DO YOU STOP WHEN YOU’RE GOOD AT IT?
People usually stop practicing something when they are competent. When they can play or remember the thing, they usually go on to something else.
But “being able to” is not what any of us wants. We want to create musical magic and that can’t happen if we are merely able to play something with no mistakes because at this level we still use conscious brain power to make it happen.
If you want to play like the guys we all admire, the mechanics of what you do must be automatic and effortless. This frees up your mind to focus on how you play what you play – and that’s where the magic happens.
A BELOW MEDIOCRE PLAYING STYLE
If we never take what we practice all the way to mastery, we will gradually create and solidify a below mediocre playing style. Some of us then dream of reaching the level of mastery after using those skills for a decade or two – but it will never happen.
(Unless we are “talented” of course which will give us mastery with no extra effort. Not!)
Mastery does not appear by itself and people who are masters did not practice things to a mediocre level and then “matured” these skills over decades. This is not the way it works. Instead you take key things to the mastery level right away.
COMPLETE THE THIRD LEVEL – IT’S EASY
When you reach the point of being able to play something with no mistakes, your real work is not done. At this point you have the ability to take your new skill all the way to mastery, and this is where practicing becomes fun: You’re not struggling with it anymore and you can play it quite easily. What you need to do now is practice it so much that it becomes absolutely automatic and unconscious.
Your fingers should move right to their destination with no effort
Instead of being able to play those two chords at the right tempo you need to be able to play them with no hesitation at all. None. Squat. Zero. Your fingers should go right to their destination with no effort on your part whatsoever. I’m not exaggerating to make a point here. You need to be able to play those two chords back and forth while talking to a friend and watching TV at the same time. And much faster than you really need to for a normal playing situation.
You effectively master more than fifteen thousand building blocks and are able to put them together with zero effort, in real time, with no hesitation.
YOU ARE A SUPREME MASTER ALREADY
According to Wikipedia the average adult has a vocabulary of more than 15.000 words. Fifteen thousand individual little sounds with meaning attached to all of them. That’s an incredible amount of information, but still only a tiny, tiny portion compared to what the brain can really hold.
But that’s not the most astounding thing. The real miracle is that we master all these words: When you speak there is no distance from the urge to say a word and saying it. It’s one happening. You effectively master more than fifteen thousand building blocks and are able to put them together with zero effort, in real-time, with no hesitation.
And how did this happen? Well, you learned one word after another, and then after you were “good” at them you kept using them over and over again until you mastered them. Simple stuff. There’s no excuse, you are a total master already and you used a simple formula to get there.
THE THREE LEVELS
OK, so now let’s get really practical and specific. I go through three distinctly different phases when I practice anything:
Practicing anything to the point of mastery involves these three phases
This is where I am slowly getting comfortable with the fingering for new chords or a new sequence. There is no rushing in the phase, I focus on remembering the sequence, fingering or pattern so I have it in my head instead of on a piece of paper. Once I can play or remember the thing easily, I go on to the next phase:
In this phase I focus only on reaching the level of competence. Of being able to play it easily or remember it easily. The key word here is “easy” this is the level I would aim for if I had to practice a song for tomorrow’s gig. I am not focused on total mastery, but I want to be at least competent before I show up to entertain people. Once this level is reached I am excited because now I can enter into the final race for mastery:
This is the phase most people never get to. All I do is repeat whatever it is I am trying to learn and I am talking thousands of repetitions depending on what you are practicing of course. This phase takes as long as the other two put together, but don’t let that scare you. This phase is easy since you are not struggling to absorb and learn something new, you are merely repeating something you know over and over again.
There is no frustration anymore. Your brain isn’t working much to make the thing you are practicing happen. The worst challenge you face is boredom, but that is easily fixed by making sure you are entertained while your brain absorbs all the repetitions.
“Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.”
Sometimes you can do this in front of the TV, when talking to friends or doing other things. Sometimes you have to re-focus on what you are doing to get the work done. But since you are so close to the ultimate reward it doesn’t feel like a chore.
Anyone can do this. But you need to aim for mastery instead of competence. But not necessarily every time.
MASTERY YES – BUT NOT FOR EVERYTHING
I do not take everything I practice to the level of mastery. Doing so would be a waste of time. I do not need to master the songs for tomorrow’s gig where I am filling in for a friend – and I do not need to master all sequences, licks, chord progressions I practice.
When I have practiced something to the point of competence I usually make a decision of whether to take it to mastery or not. The more fundamental a skill or the more widely useful what I am practicing is, the more reason to take it all the way to mastery. Get it?
You don’t have time to take everything you ever practice to the level of mastery.
For example: Alternate picking is the technique I use the most and even when I am using other techniques alternate picking plays a role in them most often. So taking that technique to mastery level was essential for me. Mastering the most used scales across the fret board has been equally essential.
When I practice sequences I usually stop and make a decision when I have reached competence. If the sequence feels really comfortable to play and if it is highly useful in a lot of different areas, then I will take it all the way to mastery. If not, I won’t. That doesn’t mean that I will not use it in the future, it just means I will not make it part of my mastery vocabulary.
MASTERY IS THE SECRET
The more things you master, the easier and faster it seems to master even more things. This is the true source of what we usually identify as “talent.” But magical inborn abilities has nothing to do with it. What takes you beyond mediocre skills is a commitment to mastery. A decision to go for a higher level of mastery instead of mere competence. NOW.
If you are practicing a riff or a lick from a favorite artist of yours then push all the way to mastery right away. Keep practicing it even though you can play it. Put in the thousands of repetitions in front of the TV until you can play it as well or better than whoever you look up to.
HOW TO PUT THIS INTO PRACTICAL ACTION OW
Learning something to the point of competence is what most people do. The urge to practice simply disappears when we are able to play or remember what we were practicing. But the secret of alien-like guitar skills is completing that third step and that is just a change in what you aim for.
Take a little piece of the whole and bring it all the way to mastery now
If this is new to you, start with a simple challenge: Master playing two chords to the point where it’s easier than breathing. I mean this literally: So easy that it is automatic. Then, decide to add two more chords to that.
If you are working on learning scales then, by all means, continue doing that. But you might want to take one or two scale shapes and decide to master those at an incredible level. This means practicing them for hours in front of the TV. Playing them, Improvising in them. Jumping around from different far away notes within the shapes and so on.
If you’re working on a technique like alternate picking you might want to choose one aspect of it and bring that to the level of mastery as quickly as possible. Like playing triplets on one string for instance. You can work on all other aspects of the technique as well, but this tiny challenge will now be your primary focus.
“Though you can love what you do not master, you cannot master what you do not love.”
Getting two chords to the level of mastery can take you as little as a couple of weeks and the key is to constantly be working on something small so you constantly get new results in this area. The more you do this the more momentum you will get and the easier it will seem to master even more.
Pretty soon everyone will start calling you “talented” but of course you will know that it’s just the incredible momentum of mastery that has kicked in.