It happens all the time. As a student you feel like you aren’t making enough progress and you sort of understand what the teacher is talking about but not all of it. His or her hands just seem to glide effortlessly over the guitar, or the bass, or the piano and you just seem to plod along. Then you get home, maybe you feel motivated to practice, but something comes up: a phone call, dinner, family or any number of distractions hit you. Eventually, you do get to it a day or two later but for the life of you can’t remember what your music teacher was talking about. And so it goes…

But there are better ways to do this. And that is what I want to talk about today. Consequently, I am naming this blog:  How to get the most out of your music lessons.

I will cover 5 things to make your guitar lesson, drum lesson, bass lesson, voice lesson or whatever more productive.

Take notes in the lesson

This might seem like a no-brainer but honestly, I rarely see music students do this unless I tell them too. Note taking helps increase attention to detail, memory aid and much more. There are so many ways to do this: on a piece of paper with your phone or tablet or anything at hand. But, the question remains: “what part of the lesson do I take notes on?” The short answer is ask your teacher. However, there are some simple things that will help.

  1. Ask what to work on for the week and write it down
    Sometimes as music teachers we have a tendency to cover a lot of topics in short time. This might seem a little scattered. It helps us to give you an assignment and it helps you to know exactly what to work on over the week. Don’t be afraid to ask for specifics.
  2. When you ask a question be sure to write down the answer
    This seems like a statement of the obvious, but we all do this. We get stuck on a problem, or a technique and when we come into our lesson we ask the question. But then continue the same habit because we forgot the answer. Write it down. Make a note and then you will better at your next lesson. 
  3. Take notes on the music you are playing
    Whether this is an exercise, a chord chart, tablature, or notation make notes about fingerings, placement, timing issues, rhythm patterns etc. You are going to be looking at this music for the next week it should have some notes on it about how you should play it. 

Get a folder

It is not uncommon to see a guitar student with just a stack of papers stuffed into a guitar case. I’ve also seen drum students with folded papers crammed into a stick back and voice students just come in and pull a piece of paper out of their pocket. Inevitably, these get lost, go through wash, fall out in the parking lot and generally just get manhandled and beaten into a pulp.

It is also hard to organize your practice (see my previous blog on organizing your practice time, something I also talk a lot about in my podcast). This is why a binder can be just as good if not better. Instead of just having a place to put your music you can go ahead and divide the sections up. As a guitar player I usually have a section of technical exercises (like these from Guitar Player), and that is subdivided into different types, scale and chord work, and songs. I’ve seen drummers divide up their binders into rudiments, songs, fills and exercises as well. It works well for just about everyone.

Track your practice

I am a huge proponent of this. Here is why: you can’t know how much you’ve improved if you don’t have a baseline to work with. Let me put it this way, when you are going to the gym you want to know that you are getting stronger, or loosing weight or whatever your goal might be? But how could you know you are loosing weight if you don’t know how much you weighed to start, or 1 week in or 3 weeks in? The same for strength, if you don’t know how much you were bench pressing 2 weeks ago how does today compare? The same is true with music practice.

Your progress will start by soaring initially but the grunt work comes in when you are about to that 3 month mark. At that point you need to know that you are still making progress. Maybe not daily but you will see results week on week.

I recommend starting with a with a simple spreadsheet that allows you to put the day, the time you spent and what you are working on, the beats per min (BPM – see “use a metronome”) 

DateExercise/SongBPM Time Spent
7/27/18Hotel California Solo10010min

 If you want to go into more detail, try more of a diary/journal approach. I have come to prefer this method as I will give myself notes about the particular song or exercise. Some of my students will give themselves a ranking out of 5 starts. I think this can also be good for those times when you nail it. It is good to look back and see your successes as well as your progress. For example I use this format:

7/27/18 – 10 min Hotel California – 100 BPM, started well, mid-section is a little sloppy, clean up bends and check intonation. Etc.

Get a metronome

Simply put, we all need to work on our timing. I use them a lot in my lesson with students. The metronome is the best tool to help you learn how to feel subdivisions of a beat. Not only that, it is ruthless. It doesn’t speed up or slow down if you miss the drum fill or the chord change. It doesn’t stop, it just keeps going.

When working with the metronome start slow. Don’t rush it. Make sure that you get it your exercise or drum rudiments or scales down in time first. Then speed it up. Start with quarter notes, then eighth notes and then sixteenth notes. I encourage my students to get the muscle memory first. In one practice session I start slow, building that accuracy, then start ratcheting up the speed until you come off the rails. Then dial it back and get that accuracy.

Take a video

Every now and then your music teacher is going to say something, play something or talk about body position and you are more than likely to forget exactly what it looked like as well as what they said. Fortunately we live in an age when you can take a video and keep it with you wherever you go.

This can be extremely handy as we are learning new material and new techniques. I am a very technical teacher, because I have learned that correct positioning of the hands and fingers can make you a better guitar player faster. This is also true with techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs (our video link). But a video can help my students remember not only what we worked on but the finer points of a technique, using a scale or learning triads around the fret board.

We have so many tools at our disposal now. Be sure when you are in your lesson ask your music teacher to write it out for you, to take a video for you and help you work on these things. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We love it when you do. I can promise if you start doing these 5 things you will get more out of your lessons, more out of your practice time and whether you are working on drums, guitar, bass, voice, piano, ukulele, or even banjo you will see better results. 

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