Getting the Most out of Private Lessons

I’ve been teaching private lessons for 14 years. I’ve been a student of music for longer. I’ve taught guitar, bass, drums, piano, and voice. I’ve been in jazz bands, rock bands, church choirs, and Italian operas. I have studied western and world music theory, electronic music composition, recording and mixing, songwriting, and arranging. And through all of these things, what I have found most rewarding in my relationship to music is not the time spent learning any single instrument, style, habit, or from any one book, teacher, or method, but in an earnest devotion to something bigger… and that is Musicianship.

What is Musicianship?

Musicianship is a word that summarizes some big ideas: fluency in the language of music theory, a good handle on a primary instrument, a posture of active engagement with the music around you, but above all, a special level of attention paid to your own musical expression. The result of Musicianship is a quiet confidence, knowing that in any musical situation, you know who you are and you know what you can do musically.

Musicianship does not come passively, obviously. It must be developed with intention. It comes long in more concrete ways with a teacher. But the bulk of the development does not happen in the lesson. It happens at home, in your own room when no one else is watching. It takes place in the application, the wrestling, the continual journey of musical self-assessment. It is a fluid process more than it is a fixed goal. With that said, there are real habits to implement, real world markers, tests, and accomplishments to be observed along the way.

Classical training vs. being self-taught

I started with one foot in the classical world, and another in being self-taught. So I can relate to students with backgrounds in both academic and informal music education settings.

I know firsthand the experience of having my musical aptitude judged according to my ability to sight-read sheet music. I know the frustration of going through tabs only to find out how little there was to be gleaned about  music in general from them. I also know the value of learning music I love, and the deep kind of solitude and even feelings of inadequacy that come up when learning it when no tab, tutorial, or sheet music is there to rely on.

But what has kept me hungry and interested in developing my musicianship long-term was finding ways to make the music I loved somehow belong to me, ways to internalize it and make it my own. At different times that was the music of this composer, this song, this particular version of this song, this artist, this band, this album, style, this tradition, this instrument, or this method. Sometimes I had formal instruction (classical piano, jazz drums, choir, ear-training, music theory), and other times I have had to direct my own learning (I am self-taught guitar, rock drums, bass, non-classical piano, voice, music transcription, Ableton Live, synthesizers).

Each area of study has become a footnote in my journey; the depths to which I dove into each has become ingrained in my musical identity in some way. And a healthy kind of obsession was sparked with each new discovery and period of crazed devotion; I knew it was healthy when it energized my love of the craft, and made me want to come back to it over and over again. To this day I can name songs which have become personal unicorns (songs I keep chasing even if I know I can never get there)! But it isn’t about achieving what my favorite artists have achieved, at least not in any specific way. I may never accomplish what Eric Clapton, The Eagles, U2, Jars of Clay, Buddy Rich, Jaco Pastorius, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pedro the Lion, Derek Webb, Dave Matthews, Radiohead, Bon Iver, The National, Grizzly Bear, James Blake, and Jai Paul have accomplished. But what I can do is internalize something deep about the music I love, make it my own, and allow that to inform the music I make, and take steps to put my musical expression out there.

On developing Musicianship:

All of this is made possible with a combination of three important parts: good habits, musical transcription, and a sober presumption that Musicianship is a process. Dedicate yourself to this process (more below) and trust that results will come–whether you see an immediate payoff or experience longer periods without a breakthrough–by putting in the work and learning to find the reward within the work is the true goal. The reward that comes from this Musicianship pursuit is one of the rare things in life that are not for anyone else, for school, nor for work… but for you.

