What Are Your Goals? Do You Have Any?

Weekly Newsletter #7

September 23, 2021

Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter 

Something guitarists must ask themselves is, “what am I trying to accomplish?” 

This simple question is the cornerstone of any quality guitarists’ forward momentum; the driving force behind progress. Without asking this, it is virtually impossible to move forward with your playing. 

How many times have you sat down to practice and played the same songs, licks or chords you already know and can easily play? Most likely, the answer is “all the time”. 

It is a very easy trap for us musicians to fall into. Playing the same things because they are comfortable, easy and we sound good playing them is a surefire way to stagnate or even move backward in your progress as a player. 

Let’s face it, the reason we play guitar is because its fun and we love making those cool sounds come out of this instrument. However, for most of us, the drive to improve is what keeps us coming back day in and day out. 

The ultimate problem that I see with most players is the lack of forethought that goes into progressing as a player. How do you get better? Practice, right? 

Well, sort of, but it truly depends on two things: what you consider practice, and how you do it. 

Playing the same old stuff you always play is definitely not practice, and I encourage you to stop thinking of it that way. After all, if a child was being taught simple addition and subtraction in 1st grade, that might seem reasonable. But if they were still doing the same exact set of addition and subtraction problems in 3rd grade, you would obviously say that child has not made any progress. 

But yet, for some reason guitarists will play the same song for years thinking that they are moving forward, or maybe hoping they are moving forward. 

In reality, unless you are consistently pressing up against the edge of your capabilities, you’re most likely not going to improve at all. What this means is that if, for example, you want to play like Santana you might think learning his licks would be a good idea. And you’d be correct in that assumption. So you learn a few of his licks and you can now play them. Cool. Now what? 

The answer to that is the same answer for everything you practice on guitar… “How can I make this thing I’m learning harder and more challenging?” 

If you learned a few Santana licks in G minor lets say, then how can you make this harder so that you can actually progress on the instrument? After all, simply learning his licks won’t be enough for you to fluently use them in a D blues shuffle. 

Now you must ask yourself that original question, “What am I trying to accomplish?” The answer, as we already established, is to learn to play like Santana. That means you must learn to think about music and scales and improvising the same way he does. You must somehow get into the mind of Santana. 

Now, the strategy for doing that would be taking the licks you learned in G minor and transposing them to other keys. Being able to easily execute the same lick in all 12 keys on demand is an obvious way to make this task more challenging. And then, after doing that, what about playing the licks in different octaves? Or maybe playing them in various tempos and completely different styles of music could provide a new challenge. 

The point of this example is to show that there is always a way to make what you already know into something more difficult, something that will test your limits and push your ability, forcing you to improve. 

An advanced level of this process would be harmonic analysis of what you are playing. Meaning that you are aware of the notes in the G minor licks and how they relate to that key. Then taking that sequence of notes and being able to use them to create new licks that resemble the harmony Santana used, but that are wholly different from the licks you learned. 

When you sit down to dedicate an hour, or 30 minutes or however long you decide to practice, it is essential that you set a goal for yourself for that period of time. There can be no real, meaningful work done without having a concrete goal towards which you are striving. 

When I personally sit down for a practice session, I refuse to play anything that is comfortable for me. Instead I establish a goal, and that goal must be achievable. It cannot be for example, going from playing a lick at 60 BPM to playing that same lick at 120 BPM. This is wildly unrealistic and you will certainly fail, which will lead to lower motivation and lack of confidence, both of which are terrible for progress. 

In this example, of trying to gain speed during a practice session, I set my goal at 1-2 BPM increase PER DAY! Yes, you read that right. I don’t try to increase my speed more than that. I find the speed limit at which I can play and my goal is to play that lick 5 times perfectly in a row only 1-2 BPM faster than my maximum speed. 

By following this method I can successfully increase my speed 7-14 BPM per week, guaranteed. And the best part of this method is that I will never have to wonder if I’ll nail this lick when playing fast. Since I didn’t jump large BPM gaps while practicing, I know for a fact that I can execute the lick at speed every single time. There is no question, there is no wondering, only confidence and certainty that I will play it as easily as I play a C chord. 

By establishing this concrete goal, I have a singular focus and this helps keep me motivated and “in the zone”. Everything I practice follows this same structure. I sit down, and decide how long I will practice before taking a break. I then decide on my goal for that time, and begin working toward it, always asking myself, “Can I make this more challenging?” 

The ultimate takeaway from this must be that you should follow a specific protocol when practicing. 

Decide how long you will practice before you sit down. Set an exact number of minutes and keep track of the time. 

Formulate a concrete goal, only one goal that you will work towards during this practice session. 

Decide on the best strategy for succeeding at this goal given the allotted time you have. If you feel the goal is possibly unachievable in that time frame, reassess and establish a more achievable goal. 

Work methodically toward that goal using incremental progress. Do not start out at the finish line. Find a series of steps you must take to get to the goal. Follow these steps with no deviation. 

Test your goal using the method of playing it 5 times in a row perfectly. Set your standards very high so that it is hard to meet. “Perfectly” means no dead notes, no buzzing, and no mistakes of any kind. Even if you get to the end of the 5th repetition and make a tiny error, start back at zero. 

You will only improve using this method. It may be frustrating at times, but progress is never free. In order to truly become a better player, you must work for it and discipline is the greatest aid you can possibly have. Playing is not practice, and practice is not playing, you must remember that. 

“Discipline equals freedom” - Jocko Willink 

Max Rich