We all want to get better on our instrument, and these days there’s no shortage of learning materials. A quick look on Google or YouTube will provide you with more lessons, tips, transcriptions and music theory than you’d get through if you lived ten lifetimes – and we haven’t even started with the printed material.
From 2005 until 2010, I gave guitar lessons for a living, and during that time I encountered many different people at many different skill levels. Some were good players, and some were not so good, as you could imagine. The two most frequent questions I got from my students regardless of level were “How can I get better?”, and “How can I get better at [topic]?”. From my viewpoint as a teacher, question number two was the easier one, as this could be related to exercises of some shape or form – including learning songs or pieces. Sadly, for most of my students the problem wasn’t that their technique was lacking, but that they had little or no idea about how to get the most of the technique they already posessed. Question number one, however, is far more difficult to answer in any meaningful way. At least that’s what it seemed like at the time.
One of the keys to a successful learning process, no matter what you’re actually trying to learn, is to be able to assess the results you’re getting. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking lessons or if you’re just playing by yourself. Any improvement you make has the potential to increase if you learn how to make an informed decision on what needs improving and what’s fine as it is. This applies to all, whether you’re taking lessons or learning by yourself. The (hopefully) positive effects that stem from any lessons will be added to the effects of successful self-assessment.
Why is self-assessment important?
Basically, if you’re good at assessing the results, you’ll also be good at targeting the things that need improving. If you’re good at targeting what needs improving, you’re not wasting time working on elements of your playing that don’t need improving. You might be thinking now that everything needs improving, but I’m not so sure that’s true – at least everything’s not in need of improving to the same degree. For instance: if you think your soloing needs work, my first question would be “What about your soloing needs improving?”. If you’d then said “I’m unable to bend notes with accuracy”, we’d both know what we should be spending time working on. If you instead had said “all of it”, our first task would be to diagnose your soloing as accurately as possible. Given that we actually would be able to do this successfully, we’d hopefully be able to distill some specific points to work with. If you imagine this little example with just one participant (you), you’d be self-assessing. In short, self-assessment done properly gives your work direction.
What sort of skill do we need to master to develop self-assessment? Well, if you were a writer you’d have to learn to read your own stuff critically; if you were a painter, you’d have to learn how to look at your paintings critically, and – unsurprisingly – to become a better musician, you have to learn how to listen critically.
“I’m my own worst critic”
No, I don’t think you are – at least not in this sense. Very often when people say this, what they’re actually doing is not being critical – they’re being frustrated and discontent. This is not the same thing. First of all, forget about the term “worst critic”, as it basically says that you’re judging yourself harder than other people do. We’re not out to judge, with all its negative connotations. What we’re aiming for is to rationally decide what needs work, and hopefully how to go about doing it. Perfectionism and self-loathing won’t help.
The Important Question™
To do this you need to record yourself. It’s not important how you record, as long as you can hear it back and maybe rewind. I’ve used the iPhone’s built-in Voice Memos app with great results. The point is for you to hear yourself as others hear you. Now, take whatever you’re working on and record it. Feel free to make several recordings if you get a touch of red light fever. After you’ve gotten a take that you think is OK, take a coffee break for five or ten minutes. Then go back and listen to it. The question you want to answer is this: “Is this the noise I’d like to make?”
I answered “no”, now what?
If you answered no to The Important Question™, what you’re really saying is that you’d like to be making different noises from the ones you are. The follow-up question should now be “what kind of noise would you like to make?” If you have a good answer to this question, that tells you were to focus your efforts. If you don’t have a good answer, then finding a good answer should be at the top of your priorities. This is where a lot of my former students were misguided. Instead of actually reflecting over what they should be doing, they started doing something just for the sake of doing it. Rarely, if at all, were the things they ended up doing effective means to evolve their playing.
Set goals and verbalise them
Setting goals is very important in this situation, and if you’re able to verbalise them you’re doing a good job of self-assessing. I had a student who was a huge Steve Lukather fan, although his playing was not even remotely similar. He was a very good student in the sense that he accurately identified some key properties of Lukather’s playing, and as a consequence he could focus his attention and assess his results. In this case, I basically just gave some technical advice, as he himself was dealing with the difficult bit. Specific examples include vibrato (speed and width), note choice and phrasing (especially the way he eases into bends). These examples are easy to spot and work on, given that you’re actually able to recognize them as properties that can be worked on independently, assessed, worked on some more, reassessed and so on.
Pick one thing at a time
What makes it difficult is that when we get sufficiently good at diagnosing our playing, the areas that need improving are many. If you want to work systematically and effectively with this, then you have to be patient and work on one thing at a time. Do random checks and ask yourself “is this thing that I’m working on actually helping me reach my goal?” If at some point you find that your focus has drifted and you’re working on stuff that’s not really related to making the noise you want to make (this often happens with time), then stop. Adjust and adapt what you’re doing to make it more in line with your stated goal.
It’s the arts
The point I’m trying to make is that what we’re doing is at best something that could be considered art, or in the very least, artistic. This means that it’s an intellectual, emotional and dare I say spiritual (whatever that means to you) enterprise. The technical and biomechanical side of it gets far too much attention, at the expense of the mental processes that ideally should be the final arbiter of what is deemed to be of a sufficiently good quality to have a reason to exist, and what doesn’t. The skill involved in making informed decisions about your own playing is something that needs to be practiced if it’s going to develop. You should start now, if you haven’t already.
- Some information about self-assessment in learning from the University of Reading
- Promoting self-directed learning and reflective practice through instrumental tuition (Academia.edu)