Archive for December, 2010

Kevin Spacey on being successful

Absolutely fantastic and to the point:

Make Music from the Start

I recently have had a new adult start lessons.  It is so fun to see people pursuing a long-term dream!

One of his  first questions related what book he should get and when would we start using it, which is certainly a fair set of questions.  I think I surprised him a bit with my answers.  I pointed him in the direction of the book I like to use with beginners, but then told him that we wouldn’t even look at it for a few weeks.  For those of us who spent a fair number of years in traditional academic schooling, this is academic heresy!  Of course we have a book and it is the centerpiece of all that we do!

But for beginning students, I have a bit different approach.  In the beginning, the student is far more musical than their technique allows them to demonstrate, but they rarely believe this.  There is a dominant paradigm in the culture that musical ability is tied to advanced technical ability.  The reality is that people are inherently musical and bring real musical ability to the table at their first lesson.  Everyone has musical taste, can recognize volume swells, catchy melodies, rhythmic patterns, etc.  Even a first-day beginner can figure out how to pick out a melody, and I would rather have them do this instead of trying to figure out the instrument, their bodies, music notation, music theory, and 10,000 other things that are overwhelming at the start.

I like to get people comfortable with their instrument, start getting the foundational postures, movements and feelings understood and then let them make some music.  I often get strange looks that indicate, “You must be crazy, I came for lessons!  How am I supposed to know how to make music?  Aren’t I supposed to practice something?”  I invariably tell them, “Your assignment is to pick a melody you like and play it for me next week – and work on the exercises.”

The next week, something amazing happens.  I hear a melody that is usually played pretty well, despite poor technique.  People pick things they like, so they already know how the timing/rhythm goes and all they have to do is figure out a few notes.   Then, in what is my favorite part of the 2nd lesson, people often say, “Yeah, it was OK, and then I started messing around with this…”  and they proceed to play me some little fragment that they made up that caught their fancy.  My most recent guitar beginner shared a short minor pentatonic based melody with me, though he had no idea what the notes were, what scales were in play, or what time signature it was in.  It wasn’t finished, polished, and ended rather abruptly, but it was great!  It was 100% his music!  I love it when people realize that they made music all on their own, with no input from me other than my borderline annoying insistence that they do it!

If the goal is to be a musician, then it seem reasonable that the effort should be musical from the start.  No one needs a book or to read music in order to make music.  Being musically expressive can be cultivated from the beginning.  I recommend that improvisation and learning a new melody by ear to all students from the first lesson.   If you don’t do these as a habit, you should give it a try in your practice regimen – it will do wonders for your musicianship.

Why books aren’t enough

As someone who came to the classical guitar as an adult, and even more so as a well-educated adult, I came to it with the perspective that I’ve learned lots of other things, so this will be straightforward.  In fact, for many types of learning, we all know exactly what to do:  do some Google searches in the topic area, find some knowledgeable voices, find out what books or sites they recommend and work through the material.  For many of the things we need to do our jobs, or to pursue hobbies, etc, this is all that is required.  When the pursuit is primarily intellectual, or dependent on acquiring new facts, this is ideal.  Even if it is workflow related, reading is in many cases the fastest way to get going.

Doing a search on Amazon, or in any music store will return lots of printed material on learning guitar, piano, or just about any other instrument.  But if you go out and buy a bunch of books and start into them, you will learn a lot about playing the instrument, but you won’t actually get any better at it.  In fact, I receive some percentage of my students as “frustrated beginners” who have done exactly this.  Everyone knows that if you want your child to play music, you get them lessons, but as adults, we think, “I am smart, I can read, I can do this myself.”.  But this is not mere pride or irrationality, it is true as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough.

Part of learning an instrument is information that can be passed along as just raw information.  Pictures can help fill things in, but no printed book can help you understand what the correct motion FEELS like.  Because music is something we make with our physical bodies, there are certain sensations that accompany correct movement on our instrument.  If you don’t know what it feels like when the motion is correct, how can you ever practice doing things right?  It just isn’t possible.  A major reason for going to lessons is to learn the correct sensations that accompany proper technique, and to have someone ensure that you don’t develop bad habits in the beginning.

