Learning Life Lessons While Learning Guitar
How playing guitar can help with personal growth
Learning an instrument is about more than simply playing music, as amazing as that experience is on its own. It also has an incredible way of shaping who you are as a person. Here are some ways music can help you grow.
A personal journey
We all come to our musical instrument through a unique path. In my case, I was born with good musical genes. Although my dad doesn’t play an instrument himself, most of his sisters do, his mum did, and I come from a long line of performing musicians. For instance, my great great grandmother played violin in the small groups assembled to accompany silent movies in the early days of cinema. Her violin is still in the family 100 years later. So music was always in my blood.
When I was about eight years-old, our next door neighbours gave us a couple of guitars they had kicking around the house, and I pretty much immediately started making noise on them because I was so drawn to this magical thing called music. My parents could see that I was obsessed, so eventually they got me a guitar teacher who did a fantastic job of teaching me the fundamentals. After two years I went it alone to learn what I could from magazines and other guitarists, but I returned to that same teacher in Year Nine to fill in some gaps in theoretical knowledge.
Practice makes perfect
There’s such a powerful feeling of achievement when you master a piece of music and then perform it for an appreciative audience. It’s not always easy, but that’s exactly why it’s such an achievement. To learn any piece of music, you need to know how to physically play your instrument, how to keep time, how to either memorise or sight-read the piece, and how to make it sound like you’ve been playing that song all your life. There are a lot of little steps required to get there and there are no shortcuts, but practice can be fun.
I like to divide my practice time between task-based goals and simply rocking out. If I’m working on a complex piece, I will break it down into bite-size phrases to master individually and then string it together. But if I start to feel like it’s too much of a chore, I will change direction completely by putting that task aside and just jamming along with a song I enjoy — often the simpler the song is, the more fun it is. This leaves me feeling refreshed, energised and ready to jump back in with full focus to whatever I’m studying.
Make music your meditation
Many years ago I read an interview with Steve Vai where he talked about something called “external meditation”. This is also known as “object-focused meditation”, and basically it means that you’re putting your focus into something other than your internal thoughts. One popular way to do this is to hold a smooth stone while doing steady breathing exercises.
But we musicians are lucky: we can put that focus into an instrument instead. I find that simply playing something repetitive and steady, over and over again, gets me into the same meditative headspace and helps me to relax. I work as a music journalist and social media manager, so my entire day is pretty much played out on screens. To be able to unplug from all of those distractions and put all of my focus into playing music instead is so refreshing. No matter what’s going on in your life you can always put your heart into your instrument.
Music is about bonding
Music is also great for teaching you to work within a team. When I was 16 I joined a professional cover band full of members who were about 10 years older than me. I wowed them in the audition because I pulled out all the guitar tricks I knew, but once we got into rehearsals we all realised something wasn’t quite clicking. The band leader was very patient and he explained to me that instead of playing the song with the rest of the band, it was almost like I was just playing the song at the same time as the rest of the band.
While I was hitting all the right notes, I wasn’t really syncing up with the drums, bass and other guitar player. I needed to learn to trust myself to learn my part well enough that I could put my focus on listening to the other instruments instead of my own, and making sure I was really locking in with them. Once I practiced and understood this, everything clicked. And ever since then I’ve had some really great experiences with bands. Music transcends language and age, and it’s a magical thing to communicate with other people without words.
This is something my Aunty Barbi taught me, and all her music students: play your song with PRIDE (Phrasing, Rhythm, Introduction, Dynamics and Endings). In other words, give each note a clear beginning, middle and end. Understand and feel the rhythm of the song, catch the audience’s attention and imagination with the introduction, and leave them with a clear sense of finality at the end. And make sure you do everything to keep them listening in between!
I’ve been extremely fortunate to jam onstage with both Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, two of my favourite players of all time. Intimidating, right? Well yeah, it probably is, but the trick is to talk yourself into believing you can do it and that it’s totally natural to be playing with them. There’s a book called The Inner Game Of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey which taught me a lot about overcoming those little obstacles that can affect our musical performance, particularly self-doubt and stage fright. I can be a pretty shy guy, but I’ve put so much of my heart into playing guitar that I feel confident and invincible as soon as I’m on a stage with a guitar in my hands. Even when one of my guitar heroes is standing right next to me. Of course, after an experience like that it’s totally okay to freak out on the way home.
Music is about connections
One night I jumped up on stage at a blues club in Canberra to play some happy, upbeat blues and I was having the time of my life. Afterwards, a couple came up to me to tell me that my joy for playing guitar was really infectious and that it made everyone want to get up and dance. That meant a lot to me because it made me realise that when you’re really feeling joy in what you’re doing, it becomes contagious and you can make somebody else’s day better too. And that makes it all worthwhile; you can work on learning to play an instrument by yourself, transfer those skills to a band situation and then connect with a whole room full of people. And there’s nothing else like it.
The greatest thing about being a musician is that there’s always something new to discover: a genre you’ve never listened to before, a playing technique you’ve never tried, a new player to learn from, a new tuning, new equipment that can inspire you to create sounds you hadn’t even dreamed of before. Once you’ve been bitten by the music bug, it turns you into a lifelong learner, and the things you learn about yourself in the process can then be applied to the way you approach life itself. And the more interesting your life is, the more interesting your music will be!
WORDS BY: Peter Hodgson
Peter has been a guitarist since he was 8, and a professional music journalist since 1997. Over the years you may have seen his writing in Guitar World, Premier Guitar, Gibson.com, Australian Guitar, Australian Musician, Mixdown Magazine Blunt, Beat (including their weekly metal column), The Brag and many more. Read his blog “I Heart Guitar” and check out The I Heart Guitar Podcast on iTunes.