Playing Guitar - How I Learn

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By Tim Gillespie

Have you ever watched someone you know learn something you already know? It is a good experience and can shed some interesting light on how people, in general, learn something. If you do this, you will start to see some striking similarities in the way we all learn things and as well as some disparities.

This can be illustrated using small children as an example. Kids are now learning things that anyone over 30 learned a few decades ago! They sing the same songs we did, and they tell the same jokes. They even have cooties in their schools. These kids are learning things we take for granted. They are the perfect petri dish for this kind of observation.

Since we all know the concepts under study, we are familiar with the content, but when you watch kids learn, it might bring back a rush of experiences you had when you did it. You can clearly see them grasp at concepts and make mistakes. They will approach the topic again and again if they get feedback, and they will take corrective action. When I see this, I want to jump in and help them, because I have been there!

They are all curious and this feeds the learning equation. Even when I think they will never get something, they usually do. It may take a few weeks but they seem to absorb more than I can observe. They are a testament to what we as human beings can achieve.

People seem to think it gets harder to learn when you get older. I hear this from people all the time. Especially when it comes to simple computer operations. Like opening Windows Explorer and perusing a hard drive. Many older people seem to think it is beyond their abilities and kids have an easier time learning. I think it is true that kids have an easier time learning, but the main reason is how open to learning they are! Kids have to be open to learning because they have to learn everything, and they have an insatiable curiosity. When adults fail to learn something, I find it is because they really don't care if they learn it or not. Most of the time I see this, a person will try something once, make a few mistakes and concede failure. After only one try and with no adjustments! They don't prepare whatsoever and when someone says something like defragment your partition, they freak! Of course they don't know how to do it because they have no idea what it means.

Are they smart enough to get it? Of course they are. The real question is do they care? Very few subjects are too hard for most people to grasp. Sure you can delve into thermodynamics to such an extent that the base of information takes years to acquire, but that is not what I mean. Most subjects are fairly easy to grasp if you go about it the right way. You may not hit the upper levels of understanding but you can certainly have a good handle of most topics. Hitting the upper levels of anything usually takes a commitment that goes beyond an enthusiast's experience, but that is up to each person. If you want to really excel at something, put in more time and make sure you don't waste it.

This is something I have come to understand. I won't bore you with what I consider my accomplishments in life but I will tell you I have a few. More than a few. And the skill I developed by learning things, has shown up time after time. It has allowed me to gain an understanding of how I learn. When I really need to understand something, this is what I do.

The first thing I do is get a book on the subject or find some way to get solid information about the subject. I look for what I consider to be a good resource. I don't just go find one, I hunt down the resource. I also show up with some expectations. I am looking for a tool that will open the door for me. Something that will give me an understanding of what I am going to undertake. I use the Internet too, but for my foundation, I almost always go to books. Once I find a good book, I clear the decks. I really do. I will take large blocks of time and get into the subject. I usually start by reading the book from cover to cover. Sometimes I will not do anything else until I finish the book. Then I start to apply what I have learned, if it is software, I usually start to play with the program. In this period, I usually make lots of mistakes. I then reread sections as I try to apply the knowledge. I spend huge blocks of time on this if I can. It is not always available, so everyone has to adjust this for themselves, but nice size blocks of time are critical. After all you are trying to learn something new.You are trying to acquire new skills and information!

If I have something in mind I am trying to do, I start to look at how this new skill can help me get there. The point is, if you have a goal or a project in mind, you can use that to help you learn the subject. With software, this is a big help.

Let me give you a fun example. We could talk about learning HTML or Java or working in Postscript editors, but this time of year my mind turns to outdoor activities that need preparation dusing the off season. I live in Colorado which is an excellent launching base for outdoor activities. I get to spend time in the Colorado Rockies every week and I also get to go other places in these lofty lands. I spend time in lots of national parks like Canyonlands, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone.

Several years ago I took up two new hobbies, White water rafting and fly fishing. The west is full of beautiful canyons you can float, often times the canyons are over a thousand feet deep and the rivers are clear and emerald green. Sometimes the rapids will scare you bad! This kind of activity takes great planning to do well. It is no good to show up for a class III+ rapid with no idea of what you will do. You could have a very bad day.

When I started to learn about oaring a boat, I bought every good resource I could find. I took the entire off-season and read books and watched film and talked to people that have done this before. When the early spring came, I was out on still reservoirs right away. I spent the first three weeks learning how to turn a boat and then I made sure I could do it without thinking.