After wandering in the woods for a while on my own, I finally found a teacher who helped me (made me) slow down enough to notice the minute sensations of my forearm, upper arm, shoulder and back muscles.  Eventually, I realized that dozens of muscles cooperate for each note.  Writing about it would be so lengthy as to loose the point, but there are simple exercises that enable anyone to internalize the correct feeling and return to it at any time.

During the process of sorting out what is normal, correct and safe, everyone has questions about what they are experiencing.  This is another major value of seeing a teacher.  You can explain what you are sensing and they can put into words or assign exercises that help you understand what you need in order to correctly assimilate the exercise.

If you have a shelf full of books and technical studies, but still can’t play – stop what you are doing and get a good teacher that you like.  Be willing to start over again if necessary, and change your focus to making progress that doesn’t have to be unlearned!  Build on the foundation of correct motion, and knowing what those sensations feel like in your body.  As you advance, you will be able to recognize when that feeling has left, and eventually you will notice that wrong feedback from your body corresponds well with mistakes or lack of musical expressiveness.  The right instruction will teach you how to monitor your own body, troubleshoot problems, and find solutions to the physical challenges of the instrument.  At this point, your lessons can and should migrate more toward musical expression.  When this process is complete, you will be able to teach yourself any piece you like, but will want to have artistic input on how to interpret things, performance tips, etc.  I have shelves full of books about music, practice, guitar, and piano, but it took quality lessons for me to get to the point of making independent progress, and it is the same for you too.  Music is something that we learn with other people, to play for other people.  We may practice alone, but music making should have some company!

Guitar Tune-up

Originally posted in 2009 – reposting on new site.

My steel-string acoustic had begun to show signs of all the practicing.  I had several frets flattening out, and it was taking a lot of pressure to form barre chords on the second fret.  On heavy strumming, I had strings that would buzz.
I had stumbled across the Plek technology while scanning the Tone Quest site.  And that in turn led me to Gary Brawer, repairman extraordinaire, who also owns one of these machines.  My initial goal was to take my Collings to someone who had a lot of experience with re-fretting as it is work where experience counts for a lot.  I was intrigued by the Plek claims that intonation could be optimized, and it made sense to me, so I arranged to drop off the guitar.  Now two weeks later, I have my instrument back.
Gary did a fantastic job.  The instrument does not buzz at all, the fret work is first rate, and tonally it is a whole new instrument.  The intonation is vastly improved and now even barre chords at the 10th fret ring true.  While I was in his shop, he offered to change anything with the setup, but I strummed hard, finger-picked lightly and couldn’t find anything to be unhappy with.  Looking carefully at the guitar, the nut is cut quite a bit differently than it had been, and the bridge saddle is now compensated.  I was not expecting to have a more “in-tune” instrument as a result of the process, but what a wonderful discovery!  My wife, who is not a musician, immediately commented on how much better the instrument sounds.  The difference is not subtle.
My classical guitar definitely has intonation problems the further up the neck one plays, so I am considering taking that in also.  it is not worn out, but with a world-class setup job, I am certain it will improve as an instrument.
If you need any repair or setup work done in the Bay area, I’d highly recommend Gary Brawer.  My son was blown away when he saw Joe Satriani’s name on one of the cases behind his repair counter.  Gary is THE man, and with fret work and setups like I received, I know why he is THE guy to see in San Francisco for repair work.  If you have a guitar that you like, but have intonation or setup issues like buzzing, fretting out, etc, have Gary work on your guitar. You’ll get the thrill of a brand-new instrument, while still enjoying everything that you like about the guitar you have.  Good setup work is worth the price.

1st Short Film Released

Here is my first completed film – a short documentary style film for a church group who is working on a major prayer festival in India.  It was an ambitious project, as it involved coordinating 8 interviews, a 3 hour live concert, and recording a whole Sunday service as well. It involved construction of staging, hiring in stage lights, rental equipment, etc.  All total it was 16+ hours of HD footage, some of it 2 and 4 camera shoots, a 24 track audio recording, etc.  The credits at the end show how many people it takes to do this.  I know that I no longer have any questions as to why there are 130 people in the credits at the end of a “budget movie”.  I wore WAY too many hats on this one.

VCI India Film from Nathanael Iversen on Vimeo.