Good habits include:
  • having a comfortable space that is devoted to making music, with good headphones, an audio source, and your instrument(s) easily within reach, i.e. not inside its case or locked in a closet
  • setting aside a reasonable amount of time 3-5x weekly of making music at a high level of focus. Try 10-15 minutes three times a week to start (there is no need to play the same song for four hours at a time… this is how you flame out)
  • listening to new music, old music with new ears, or fresh re-interpretations of old music
  • paying attention when live music is happening around you
  • noticing what you like and dislike about the music happening around you
  • writing your own music: fragments of ideas, fragments you eventually assemble into larger cohesive musical expressions you find satisfying (songs, instrumental pieces, works for other creative projects, etc.)
  • recording yourself playing, listening back, and identifying areas for improvement
  • breaking down difficult sections into manageable, bite-sized pieces, and repeating those difficult sections until they are as smooth as the easy sections
  • for improvisation: playing over chord changes once, re-writing/tweaking here and there, scrapping bits of it, replacing/upgrading those bits, and repeating this entire process many, many times until you are satisfied, and when you aren’t satisfied, going for a walk, coming back, and repeating it again.
  • putting it out there in some way, either via uploading it, or sharing it with someone else whose musical opinion you respect and who respects you for the purposes of accountability and/or perspective
Musical transcription is:
  1. recognizing what’s happening in the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the music you’re studying (ear-training)
  2. understanding the ideas that are in the music but also bigger than any one song (music theory)
  3. writing it down so you don’t forget it, you can analyze and interpret it, gain deeper levels of insight, and make it your own. I have developed a system for myself and my students which I believe is optimal for learning transcription. It is based on the Time Unit Box System, Moveable Do, and Roman Numeral Chord Analysis, and it is called the WARRENMUSIC Grid. More on that below.
The simple (but not easy!) three step process I rely on when it comes to developing Musicianship is:
  1. listening to and learning how to play music you love note-for-note,
  2. breaking it all down, gleaning insight from it, thinking about what musical ideas are in it, and recognizing what musical ideas are in it but also bigger than the song itself, and ultimately,
  3. re-contextualizing it (doing something new with it). This can be through a cover of a song you love but done in a way that honors what is in the original but does not copy superficially, or through an theory exercise prompted by creative constraints taken directly from the original song or multiple songs, or through some other kind of remix or re-framing of the original music.

In private lessons, I personally guide you through any/all of this.

While I take my active role in your journey seriously, the greatest truth I want to impart is a deep security in the knowledge that, above all, the investment you make in your own Musicianship is the main thing. And it will never let you down. Making music is a lifelong pursuit. Not only will you never reach the bottom, you will never regret developing your own musicianship.

Standard Notation–which is now ubiquitous in music programs everywhere as well as the jazz and classical worlds–was invented a few hundred years ago as a way to help composers more efficiently and effectively convey detailed technical instructions to performers who were part of a tradition of music based in Western Europe. It did the job it was made for beautifully. But despite its prevalence, it is not without its problems. Standard Notation relies on esoteric symbols and italian words to be decoded, as well as time signatures that don’t mean what they say, a small number of the many pitfalls that come from inheriting a system increasingly unfit for the needs of students of music today. As popular music is increasingly written, performed, and produced by different communities of people with different musical priorities, and music production methods are increasingly electronic, synthesizer, sample- and software-based, and in bedrooms, attics, and basements rather than symphony halls, why is Western European Classical Notation still called “Standard Notation?”

Tabs and YouTube tutorials have become the de facto Internet standard of learning the guitar. With someone showing you where to put your fingers or fixed-width fonts to help keep things orderly, it’s never been a better time to learn guitar, with regard to access. But when the tutorial ends, or in the event that the tab is inaccurate/doesn’t exist for the song you want to learn, progress usually stops as well. Because no matter how good the tutorial or tab is, as long as the primary focus of these formats is on what our fingers are doing on the fretboard, specific to only that one song, any musical features and ideas within them remain hidden. Musical concepts and principles are even farther away. Nothing is generalized, everything to be gained is limited to one riff, one section, and one song. Learning a new song via tab or tutorial is an entirely new undertaking each time, and any advancement in recognition or appreciation of musical ideas (ear-training and music theory) is shallow. Because tabs promote a visual, paint-by-numbers approach to the guitar, they do so at the expense of furthering Musicianship.

What we need is a theoretically instructive, listener-centric alternative for our modern purposes. Enter, the WARRENMUSIC Grid.

The WARRENMUSIC Grid, based on the Time Unit Box System, is intuitive, fast, modular, and communicable. Embracing cipher notation (Scale Degrees) as a means of introducing relative pitch, and chord numerals to make chord progressions and harmonic analysis easier, the WARRENMUSIC Grid is my attempt to bridge the gap between the best of the music theory of the Western European Classical tradition, world music theory, and the new music of today.

The Grid isn’t just for students. It’s for me, too. It’s how I learn new songs, and how I share what I learn in a digestible way with others. It’s one of the reasons I was able to learn and teach Radiohead songs on YouTube the day they came out.

