Successfully Educating your main student: YOU!
May 17, 2021

Written by Doug Perkins

One of the things that I have learned from teaching both my private students and my MAIN “lifetime student” – meaning, ME – is how much as human beings we don’t really understand how to learn things. And in terms of music, that means that many don’t really understand the best ways to practice our instruments.
I was lucky enough to have been a student and then teacher at G.I.T. (Guitar Institute of Technology, later to become Musician’s Institute) in Hollywood during it’s heyday when the great Howard Roberts was still involved. Howard was one of the few true geniuses I have encountered in life – and I’m not talking about someone who was a genius in just one thing, he was just a true renaissance man who was brilliant in lots of things. The main thing that he studied that I had never met anyone that was an expert on before was the science of how the mind actually learns things. The principles that he taught about how we learn things was without a doubt the most valuable thing I ever got out of my time there, because I have used it my entire life to learn music quickly and effectively, be it in the studio, stage, etc.
Here are the main points, I really suggest that you give these serious consideration, because I tell them to all of my students in their first lesson:

  1. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what you MEANT to do and what you are actually DID – whatever you did is what it “learns” as correct. That is the reason that Howard’s motto of “Slow Is Fast” was repeated at GIT so often – what it meant is that if you play something SLOWLY with NO MISTAKES, you will learn it faster because you won’t have to go back and “fix” the mistakes that you “taught” your mind. It takes many more “correct repetitions” to fix an incorrect programming than if the perfect repetitions were there from the start, so you are saving a lot of time not learning mistakes. I would guess that virtually all musicians know that frustrated feeling when you keep playing something wrong in the exact same way even though you “know” that it’s wrong – your conscious mind might know it’s wrong, but your unconscious is just repeating what you taught it, and it takes a very conscious reprogramming with many repetitions to change it.
  2. Your subconscious mind will keep working on something you learned after you’ve physically stopped “working on” or practicing it. You can prove this by learning something and moving on to practicing something else, and then going back later and realizing that you are now better at it than when you stopped before. This is why the most effective practicing is continuously changing what you are working on continuously – say every 3-20 minute periods at most – which refreshes the attention span and takes the most advantage of this subconscious improvement ability the brain has. This is how people can practice 10-12 hours in a day, and also how a busy adult musician can get the most out of a few minutes practice here and there through a day. So don’t blow off 5 minutes here and 10 minutes 2 hours later, you will improve more than in a single 30 minute people where you spend 10-15 minutes of it looking at your cell phone.

I will go into more detail on this in an upcoming blog, but let me tell you this story that illustrates these truths:
I was I think in my 1st or 2nd year as an instructor at MI and got a gig playing for a keyboard player for his high school graduation – except it wasn’t the average HS kid, he had a publishing deal with Motown and a heavyweight band including James Jamerson’s son on bass. One of the tunes were were going to play was Chaka Khan’s version of Charlie Parker’s “Night In Tunisia” that includes that famous very fast alto saxophone break did played on synth and sax. I asked him who has to play the lick and he said “you do”! (luckily, the sax player was doubling me). The gig was in 2 weeks and the line was 16th notes and 16th note triplets at somewhere between 180-200 BPM. I realized that I had zero time to waste and had to practice as efficiently as possible to pull this off.
I started by transcribing the lick (yes, he didn’t provide that) and playing it very slowly looking for the most comfortable and fast fingerings and picking for me. Once I decided on them, I never every varied them and started at the very bottom of the metronome – probably around 60 BPM. I absolutely resisted responding to any insecurity worries to see if I could get anywhere close to the performance tempo for the entire first week, the tempos came up really only 2-3 BPM a day.
I did that because I wanted absolutely no doubt of the fingerings or pickings whatsoever, because at that tempos played and the fact that was going to be only one run through, my mind had to be completely clear on what to play. The day of the gig I met the sax player for the first time and we went into a separate room to run it over and I think we played it three times total flawlessly each time, so we decided to not be-labor it.
Yes, it did get played correctly in the performance, even through a misinterpreted cue by the trumpet player who started to play his solo over it – but even with that, it got played perfectly. This method of learning things has been what I have used when a difficult piece of music is put in front of me in a recording situation or at a live gig. It works, and even if you could have used a few more minutes with it, it still gives WAY BETTER results than nervously trying to play it up to tempo right away.
And here’s another tip – NEVER try to learn anything in the studio or on a gig with your volume up. There’s no reason to paint a target on your back, just quietly get it together and let them think that you played it COLD first time – some myths are good to let perpetuate 😉
Here’s some “licks for the gig” you can apply this to, taught using the principals I’ve outlines here :

Also available as separate volumes:


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