Welcome to the second installment in our series, The Six Steps to Awesome!
In these articles we’re going to explore the six elements that will bring your guitar playing closer to Status: Awesome.
But remember that these points can apply to anything you want to learn and master – whether it’s driving a car, making an omelet or juggling chainsaws – so please read on with that in mind.
(Especially if you plan on juggling chainsaws. That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to do if you’re not awesome. :))
If you haven’t read the first part yet – Make the Commitment – then please do that now, since it all starts with being committed.
This second installment is about finding a mentor – your own personal Mr. Miyagi – to coach you and give you the benefit of his experiences.
Sir Isaac Newton – regarded as perhaps the greatest and most influential scientist in history – was famously asked how he became so, well, brilliant. He replied, “Whatever I have learned in this life, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
A humble dude, that Sir Isaac.
Follow Newton’s lead and find some giants of your own. Pick a hero – or two, or ten – and imitate them. Do what they do, listen to the music they listen to, practice the way they practice.
Let them be your mentors.
Awesome Step #2: Find a Mentor
So where do you find your Mr. Miyagi?
You could look around your community, ask for referrals, network with other musicians. A Google search is always good. One of these methods is likely how you found me.
But here’s an interesting thing about mentors: You don’t even have to know them personally to derive the benefits of their experience. I’ve got mentors that don’t even know they are my mentors!
I’ve only just connected with Jamie Andreas in a very small way on Facebook, but I’ve been learning from her work for years. I had my first “A-ha!” moments about teaching while reading her essays. I’ve probably learned more about quality instruction from her than I did in four years of college.
I’ve never met British guitar tutor, Nick Minnion, either, but I’ve “borrowed” (wink) some of his best ideas and use them regularly.
Local musicians, famous musicians, teachers, friends – it doesn’t matter. Stay curious and keep your eyes and ears open. Soak up as much as possible. Have faith that it will eventually make its way into your guitar playing.
It will be awfully difficult to stand on the shoulders of giants – to be mentored – if you are not open to learning. So the underlying idea behind Awesome Step #2 is humility.
As the Zen master would say, “Carry an empty cup”, and strive to fill it with new ideas. If you believe your cup is already full, then you shut yourself off to new learning. Keep a beginner’s mind no matter how advanced you become.
Beginners sometimes struggle with humility because they believe they should be learning faster than they are. They don’t want to endure the mistakes or wait out the plateaus. They want success now.
Unfortunately that’s not how the learning process goes.
George Leonard details this topic nicely in his classic book, Mastery. He assures the reader that plateaus are a necessary part of skill-building, so you may as well learn to love them. It’s where your skills deepen, almost imperceptibly.
You earn your future successes on the plateaus.
It can be easy for the intermediate player to lose her grasp on humility. After all, she’s come a long way and has achieved many great things on the guitar.
But anyone on the path of mastery knows that you just keep putting one foot in front of the other – there is no end to the discovery.
Consider the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals, who was once asked why he still practiced at age 90. He replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”
Finally, be keenly aware that you can learn from anyone at anytime.
My students learn from me but I also learn from them. They turn me on to great music, their questions or challenges inspire new discoveries and teaching methods, and sometimes they show me a cool new guitar lick. We learn together.
One of the first pieces I ever wrote for my website was called “Two Red Chairs”. The point of the essay was that learning goes both ways between teacher and student. As soon as you feel that only you are “the teacher” and the other person is “the student”, then that beautiful reciprocal vibe is sabotaged.
Be truly open and watch your playing soar.
When you find a mentor, please do what he suggests and follow his lead. When you hire a mentor (like me), don’t waste your money: Do what I ask you to do.
I’ve devoted my life to the guitar and I humbly submit that I can play it at a fairly high level. You do not – yet. Embrace this reality and be coachable.
Don’t make all sorts of “executive decisions” and don’t dismiss anything I’ve told you unless you’ve thoroughly investigated it. Consider that perhaps I see the big picture and you do not – yet.
Sometimes that big picture involves focusing on something rudimentary and working it to death. Since I know where we’re ultimately headed, I see the value in this, while you may not – yet.
THE KARATE KID
When Mr. Miyagi told Daniel to “Wax on, wax off”, he was teaching him fundamental discipline as well as underlying principles of movement. He knew that if young Dan could do this simple task well and stay focused, it would benefit him greatly down the line.
So please follow your mentor’s advice and trust the process. His goal is to guide you toward success, not failure.
Open Your Ears
Listen to the music you want to play.
Want to play jazz? Listen to jazz masters. The same is true for rock, country, blues, or any genre.
Listen to great players with intensity and concentration, not just casually. Engage yourself in their music. Let them mentor you.
Try to imitate the sounds, the attitude, and the technique. I spent my formative guitar years playing along with recordings and trying desperately to match what I heard Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan or George Benson do. To this day, the practice thrills me.
And learning by ear is a great way to be mentored by the best of the best.
Want to improve your songwriting? Learn a Beatles tune by ear (as well as you can) and pick it apart. Study it, analyze it. Try to draw some conclusions as to why Paul made the 4 chord minor, or why John rhymed the third line instead of the second.
Immerse yourself in great music and you will be inspired. Humbled.
Being awesome doesn’t happen by accident. It’s wise to have a mentor to guide you.
If you’ve found yourself a Miyagi or two, then I’ll see you at Awesome Step #3: Pay Attention. Cheers!
QUESTION: Who are your mentors? Leave me a comment below!