After three weeks, I went out on an easy river. And I went with someone that knew how to row and could keep me out of trouble. I was still a little nervous. Gradually I built up my skills and gave myself plenty of opportunity to gain experience. The process worked and I have confidently rowed lots of western rivers and fished lots of water that I would have never been able to reach otherwise.

I did the same thing when I learned to tie flies. First I took a good class, bought several good books and then tied about 5,000 flies. These days, I usually have about 18 fly boxes on my boat at any given time. When I go out, I can think about insect life, or any other part of the food chain because I studied it. This type of learning removes many barriers and gives you the momentum to break through most of the remaining ones. Usually it means you get instant respect with others too. People will watch you do this stuff, even if they don't comment. I believe it opens many doors you would never have known were there!

It certainly makes time spent on the hobby much more enjoyable. Thank you for letting me indulge a little.

This is also how I learned to play guitar. When I found something that opened the door, I jumped in and hammered the subject. Three hour practice sessions were the norm, sometimes it reached eight hours a day but never on a sustained basis. When I learned to finger pick, I put everything else aside and practiced simple arpeggios for hours. I did the same thing for scales and chords. This type of approach will even make the guitar feel different. You will get to know the fretboard so well, you can judge the softness of the different wood used. You can reach high levels of technical ability in very short time frames. Right about here, you might be tempted to say something like, technical skills are no good if you don't know what to do with them.

Listen, we all know what to do with them. Anyone who is willing to put in this kind of time will also think about what to do with these skills. And if you don't learn these skills it really won't matter anyway!

Here is another one I hear. I don't have that kind of time. True, the kind of time I am talking about would be hard for me right now, but there is more here than just that. These same principles can be applied when an adult tries to learn to play. You need to critically look at the time factor and make some correct observations. But no matter how this is applied, the fact remains you have to put in some time. You have to or you are not learning. You are kidding yourself.

Here are some issues to address when you apply this to a tight schedule.

1. Set aside some time! Make sure you have set some time aside for this project. I suggest at a bare minimum you set aside at least an hour a day. This does not have to occur over an eternity either. Be realistic, set this schedule up for three or four months. Even with a demanding lifestyle you can probably see three months ahead. Realize this burden will not go on forever, just as long as it takes to achieve your goals.

2. Set goals! Goals like, "I want to be able to finger pick in six weeks". "I know I won't be great but I want the skill in my hands by then!" Remember this, once the skills are in your hands, you will improve upon your present level. It's not going to go away, it's yours to keep. And it gets better over time. This is one of the big benefits of learning right up front. You get to refine your already intact skills. You get better and then you enjoy your time more. It becomes a pleasant cycle. You determine when you slow down and when you pour more time into it.

So set realistic goals and then makes sure you install a program to get you there.

3. Set up a schedule! Everyone who tries this will be challenged to stay on course. You will be tempted to do something else with that precious time. One big tool against this onslaught of head games is a schedule. A schedule will tell you what you should be doing, and how long you should be doing each line item. It will keep you honest and it will make you ask the next question. Where is this time coming from?

Time has to come from something. We all have 24 hours a day, and chances are you have already filled it all up! Either you try to get up earlier, go to bed later or steal it from some other activity, You need a certain amount of time and without it, you cannot do anything new. In fact time is the single biggest obstacle to learning, most people face. If you can answer this question, you can answer all the other questions! Really! Where will you get the time? Learning can be easy and fun, if you set the time aside. Remember it does not have to be for eternity. This is a focused short term project designed to yield certain results.

4. Spend your time wisely! This is what is going to determine how successful your program is. Gain an understanding, and then go find ways to install this new skill. You don't want to waste this chance! If you don't see results quickly, you will steal this time back for something else! Make sure you are spending your time wisely.

5. Expect results! Really! You should expect your program to install the desired skills. If it doesn't, you need to adjust. Don't just show up and go through the motions, get into it! Remember there is a reason why you are doing this. So do it and expect results.

Most people do not take this in-depth approach to learning. Often times this means the level of understanding suffers. Anyone who undertakes this type of approach will have a big advantage in the long term. It takes a little longer up front, but the pay offs keeps coming long after the initial program has been completed. If you are trying to seperate yourself from the crowd, this is a quick and solid way of doing that.

Learning is not something that stops with time. Your brain does not grow old! I believe you amass experience and then use that experience for everything else you do. Once you engage the learning process, it will breathe life into the subject like never before. Learning really is fun! You will enjoy it if for no other reason than you get good at it! We like what we do well. We do well, when we like something! There are lots of things all people have in common. One of these things is we tend to learn most things the same way and get the same level of results. If someone else has done something, chances are we can do it too! Go watch some kids, every day they learn something new.