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Teaching Skills Teaching Skills > How to Teach > Theory of Learning Series > Part 9 Making and breaking habits
Summary: The physical processes of learning - Getting your student into habits which improve their ability to play guitar

Making and breaking habits

[Last article] [Theory of Learning Index]

Way back in article 1 in this series we defined learning as: ". the process by which we expand our understanding and ability". So far in the series we have focused mainly on the subject of understanding.

But guitar playing is principally a physical activity. All very well to understand how a minor seven flat 5 chord blends in with the locrian mode of the major scale, but your knowing that doesn't make you able to play one so beautifully that it makes your audience weep!

So let's look at the physical side of learning.

Physical learning is all about making and breaking habits. You can dress this up in the fanciest of terms but that's what it boils down to.

When we are learning to play guitar we are utilising a natural function of mind and body that works something like this:

"The more often you repeat a physical action the more automated it becomes"

By automated, we don't mean that it is necessarily stiff and robotic in its action, we simply mean that our muscles appear to coordinate their actions with little or no conscience effort on our part.

So when we first come across the instructions for playing 'House of the Rising Sun' we have to interpret them on a 'blow by blow' basis:

First comes the A minor chord. With your first finger, press the second string against the first fret. Then the second finger goes on the fourth string at the second fret.. and so on. It all has to be done in painful detail.

But with practice, these actions get automated - they become habits. You see the symbol Am on the chord chart and whack! Down go all three fingers at once - no thought involved.

Ultimately the whole song goes on auto-pilot and you find yourself sitting in front of the evening news on the telly with your attention focused on the middle-east crisis whilst your fingers are picking their way through the intricacies of the Animals version of 'House of the Rising Sun'. Someone shouts "Stop playing that guitar while we're trying to watch the telly and you say "Oh sorry, I didn't even notice I'd picked my guitar up!" - It's become a habit.

So step one, if you want to learn to play guitar, is: form lots of habits. A lot of students get that far and then settle into a sort of rut. Because step two is psychologically harder.

Step two is: start systematically breaking the habits you have learned!

So if you have always played 'House of the rising Sun' in A minor, figure it out in D minor or G# minor. Play it with barre chords. Work out a punk version with 5th chords. Play it Jazz style with two chords to every bar.

Same goes for individual chords. If you are in the habit of playing the C chord with open E on the bottom string try using the four finger version with G in the bass instead or take the G major chord and double up the Ds by adding the 3rd fret on the second string. These are all ways of making our playing more colourful. Try never to get stuck in the same way of doing things. Explore the alternatives.

So that's what I mean by making and breaking habits. It's what you should be doing perpetually as a developing musician. And It's what you should be getting your students to do as a guitar teacher.

[Last article] [Theory of Learning Index]

Related Pages
.   How learning got a bad name for itself
.   Motivation Moves Mountains
.   Contact with the Subject
.   Mental Processing
.   Assimilating
.   Relative Importance
.   Information Overwhelm
.   Information Retention
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