…So after three months of discussing basic approaches to improvisation, how to locate simple intervals on the fingerboard, and harmonic concepts common to most versions of the blues, I just witnessed a student of mine take a guitar solo in which he was playing spontaneously around points of change in the harmony, rather than by repeating shapes or licks he had learned from someone. In other words, I just watched someone improvise (really improvise) for the first time ever. Pretty amazing, to get to be there.

The student turned to me with a sort of surprised-looking grin and exclaimed, “I think I just had a breakthrough!”

Witnessing this shift in consciousness from being at the mercy of one’s fingertips to being aware of and able to interact with points of change between one key center and the next has always been, for me, one of the more profound rewards of choosing to be not just a player but a teacher of the instrument. One can only hope that we all have these moments, and that they remind us why it continues to be such an exciting thing to practice and to play.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about two potential pitfalls that come from experiencing this kind of success: 1) “I’ve had a breakthrough, so I don’t need to work that hard anymore,” and 2) “That breakthrough felt so amazing, I want it to happen every time I play!”

“I’ve had a breakthrough, soI don’t need to work that hard anymore”

One thing I’ve noticed from observing my own behind over the years is that, unless I’m extremely diligent, it generally prefers to rest on its behind. Muscle memory exists for a reason–if we weren’t able to rely extremely heavily on our body’s ability to repeat complex behaviors once we’ve taken the time to learn them, the process of getting out of bed in the morning would be so taxing that, once we’d managed to sequence together enough simple actions to brush our teeth and find our shoes, we’d probably need to turn around and go right back to sleep. Similarly, muscle memory can be an incredible blessing on any instrument because it allows us to trigger one action and have an entire series of actions intuitively follow the first. This is great, for instance, for guitarists who would like to play songs consisting of more than one chord or, god forbid, play any guitar solo that doesn’t sound exactly like Neil Young’s solo on the song “Cinnamon Girl” (even though Cinnamon Girl is awesome, and for a lot of reasons I think Neil’s solo in the middle totally rules).

The problem with muscle memory is, it creates an environment in which it’s incredibly easy for the conscious mind to disengage.

A teacher of mine once said, the most dangerous thing about the guitar is the fact that you don’t have to breathe in order to make it work. In other words, once you get the muscles in your fingers going, the brain sort of dictates that they could possibly keep on going–without coming up for air, so to speak–for quite some time. I find it important to remember that, once you are able to move basic interval structures around on the instrument, this can become muscle memory as well. So, once you’ve crossed this first major hurtle, it is in fact relatively easy to convince yourself that you are improvising, when in fact you are simply just doing things that you and your brain agree you already know how to do.

My favorite players have always been the ones whose improvising conveys that reaching feeling, a sense of digging into the instrument, or stretching beyond the conscious mind into that amazing place where the improviser is effortlessly aware of what they play. Some of these players (like John McLaughlin) have an amazing technical facility on the instrument. Others (like Keith Richards) do not. Yet, there still remains something elusive and wonderful about the thing both players are tapping into when they improvise, and I maintain that this is considerably more than either of them simply knowing how to move their hands around a bit.

The point of breakthroughs like these is not to play fancier things, but to become more aware of and thus MORE IN CONTROL of the things we are already playing. Once the mind is finally (FINALLY!) actively engaged with the instrument, the trick is to keep it continually engaged, and not to let it relax in the wake of its success.

In other words, the response shouldn’t be, “well I’m better at the guitar now, so I don’t need to work so hard at it anymore.” In fact, it should be the opposite–“I’ve finally made a little progress, so now’s the time to really get to work!”

This leads us to pitfall number two.

2: “That breakthrough was so amazing, I want it to happen every time I play!”

I hear you. This is why so many of us have made major life decisions that would seem, in any other light, to be beyond reason. Let’s face it–unless you are some combination of very talented and very good-looking and very lucky, there isn’t a lot of money in playing music. For similar reasons, for most of us there isn’t really a lot of fame. So, in a culture where money and notoriety are the touchstones of tangible success, why do so many of us opt to do it to the exclusion of most other things in our daily lives? For that matter, why does anyone bother to do it at all?

I have thought about this a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s that feeling. That breakthrough feeling, for lack of a better term, in which we suddenly and inexplicably feel that we are getting Better At the Guitar.

This feeling, I’ve discovered, is a BYPRODUCT of practicing, not a RESULT. Judging by what my students and colleagues have been through, you can practice a lot without being very focused and never have a breakthrough. You can practice a little bit in a highly-engaged way and STILL never have a breakthrough. You can get onstage after a week away from the instrument and play GREAT. You can practice for hours leading up to a gig and still have a miserable time. Or it’s possible that the opposite of these two things is true; I haven’t found any real rhyme or reason to it, aside from knowing that NOT practicing has never really gotten me very far, and the rest of it has to do with where my head is at. Or rather, where my head isn’t at, which is to say I don’t play very well at all if my mind is in another place.

Here’s the rub. If that ‘breakthrough’ feeling happened every time we played, we’d probably stop practicing because we wouldn’t have really anything to look forward to. And then we wouldn’t be as connected to the instrument anymore, and then that feeling would go away. It’s precisely because we DON’T have breakthroughs every single day that we seem to want them so badly, and this is the strange monkey on the back of the musician that drives us to do foolish but commendable things like spend tens of thousands of dollars on diplomas with no incumbent financial dividends, move to Brooklyn with only $1700 in savings, or even just walk into a local music store and drop that first $500 on a new guitar.

The good news is, from my experience at least, that the more you combat pitfall #1 by being mentally engaged in your practice and onstage, the more likely your efforts are going to lead you closer to transcending pitfall #2: basically–in the immortal words of the keyboardist from Spinal Tap–to Have a Good Time, All the Time.

And who doesn’t love Spinal Tap? Also, excruciating as it can be to try new things, if you look at in this light you may discover that practicing becomes your very favorite thing.

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