What did you learn today?

A question parents often ask students after their music lesson is: “What did you learn today?” or “Did you learn something new in the book?” Although they mean well, learning something new should not be the only measure of a successful lesson.

Of course we all need to regularly learn new material in order to grow as a musician, however, it is not always necessary to acquire more knowledge. Musical ideas, concepts and techniques need constant revision, sometimes it is best to spend a week or two revising material without the added burden of learning something new. Consolidation is very often necessary before moving onto a new area of study.

Exam material and or important performance pieces should be revised every lesson and every practice session at home and obviously practiced more and more as we approach the exam or performance date. New material can and should be introduced slowly from method books and other sources where necessary. A new page may be looked at each week, fortnight or longer if the student has not practiced enough, or absorbed the material to an acceptable level of musical competence. Every page does not have to be perfect in order to move on, but it should be reasonably secure (it can be improved over the next few weeks in our revision) New material requires more concerted effort and the older material can be perfected gradually as we progress through the book. By the time we finish a method book every page should have been practiced hundreds (thousands is better) of times. If we are insecure in the early pages the progress will often slow down, or stall altogether in later stages. Do not skip material in method books, it is there for a reason!

Many times I will say to students something like; “That was not quite there, let’s spend another week on it and make it more secure” Other times, I will say: “That was really fantastic, so let’s spend another week on it!”

It is best not to be in a rush to finish our books, as soon as we finish we should be onto a new book anyway. We should not judge our progress by what page we are up to in a book, best not to make arbitrary judgements that really have no meaning. Guitarists are making progress all over the world, working from different method books and resources, the material we learn is not as important as the learning we undertake. The content of our practice sessions is of lesser importance than the quality of our attention, learning and technical execution.


One of the main books we learn guitar from at Caroline Springs School of Music generally takes anywhere from a year to 3 years to complete (if learned correctly) often a new student will come to us having “finished” the book elsewhere in a month or two. In almost every instance the material is not secure at all, especially the early pages. Glass half empty; we have to start again. Glass half full: at least this time we will actually learn something. I would rather see someone playing well on the first page than playing poorly on the last page.

How do we keep our playing from stagnating or becoming boring whilst working slowly through method books and exam pieces? Try different approaches to the same material, mix it up; play the same pieces with different feels, tempi, orders etc. Work backwards through books, practice pieces from the end, back to the start. Try working improvisation into all practice sessions. One of the great things about ANZCA exams is the option to improvise or embellish melodies etc, this can really help us find our own voice on the instrument. Don’t play like an automaton, express yourself through the music. Our technique and movements should be reflex and automatic. The emotions and feelings that should be evident in the performance require us to be sensitive to the music and the moment.

Always remember that being good at music requires a huge amount of work refining movements, like a sportsman, you can never practice the fundamentals too much.

Learning guitar should not be just about acquiring new information or ploughing through text books, the important thing is how well we are executing the material that we do know. Every time we learn something new we should run it over and over before it truly becomes a part of ourselves. When we can play without thinking about it, (on auto pilot, but not an automaton, there is a difference); that’s when we are onto something.

Brendan Hains

Caroline Springs Guitar Lessons

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