If nothing else, TUBS is simple, and unassuming. It is more universal, as both seasoned musicians and beginners can grasp it intuitively. Scale Degrees can be replaced with note names, Chord Numerals with chord names, and the system is flexible enough to accommodate any kind of music.

And now that you are taking lessons from me, it’s all yours.

“It’s all yours.”

I’ll finish this with a personal anecdote I come back to again and again. It’s the story about a guitarist and songwriter named Derek Webb, and specifically the three fingerstyle songs he wrote when he was a member of a popular Christian folk/rock band called Caedmon’s Call.

The friend who introduced me to one of these songs on a burned CD had surmised that they were all played by one man. But the first time I heard these intricate fingerpicking techniques, melodic motifs, unusual chord voicings, rubato, modulations, and harmonics, I was flummoxed. “How…?” I thought.

I discovered the next two of these three songs buried deep in the tracklisting of some obscure unreleased, fan club only CDs called The Guild Collection: “Down Around You,” “Seagull Song,” and “Revelation.” Since this was the early 2000s, I had scour eBay for them and have them shipped to my college dorm room.

At the time, I was in my first year at UCLA, and a teacher asked everyone to transcribe a song note-for-note to the best of our ability for our world music theory class. I chose one of these songs, and that choice led me down a very unexpected path.

What happened over the next week or so were hours at a time spent in an aural world where nothing existed but the song I was trying to figure out. There was no, there was no YouTube, there was no piano/vocal/guitar songbook, no instructional DVD. At first, I thought I had set myself up to fail. Later, I realized, I set myself up to succeed. I put myself in a corner where the only way out were my ears and my understanding of what I was hearing.

The first song frustrated me until I figured out the tuning. DGDGAD. Wow, what an unusual tuning, I thought. But from then on, the whole thing gained steam. I learned not just the first song, but the other two as well. I learned them note-for-note. I learned every hammer-on, double pull-off, broken chord, and key change.

I played these songs for months, each round of with more detail, more nuance. Eventually, it became impractical, with only one guitar, to tune back to standard tuning every time I wanted to play a “regular” song. I had signed up to play guitar for church, and these songs were all in common keys like C, G, D A, E… and so I thought to myself, instead of tuning back to standard tuning every time and risking my strings breaking, why not just stay in DGDGAD and learn how to play families of chords in this new tuning instead?

I learned more about how the guitar works over that time period–how to apply the sounds in my ears and in my head to the fretboard–better than ever before.

Fast forward nine years, when I was deciding what to share next with my audience on my young YouTube channel, I pulled these three songs out of the closet and dusted them off.

Play Video
Play Video
Play Video

The reception upon my uploading of these covers was mild. My Radiohead tutorials and covers had garnered much more attention, especially since my early series of videos on In Rainbows made me “the Radiohead guy” for most of my subscribers.

But one day out of the blue, Derek Webb left me a comment on my video. The Derek Webb himself. Apparently, a fan of his and his band Caedmon’s Call had stumbled upon one of my covers and pointed them out to Derek himself on Twitter.

He wrote this on the video page:

“i am BLOWN away by this. no idea how you found, let alone learned this song. but i’m sure i couldn’t play it anymore. so it’s all yours. very well done.”

And this on Twitter:

Unless I read the first comment wrong… he made me the honorary writer of the song. Which is absolutely nuts. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine an artist I looked up to saying this to me. Similar to the recent movie about The Beatles’ music disappearing from the universe, and only one singer/guitarist remembered their catalogue, a similar scenario happened to me. One artist forgot how to play his song, and I honored it as closely as I could. In 2001, I had approached these songs as if I were making them mine, and then it literally (or figuratively?) happened.

I don’t dare to hope for this to happen to me again. I still hope Derek Webb plays the song again one day. But the important lesson I learned that day was a confirmation of something I knew all along… that the value was the work. What I put into those songs–the time invested in hyper-focused ear-training and technique, the little space I turned into my sacred guitar cave (my dorm room)–all of that work would not go to waste. Even if Derek Webb never saw the covers, all of that work would still have value. I later connected with him on Facebook, and he shared more words of praise for me. But what I came away with was so much more valuable than the words… it was the awareness that it’s the quality of the time spent in your music cave that matters more than anything, and that is when all of the music you learn becomes yours.

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