how do ya get to carnegie hall?

just a short note from the unsolicited advice department here at tomhampton.com, for you aspiring guitarists out there – and in here, as well…

it’s extremely important for any aspiring musician to learn to recognize the difference between studying your instrument, practicing your instrument, and playing your instrument.

this is a distinction that is easily lost on newcomers, and often overlooked by intermediate players as well…but it’s hard to become an advanced player without eventually coming to terms with the differences between the three.

some of you probably aren’t crazy about the idea of thinking of your instrument as something that you have to study, but the form of study that you apply to your instrument doesn’t have to be purely academic. you may also be one of the many players who tends to confuse the study of your instrument with the concept of practice, but the two are actually separate and independent of one another.

the study of your instrument consists strictly of gathering new information about it. when you learn something new from watching a video on YouTube, or seeing another player live, or reading something on the internet, this qualifies as study. anytime you’re gathering information, it can be considered study.

when you take that information and apply it to your instrument, it can be debatable to some whether that should be considered study or practice, but for the purposes of our discussion, practice should be considered as the process of taking information that you currently possess about your instrument and learning to apply it in a playing environment. this means that you’re taking those rudiments and scales that you’ve already learned and you’re running through them to reinforce them in your mind, and you’re also working on your physical technique to improve the means by which you actually play your instrument. speed, accuracy, and fluidity aren’t born into the vast majority of us, and improving those qualities takes a degree of repetition to hone them, and to push our personal envelopes past our comfort zone.

a healthy (but not necessarily exclusive) regimen of study and practice are vitally important to you as a player if you want to continually grow and improve. when a player constantly practices the things he already knows, the only opportunity he’s really giving himself is to become better at executing the things he already knows – and there’s a brick wall waiting at the end of that path. conversely, you can study your instrument, gather information about it, learn new things about it – but if you don’t take the time to work on incorporating that information into your vocabulary as a player, then that information only exists as random academia in your brain, and not in the muscles that control your instrument.

your ultimate goal in finding a balance of these two activities should be in cultivating the ability to take your instrument into a gig or a session or any other performance situation and be able to call upon this stream of new information when you play.

you’ve likely heard it said before – when you strap in and get ready to do this for real, the best work you’ll ever do is when your brain is switched off and you’re relying on your internal wiring to send the signals back and forth without fully realized instructions from your conscious thought processes. if you’ve done the necessary work to gather information about the instrument (study), apply that information to your personal ability as a player and have repeated it enough times to commit it to your vocabulary (through practice), you’ll find that it’s not really necessary to expend a lot of attention towards your actual technique when you’re playing with your band or cutting a track for a session.

i don’t know much, but i do know that – without a doubt – one of the best things about being a musician is that moment of euphoria that occurs when something flies off your fingers that amazes you as much as anyone else who might have heard it…and leaves you wondering where the hell it came from.

you may not always know specifically where it came from…but if you strike the right balance of study and practice, you’ll at least know why it came.

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