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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Extinct by Instinct

Extinct by Instinct is making a fatal decision based on hasty judgment or a gut-reaction. A synonymous expression would be, "Jumping the gun."

This is the ditch on the other side of the road from the previous blog, Analysis Paralysis.

In relation to learning and playing the guitar, this happens most often to Right-Brain thinkers. That's the intuitive, emotionally-based part. I call this way of thinking "R-Mode."

There's a lot more to R-Mode than intuition and feeling, and it's essential to be in an R-Mode dominant state to really play music, but learning from an R-Mode dominant state is haphazard and very inefficient.

The most common illustration of Extinct by Instinct is learning and playing "by ear."

Playing by Ear

One of the things that happens when you play by ear is that your hand starts moving before you know where it's supposed to go. Your ear then tells you whether you were right...or not. If not, it's too late, you've already made the mistake - Extinct by Instinct.

"When I look back on the past it's a wonder I'm not yet extinct.

All the mistakes and bad judgments I made nearly pushed me to the brink."

- Dinosaur by King Crimson

During my lessons with John Elliott, whenever I would miss a note by a half-step and autocorrect by sliding into it, John would say, "Listening, not thinking!"

James Brown fined his band members $100 per mistake. Let that sink in. You would make sure you knew where your hand was going under those circumstances, yes?

Learning by Ear

When you learn by ear what you are really doing is learning by trial-and-error.

Trial-and-error is a way to learn - there are many players who've learned that way. How far you can get by this "method" depends on the person - some can get farther than others. However, sooner or later it will result in hitting a brick wall that your ear can't get beyond.

This happens because:

  1. Your ear is a product of what you've been exposed to. And what you've been exposed to is random - the result of your circumstances, time and culture. So the content of what you learn by ear (trial-and-error) is random acquisition. With no underlying systemization or organizational mechanism for content you sooner or later get to the limit of what you can retain.

  2. Trial-and-error is a very inefficient way to learn because you play at least one wrong thing in order to find the right thing - typically way more than one wrong thing. If you do happen to play the right thing the first time it's sheer luck. And luck is never dependable - by definition. Think of the time you would save if you knew where the right thing was before you practiced anything! No luck is necessary. That's where a good teacher with a systematic approach comes in.

"Thinking" and "R-Mode" are not mutually exclusive. There are ways to think and still be R-Mode dominant.

The most functional way to think and yet maintain an R-Mode dominant state is visualization. Visual thinking. You visualize the note you are going to land on before your hand starts moving.

If you can't visualize where your hand should go before it starts moving you don't know where it should go, do you?

If you don't know where it should go you have a choice:

Hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck...
  1. Hunt-and-peck until you find the right note and then try to remember it by rote the next time.

  2. Understand what the right note is, why it's the right note, and where that note sits in the bigger picture of what it is that you're doing.

Number one is what most people do because it is the most immediate - in the short run. In the long run, it's self-sabotaging because there is no underlying method - the afore-mentioned brick wall will be encountered sooner or later. You can remember only so much by rote.

Number two is less immediately gratifying - in the short run. It takes restraint and discipline to not jump the gun, but it will cause much greater progress in a shorter time-span in the long run. It will compress years, even decades, of learning by trial-and error - i.e. learning by ear - into mere months. For a firsthand account of this see A Little Story.

Number two requires some kind of guidance and oversight - the optimum is a good teacher; one-on-one, in person. There is nothing that comes close to that. Internet lessons, Skype lessons, You Tube videos and the like can all be valuable and positive, but in and of themselves, they run the danger of just being an extension of the self-driven random approach the content of which is the result of your circumstances, time and culture.

When you learn from You Tube, or some website, who picks what you learn? You do. How do you pick what to learn? What order? You pick what you've been exposed to. It's still more-or-less random.

Furthermore, how does a video tell you something like, "You're having trouble controlling your pinky because your thumb is in the wrong place"?

There's also the issue of accountability - be honest, we all need it. When you pick your next lesson time the time between lessons gets longer and longer. If you know you have to show up in one week and play your lesson to your teacher's satisfaction there's more motivation to work at it. Most people get more done that way - under pressure - than they do when on their own and not accountable to anyone (that's one reason I charge by the month, in advance!).

The caveat here is, "a good teacher." I admit, that's a tough one. Sometimes really tough. Teaching guitar is a totally unregulated industry. Consumer beware. You have to be able to trust your teacher. How do you know? It might take a while and, ironically, some trial-and-error.

I started out by bar-hopping, looking for guys who played the way I wanted to play. When I found one, I asked if they gave lessons, if they did, I signed up. I went through several guys like that. After a few lessons, it became apparent that, for one reason or another, it wasn't going to work. But what I found out was, all the guys who played the way I wanted to play, whether they taught or not, every one of them, had all studied with the same guy! That was the one. The one guy who could put it all together for me. And he did.

Most cities or regions have THE guy. The guy who teaches the top-tier players in that region. That's the guy to find. If you can't find that one (maybe you live in a small town or a rural area), the next best thing is to try to find that guy on the internet. This is even more of a crap-shoot because you can't go see that guy play live. All you see is what he's put up on his website. If there is live footage of him performing somewhere that's a good sign - but just because he's a good player doesn't mean he's a good teacher. Those are two different skill-sets. You probably don't want the guy who has the highest stats on his website - like tens of thousands or 100,000+ subscribers. That guy isn't going to personally respond to your specific questions and issues. You want a guy who will spend some time with you personally. Look for a guy who emphasizes a methodical approach, not a guy who just teaches songs. Let that guy lead you through a method, and the more personal interaction you can have with him the better - be it email, Skype consults or whatever - there needs to be a sense of accountability.

I found THE guy in my city and I learned where to put my finger - and why. I no longer have to hunt-and-peck - ever.

An oft-quoted but commonly misunderstood saying by Charlie Parker is,

  • "Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that shit and just play."

People focus on, "forget all that shit and just play" and ignore the "master your instrument, master the music" part. You can't "forget" what you've never learned.

A similar statement, also by Charlie Parker,

  • You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

Again, "...learn your instrument...practice, practice, practice..." And notice the word, "finally" that comes BEFORE "...forget all that and just wail."

I would like to add that you don't really "forget." You sublimate. All that knowledge and repetition is still in play - it's just been sublimated from the conscious awareness when performing (see the concept of "Clumping" from the previous post, Analysis Paralysis).

The goal is to have L-Mode components in place (analysis) and integrated with R-Mode (instinct). I have written in more detail about this integration and what it looks like: See the Sound!.

The optimum process is: use L-Mode to learn - there is roughly 1,000 years of musical evolution to explore. Find a teacher who can take you through it methodically and apply it to your instrument - in this case, the guitar.

Then, through drilling, recitation and repetition - as Charlie Parker said, "practice, practice, practice," - you sublimate that L-Mode stuff and then you can play from an R-Mode dominant state of being; intuitive, feeling and expressing a big beautiful ever-changing matrix of sound, color, emotion and texture. Grow the Matrix!

Avoid Extinct by Instinct!


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