Aggressive Practicing

By Jamie Andreas

I have a student, who shall remain nameless but not blameless, who has often illustrated very nicely how NOT to go about learning the guitar. She will come in for her lesson, and in a helpless little voice, ask me something like "Oh Jamie, I need your help with this, I don’t understand what to do here. How do I play this chord? It’s so HAAARD!

I will then do a couple of things. First, I calm her down, and have her collect herself, and focus. Then, I ask her to take a hard look at the "problem". I have her take a really good look at that chord that is so "haaard". We look at each note, one by one. We look at each finger written next to each note. I ask her questions, like where each note is. I don’t TELL her anything. I only ask her questions, which she answers. Within a few minutes, she has figured it all out, and solved the problem.

There is much to learn here about the right and wrong way to go about practicing, and much to understand about why some people progress so slowly. It has nothing to do with musical ability, it has everything to do with HOW WE THINK, WHETHER WE THINK, AND WHAT WE ARE FEELING EMOTIONALLY ABOUT OURSELVES WHEN WE PRACTICE. I will explain.

In the case of the student mentioned above, each time we would solve a problem in this manner, I would point out to her that I had not done anything for her that she couldn’t have done for herself. I simply acted as an outside agent to help her focus on the problem. Then I asked her the proper questions in the proper order, step by step, until the problem was solved. She on the other hand, while practicing at home, for no GOOD reason, had not done this. Instead, when confronted with something she didn’t immediately understand, she panicked, got more confused, didn’t really even look at the problem, and concluded it was unsolvable, impenetrable, or HAAARD!

In essence, as I would tell her, she had sent up the white flag and surrendered. If she had just tried a little bit, she would have made progress, and eventually solved the problem. Most of the time, the answer is staring us in the face. Unfortunately, we are not staring back.

One deeper note here, as I touch on a theme I will write about later. In order to really make progress with this student, it was necessary to not just describe WHAT she was doing wrong in her approach. But also to explain WHY. Because I have taught her for many years, I know her personality, and I know that this behavior is part of her overall psychological pattern. She likes to pretend she is helpless, so that she can be rescued. She likes to be the damsel in distress.

The rule here is, student or teacher, you must be aware of yourself on the most intimate levels to be the best you can be. Know what you are doing, and why you are doing it. (By the way, she is much more powerful in her practicing now).

Passive Practicing

The above description of how not to practice, I call "Passive Practicing". Wimpy, in fact. It is the opposite of Aggressive Practicing. This is an extreme case, I admit, but not uncommon in some form with many students. The worst part is that when a student does this, they lose a whole week of progress. (Let me add here that I have constantly found myself doing the same thing. No one is immune from this. As you get more advanced, you just do the same "avoidance" behavior in a more subtle, harder to recognize form. The trick is to always be open minded enough to catch your own blind spots. Every time I have solved a problem in my playing, it is because I am now paying attention to something I didn’t bother to pay attention to before.)

As I have told the above mentioned student, and many others, you must be very Aggressive when you practice. Whenever there is a problem or something you don’t understand, you must attack it like a pit bull, and not let go until you have solved it. You must take it apart, and put it back together again, over and over. If, after making your best effort, and finally you conclude that there is something you don’t understand, and you must have outside help, then fine. At that point, get the help you need from your teacher or whoever. But don’t give up at the first sign of trouble.

When it comes to solving problems in practicing, I think of it as a war. (This is only one way of thinking of it, but often necessary to get the job done.) I think of the problem as the enemy, and I am Attila the Hun. Choose the fantasy that works for you!

There is another common situation where passivity in practicing slows down a student’s progress tremendously. It is a passivity of mind and thought processes. To make the fastest progress possible, a student should be thinking all the time while practicing. Every time something new is learned, or a new understanding is achieved, everything should be reviewed in terms of the new understanding. If you just learned that too much tension being allowed in the pick hand was the source of a particular problem in playing, the aggressive student will immediately start looking for all places in his of her playing where that same condition is causing a problem. The passive student won’t. The aggressive student will raise the entire level of his playing by doing this. By always working this way, the aggressive student becomes the best they can be.

The same applies to musical knowledge. I couldn’t believe it, when a student didn’t know what a half step is, after completing Mel Bay Book #I, and after having had it explained and written down in his notebook. He had never bothered to look back and review, or even think about it after learning it. This kind of laziness will get you nowhere.

The Aggressive student will hold on to everything he learns. He will think about it and use it. He will ask questions, and never be satisfied until he understands. If he learns a concept, such as key signatures, he will look at the key signature every time he plays a new piece. (Of course, as his teacher, if I had not caught it, that would be my fault. I would then have been the The Lazy Teacher, who is not constantly checking and testing the student).

The attitudes and working habits of the Aggressive Student can be learned by anyone. If you are not used to working with this intensity, it will take some time and a lot of your effort to change. If you want to be the best you can be, you have no choice.

If you fully appreciate and understand what has been said so far, you will understand the 17th Principle of Correct Practice.

Principle of Correct Practice #17:

"Practicing is the process of solving problems. Your ability to solve problems will be equal to the strength of your desire, awareness, and understanding."

Copyright 1999 - 2006 by Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.



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