How I improve my playing
This article came about from a correspondent's question regarding how I've come to improve my playing.
The first thing I'd like to explain is that improvement comes slowly for me. This is no doubt a result of the techniques I use.
Motivation is important. My motivation is to be able to improvise and perform without a band. I'm not talking about playing leads. I want to be able to play something that an average listener - not another guitarist - would enjoy hearing. Pianists do this all the time. Guitarists tend to be content to specialize and focus on minutiae of sounds and technique rather than to make music that stands on its own.
Consistency is another factor. I try to work on my music (i.e.: study theory, practice technique and compose) for 5 to 10 hours a week depending upon what else is going on in my life. I don't follow a schedule. It just happens that doing everything I'd like to do takes that long.
Lessons haven't played a big part in my studies. I use books and recordings for reference and inspiration. I took a couple lessons back around 2000, shortly after I got back into playing guitar. I picked up a few pointers and got started on learning the music theory that I should have learned when I was much younger. I wasn't really interested in studying a particular style or learning a particular technique. For me it was more about learning ... and I know this sounds kind of fuzzy; it probably is ... about how the instrument "works" in a musical sense.
I really don't want to copy someone else's music. I want to *make* music. I realize that nothing's truly original. Certainly my stuff isn't. I know that some of what I play is borrowed. Other bits of my music I can't necessarily identify, but I'm sure that they come from somewhere in my experience - the things I've heard at some point in the past. To be fair, a lot of what I play is still patterns and some of those are accidental. But increasingly, the music is that I play is becoming *my* music. And that's a good thing. That's what I'm working toward.
Here's where the explanation takes a turn into areas which are difficult to explain. There are two parts to playing. There's the analytical part and the creative part. I have to make a conscious effort to separate those. In other words, when I'm working on technique or theory I don't try to get creative. My focus is on the analytic part. Conversely, when I'm trying to be creative I try very hard to ignore technique and theory.
When I write out the dichotomy like that, it seems obvious. In practice, maintaining a separation between those two states is a really difficult thing to do. Here's a little trick I've learned: I will hear something - some random musical idea that comes out of a mistake, for example - that I'd like to follow in a creative sense when I'm trying to focus on technique and theory. I'll also - as I'm exploring creative ideas - discover a limitation in technique, or my knowledge of theory, or my ear training. The trick - for me at least - is to commit with intention. In other words, there's a sudden change in state from the analytic focus to the creative focus. I try to recognize that change in focus as it happens and to follow it. In other words, don't say "Hey, I was working on technique when I had a cool idea for a progression, but I'm going to ignore the progression and stay focussed on technique because that's what I should be doing."
Although this behavior may seem paradoxical to you, for me it's part of the mental discipline that helps me to maintain focus even though it may seem - from an outside perspective - as if behave with a complete lack of focus.
The final factor is this: I try to make note of my weak points and work on them. I don't make lists. Lists can overwhelm with too much detail. A weakness will remain a weakness until it's resolved. I find that when I write something on a list, it'll stay on the list regardless of its actual importance. If, rather than committing weaknesses to a list, I simply pay attention when I'm practicing then the truly important stuff will remain at the forefront of my awareness. This process is supported by playing every day.