October 12, 2011

Reverend Jim, Yellow Lights and You

Reverend Jim Ignatowski

Dear Guitar Student:

I like you.

You’re pretty cool and you sometimes say funny things. You’re also typically happy to see me, which is always nice. And more often than not, you’ve put in some decent practice time in the days since our last session. For this I thank you, because it makes our lesson much more productive and moves you forward nicely.

You will cheerfully tolerate my lame attempts at humor and only a small minority of you will show up to your lesson in something resembling pajama bottoms. Some of you turn me on to great new music. And for all of these things, I thank you as well.

But for the love of God, slow down.

In the name of one of the greatest Taxi episodes of all time, slow down.

(If you’re over 40, you’ll remember that when the Reverend Jim asked the group, “What does a yellow light mean?”, they replied – you guessed it – “Slow down”. If you’re under 40, just watch the video below.)

I’m asking you to consider taking your foot off the accelerator and tapping your brake a little. Treat your guitar path as if it’s littered with yellow lights and slow down. You’ll thank me later.

Your humble servant,

Chicks Dig Speed Racer

I used to think that my main culprits in the guitar speed wars were my male teenage students. You know the ones, all jacked up on testosterone and Mountain Dew. Can’t slow down. Won’t slow down.

Well, it turns out that speed seduces the ladies also, ’cause I spend just as much time telling my girls to put the brakes on.

Here’s a typical convo:

Me: “Slow down a little, okay, Junebug?”
Junebug: “Okay, JB.” (plays)
Me: “Hey Junebug, remember we talked about slowing down?”
Junebug: “Got it.” (plays)
Me: “Junebug, I’m starting to think you don’t really understand what ‘slow’ means.”
Junebug: “Slower than this? Alright…” (plays)
Me: “Slower, please.”
Junebug: “I thought I was going slow.” (plays)
Me: (mutters incoherently)

At that point, I just want to go all Reverend Jim on her: “What…does…a…yellow…light…mean…?!?!”

Junebug: “Slow down?”
Me: “Exactly. Thanks.”

Speed Is Not Your Friend

Running of the bulls

As with most things in life, there is a time to go slowly and a time to speed things up.

Good time to go slow = defusing a bomb. Good time to go fast = running from the bulls in Pamplona.

For any of you learning to drive, I can just hear your instructor/dad now:

“Listen, Scooter. I know you’re brand new to this whole driving thing, but when we get out of this driveway, it’s pedal to the metal. Brakes are for wimps!”

If this is the case, it’s time to find another instructor. Or a new dad.

Far too many guitarists are too impatient to wait until the time is right to move faster. Their guitar path is laden with green lights and they can’t get their ego out of the way!. But the problem here is that speed is not your friend.

For any guitarist trying to learn a new skill – and that includes yours truly – this means:

1 – Your fingers are moving too fast for your brain to process what’s happening next and send out the appropriate commands.
2 – You wind up glossing over your mistakes – or being completely oblivious to them – which is NOT the recipe for success.

Remember, playing fast is stressful to your nervous system. Anybody who tries to keep up with the guitar solo or the rhythm track on his/her iPod can attest to this!

Without a proper foundation of good technique, your ability to make a good sound goes right out the window when performed at a high rate of speed. A moderately slow speed gives you the chance to process all the info, use good technique and even look ahead to what’s next. This helps you to build up your tolerance for speed-related stress. Introduce the stressor – speed – little by little and you’re golden!

For some of us, a yellow light isn’t even slow enough when faced with a serious technical challenge. When your fingers are all twisted up or seemingly careening out of control, then just stop – think red light – and break the phrase down movement…by…movement. It works, I promise.

As usual, one of my musical mentors, Jamie Andreas, has a great article on practice speed. Please check it out, as she is much more eloquent than I am on this matter. Basically, she’s a boss.

What Does a Yellow Light Mean?

And finally, let’s bring it full circle with an all-time classic episode from one of the great sitcoms, Taxi.

The scene: Reverend Jim is at the DMV taking the test to get his hack (taxi) license. He has trouble with the first question and tries to get help from his friends, Bobby, Elaine, Alex and Tony. And hilarity ensues!

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Thanks for hanging with me and see you next time!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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