5 Barriers to Learning

As ever, I write these blog posts as an enthusiastic amateur performer and from the perspective of a learner (not a teacher) of the guitar.

And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading and podcast-listening into the subject of learning. Also, my daughter is 9 years old and she is learning the guitar through lessons at her school. I would love to help her accelerate her progress and not repeat the mistakes that I have made. So I thought I would ponder the “barriers” to learning and progress. Not all of these ideas are my own original thoughts, I’ve probably read them elsewhere but they particularly resonate with me and have given me light bulb moments.

Barrier 1 – learning shapes and positions

When you first learn the guitar, so much of the learning focuses on chord shapes, positions of fingers, scale diagrams etc. Too much emphasis is placed on learning these patterns instead of listening to the music. I think many guitarists will admit they have learnt pieces of music with no idea of what they are actually playing, or how it could be used as the basis of improvisation or further ideas. I think a solution to this could be to practice playing with your eyes closed and then identify the sounds you play. With my daughter, I’m experimenting with ear training and chord recognition. What does a sus4 chord sound like? What does a dominant7th chord sound like? I think it’s going to fun to teach her new chords, but not tell her what they are! Learn the chord, then through the process of listening and knowledge of the notes being played, work out what the chord is. And something that I’m now doing is learning new chord positions on the fretboard by calculation – eg, I know that a major triad is a certain sequence of notes; so finding those and using the fretboard as a resource for the sounds I’m after has to be a better learning process instead of just looking up a new chord “shape” in a book.

Barrier 2 – playing music correctly

I listened to a podcast recently with a chap called Jeffery Agrell and he talked about the crazy notion that, unlike other arts, music is heavily focused on faithfully reproducing existing works and any deviation is deemed to be a mistake. Well, if the aim of the exercise is to reproduce the music perfectly then yes, a mistake is a negative thing. But what about making it a positive thing? How about taking a melody line from a well know song and changing it and adapting it. Free up the music and get creative – some of these “rules” of reproduction of music are strict and stifling and result in creating a challenge that in turn can be a demoralising and demotivating experience.

Barrier 3 – not playing music correctly

Different to above, I believe that a barrier to learning is poor technique – this is where a mentor and teacher can help. Not fretting correctly, incorrect picking technique etc, can all create a joyless experience.

Barrier 4 – never learning a song all the way through (or not doing enough of this)

What does the guitar do? A: It produces sound. And what is the purpose of this? A: to entertain people! And why do teenage boys learn to play the guitar? A: to impress girls. So why do so many guitarists (like I did for many years) concentrate on technical ability instead of learning a song all the way through and performing it?! I believe that not doing this creates an unfulfillment that, quite possibly, many guitarists are not actually aware of; instead, they just get despondent. I believe the electric guitar is especially bad for this – generally speaking, an electric guitar is an ensemble instrument; it us used to create solos and riffs as part of a band performance. So, if the guitarist is not playing in a band, then why practice something that you can’t perform to people? That said, a session or dep player of course needs to practice and rehearse – but they won’t just practice the solo – they’ll learn the whole song, all the sections, the solos, riffs and embellishments and also the FX and performance style so that when they join a band at short notice they can play away and not hold anyone up. They can play the songs all the way through.

I’d even go as far as saying that you can only call yourself an intermediate player if you can perform a song or 2 all the way through, with confidence.

Barrier 5 – Using the Internet and YouTube

How long does it take to learn a complex piece of music? Well, we could follow the advice in barrier 2 above and not be too bothered about learning it correctly. But, when playing at a higher level, perhaps for paid gigs etc, there will be some song standards that people will expect to hear. So there is a need to learn songs faithfully – the point of barrier 2 was to demonstrate that it is ok to go off piste with your learning. But for learning a faithful cover, you could learn a new song from YouTube… perhaps the lesson is about 15 minutes long. And you think, brilliant, this video tells me exactly how to play it – “easy” you think. Wrong… the thing that never comes across in these types of videos is the time required to learn the different sections. If you went to see a guitar teacher in person and asked them to teach you the same song, then you’d be pretty unhappy if they rattled through it in 15 minutes and then expected you to have learnt it! Yes you can rewind the video etc… but it’s human nature to take a route of least resistance, which means the tendency is to focus on the bits that you can pick up and play and you’ll avoid or gloss over the bits that you can’t. A real-life guitar teacher does not do that! Instead, he/she will break the song down into sections and will, probably, give you homework to do and encourage you to learn the song over several sessions. It’s no co-incidence that the best internet teachers create learning packages and programmes.

Summary

I believe that learning the guitar requires freedom of expression, knowledge, discipline and focused/dedicated learning. But above all, learn whole songs and pieces of music. A good idea that I’ve started to do recently is (applying the principles of barrier 2) to learn a basic version of a song all the way and not worry about the exact details – just strum or pick it all the way through and start performing it. Then, over time, build on it – add a little turnaround riff or chord substitution, add the little passing chords or walk-up lines or the complex intro that is in the original, learn the solo etc. This way, you can still enjoy the fun of learning a technical riff or solo which sounds impressive, but you’re learning it in the context of music and not just for the sake of it.

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