship. Unfortunately, this DOES NOT EXIST. Even the best explained summary of what music is and how to play it requires you to spend YEARS not being quite able to do it, but trying anyway. You will ALWAYS get better. But it’s a lot like getting taller. It’s in small increments! You might have growth spurts, but you will never go from 3’5” to 6”3 over night. It takes years of incremental growth. Musically speaking, it takes nothing but time and hard-work.

  • Can you become the best basketball player in your school by reading a blog about how to shoot accurately?
  • Is there anyway to learn to juggle well in 30 minutes?
  • Could you learn code and write the best iPhone app ever in a day?
  • Could you go to the gallery and come home to paint a beautiful portrait?
  • Could you learn to skate on a ramp and do a 900 in a week? a year? a decade?
  • Could you read “The Elegant Universe” and then give a post-grad lecture on String Theory?
  • None of these are possible without extreme dedication and hundreds of hours missing baskets, dropping pins, falling on our heads, forgetting theorems, and painting junk.

Picasso once said that you have to paint a thousand pieces of crap to paint one masterpiece.

Remember, you will never succeed until you have failed many times over. This is how we learn! We just don’t seem to have the attention span for it anymore. Many get frustrated too quickly. We need immediate gratification. I think it’s in the perspective. We will not get better in an hour… we CAN get better in a week, tho! Is that really so slow and painful? If we do anything every day, we can only get better at it. It just takes a little patience and a lot of persistence.

I’m as guilty as the next of spending too much time online looking for cool stuff that will open a musical door in my mind or buying a highly recommended book hoping it’ll unlock a secret lick in me.

The truth is, books are great… if you spend hours and hours with them!

Youtube videos are great, if you transcribe that solo and figure out what the player’s doing! It all comes down to time in the shed and a deep aspiration to learn your craft and be as good as you possibly can be.

I CONSTANTLY get people asking me to transcribe stuff for them and do a video or something showing them how to play it. REALLY?? (not always my own stuff, either! asking me to figure out a Vic Wooten bass line and do a youtube video breaking it down…)

Man, this SO misses the point. They’re essentially asking me to do their homework for them!!

Geoffrey Keezer had a WONDERFUL post on Twitter. I’ll paraphrase but he basically said, “I’m so tired of these aspiring jazz students who won’t put the time in to really do their homework! YOU CAN’T DOWNLOAD A MUSIC CAREER KIDS!!!”

In education, music, arts, fine craftsmanship, business, blacksmithing, architecture, anything worth doing well, etc.. There ARE NO SHORTCUTS! Generally, the longest road is always the most rewarding in the end. If it were easy, everybody could do it!!

Someone else once said, “I don’t believe in geniuses… I believe in incredibly hard work!”. The only thing that seperates Coltrane from the guy in that crappy band you heard last week is years of accumulated study & practice (not noodling, but honest to goodness hard work and dedication). Now everyone has their own voice.. nobody will sound like Coltrane, but if you work hard enough, nobody could sound like YOU either!

When you marry your craft and every fiber of your being wants is to be far better than you are… You can’t wait to practice. You can’t wait to learn more.

When you want to be a great musician from your heart and not just because it’s cool (ego). There is no work to it… you can’t think of anything else you’d rather do.

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Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Well put, Damian! Seems like with the advent of the internet and more distractions we are forgetting that anything good, anything worth doing, takes time and concerted effort.

  2. I agree, when my students think they know a better, faster way to learn a style or a song then practice; they usually quit taking lessons. But they all learn at some point, you have to put in the effort to achieve your goals.

  3. Great article. I need to be reminded of this often!

  4. Another great way to view this is from Malcom Gladwell's Outliers. 10,000 hours, kids. Do that and you have it, do it not and you do not.

    :) GREAT post, Damian!