The Threshold of Effectiveness

Everyone knows that practicing is required to make progress on an instrument.  It seems to stand to reason that the more you practice (assuming correct and focused practice), the more progress will be made, and indeed this is largely true.  But let us direct our attention briefly to the margins  and ask, “What is the lower bound for effectiveness in practice?”  Is there are level below which no meaningful progress is being made?

The short answer is that there is a lower bound of effectiveness.  It is possible to fake yourself out and think you are practicing, when in fact, nothing is changing.  Playing an instrument is a physical activity, and it is learned and maintained like any other physical activity (ie. running).  If you ran only once every two weeks, you would never gain the benefits of being in shape:  lower heart rate, weight loss etc.  In fact, every two weeks you would feel tight and sore, and out-of-shape.  Playing an instrument is no different.  You can’t expect to practice for 15 minutes the night before your lesson after a week or two of inactivity and expect to show up and demonstrate progress.  You will find yourself feeling “out-of-shape” and rusty.

When I first took piano lessons as a freshman in college, 6 hours a week of practice was necessary to get an “A”; 5 hours for a “B”, and “4” for a “C”.  The grade was based not on a level of performance, but on the level of effort.  Everyone is different, so the amount of progress made will vary, but I can pretty well guarantee that if you spend six focused hours in between lessons, progress will be made at a satisfying pace.  I am confident that you will find the time passes very quickly once you spend a few minutes on exercises, learning new pieces, polishing older ones, and doing some ear training.  Even 4 or 5 hours between lessons will demonstrate progress.  Much less than this, however, and you will experience a distinct fall-off in progress.

There are two issues at play here.  One is the total training volume – the amount of time spent.  The second is the frequency of training.  Six hours spent over a week will have a different impact than 6 hours the day before a lesson.  What we do daily has more impact than what we do occasionally.  Our brains are wired such that they make the strongest association for repeated activities.  In fact, if given the choice between a student practicing 15 minutes a day in focused fashion vs. someone spending two hours the night before a lesson, I’d prefer the 15 minutes a day.  The regularity will have a multiplying effect.  Everyone can afford 15-30 minutes a day if learning to play is of any real importance.  In this short amount of time, it may not be possible to work on all needed items every day, but the work can be split up so that it is all worked on several times over the week.  Very short duration practice will require extra attention to careful scheduling of all the items that require practice and use of a timer to not get stuck on one item to the detriment of others.

Another reason that it is important to work regularly is that we actually improve in between practices, a phenomenon known as “post-practice improvement”.  Post-practice improvement is real, and a wonderful benefit for faithful practice.  When we pursue something regularly and have a focus on it, our sub-conscious mind works in the background to help us the next time we attempt the task.  If we practice 5 days a week, that is 5 reinforcements, each with their own post-practice improvement.  Sadly, this is a cumulative thing, and simply practicing once and then waiting for magic to happen isn’t going to work.  It is, though, a solid benefit of regular effort.

For students taking weekly lessons, I would recommend touching the instrument 5-6 times between lessons from a frequency perspective, and working towards a goal of 4-6 hours of total practice volume.

For students taking bi-weekly lessons, I would recommend touching the instrument 10-12  time between lessons and shooting for a training volume of 8-12 hours.

These levels will keep you moving and feeling the exhilaration of making progress.  While I am sure that there will be someone who can make progress at 1-2 hours per week, playing only once per week, I don’t find that to be the norm, and can’t recommend it to you.  Besides, is your goal really to skate through life trying to find the lower margin of acceptable behavior?  Set your goals and make your plans at a level where you know success is guaranteed, and if you miss from time to time, your consistency over time will more than make up for it.  Start small and work up, but strive for a consistent frequency that builds into a meaningful overall volume of practice.

Welcome to the new site

I had an old site that I threw together with Joomla, but the administration was enough of a pain that I never really did anything with it.  At the end of the day, I don’t think I wanted a CMS (content management system) that could blog, but a blog that had a CMS.  I tried WordPress and found it much more intuitive for my use.  I am sure Joomla has more than enough for what I need, but since this is my website, the decision criteria are simply what I find easiest to use.  Now that I have a platform I find fairly intuitive and that integrates well with social media, I can get on with building the site!

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