How to Play What You Hear in Your Head to Master Anything Faster

The Nanosynthesis Method (#2 in the Guitar Acceleration Methodology) has a premise:

That working on something that excites and inspires you is more likely to lead to mastery sooner than otherwise.

This is a good place to start because the excitement and enjoyment is already baked into the curriculum, because you are working with material that you know and love. 

But it also gives you clarity of vision. You have an immediate aim. 

You don’t have to wade through material, wondering what should you practice in order to be able to play like the master you seek to emulate. 

You can just play what they play and you’ll get the benefit of acquiring something like the skill and perspective that they have already earned. 

It’s not a shortcut, but it functions like one. They have condensed so much time and experience and expertise and creativity in order to write and play the way they do. You naturally absorb some of that––it rubs off on you––when you learn it and master it yourself. 

But applying the Nanosynthesis method to your practice doesn’t mean you must learning music from artists and bands and masters you admire exclusively.

Far from it.

What I find to be even more powerful––though it is admittedly more demanding and intimidating for many players––is to write your own music and play that. 

The more challenging and aspirational the music, the better. The more you step outside your current level of capability and push yourself to do something you’ve never done––but want to do––the better. 

Now, this might seem like a tall order. It might even seem like a complete contradiction: How do you write something that you can’t already play? 

It’s often the case that whenever we go to write something, by the very nature of our current limitations, we are only writing things that currently occur to us and that we have the skills to pull off… which by definition falls squarely into the unchallenged confines of our comfort zone. 

But there are many ways around this. The only limit is your imagination. And there are approaches that can expand your imagination by forcing you to adapt to something new. 

Here are some approaches you can take, without having to resort to using any tools other than your mind, body, and the guitar:

Hear something in your head.

I often play something on the guitar first, then hear where I want things to next (without yet knowing where on the neck the next note is).

Then hum or sing it out loud. 

It’s best to capture this in some way, however rudimentary (use your phone’s voice memo feature). It’s best to capture it because you’ll want to reference is so you can then… 

Replicate it note-for-note on the guitar. 

This process can be painstaking, especially if you don’t know any music theory. But it’s not complicated. We complicate it by thinking that we should know more than we already do. 

This is a crucial moment for many players who cut themselves off from the creative act prematurely. The moment we confront one of our limitations, we are susceptible to thinking thoughts like:

“I can’t do this yet. I have to learn more scales.”

“This is too fast. I have to increase my speed before I can continue.”

“I have a terrible ear. I can’t hear the difference between the notes and need to do some ear training before I move on.”

All of these thoughts are well-intended avoidance mechanisms that, if heeded, will keep you comfortable, but also keep you stuck. 

I think of these thoughts as Comfort Clingers. And the Comfort Clingers are compelling because they aren’t exactly wrong.

You may have heard talk about “limiting beliefs” and how these limiting beliefs are lies and that you are bigger and better and more powerful than these lies.

I’m not sure that’s entirely true. 

Meaning, I don’t think these limiting beliefs are lies, exactly. I think they are true enough in that they serve the purpose of keeping you safe and comfortable quite well. 

That’s what they are intended to do, and they are doing their job whenever you give into them (and giving into them is our natural response. It’s very unnatural to go against the Comfort Clingers, especially consistently and over a long period of time. 

But that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to improve. 

And it can take a while. And you can resist the Comfort Clingers some days and give into them on others. And that’s okay. 

In fact, that’s probably inevitable. Unless you possess superhuman resolve like Jocko Wilink, you’re probably going to give into the Comfort Clingers sometimes. 

But if, on average, you resist them more than you give into them––an old friend used to call this having “18 good days in a month,” then you will come out ahead). 

Whatever happens next, the moment the Comfort Clingers arise, you are at a crucial moment. What you do next is a vote for your creative, expanded self, or the self that you already are. 

And because the very nature of the creative act is bringing into being something different than what already exists; mastering the navigation of these moments is what will make or break you as a creator.

So here’s what I do when these thoughts inevitably come up (they don’t come up every time I go to create something, but they often do, and they always show up again at some point. The times when they are remarkably absent from the creative process are exceedingly rare, and something I’m always thankful for when it happens): 

I shrug them off.

That’s it. It’s not elaborate. It’s not some “mental reframing” acrobatics, where I pinpoint what the Comfort Clinging, limiting belief is, and write it down, and reverse it or challenge it or disprove it in some way.

I just shrug the damn thing off.

There’s something new I’m trying to do. Of course I’m not able to do it yet. I’m going to keep trying to do it anyway for the time being, and I can figure out how to fill in the gaps or practice it or learn more or figure out what it means later (maybe. Even that isn’t necessary).

I find that it’s hard to hum or sing a note out loud and then locate it on the guitar. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t do it. It just takes me longer than it might take someone who has a better ear or perfect pitch or is armed with music theory.

Can I take the time to develop those skills? Sure. But the best way to develop them, so far as I’m concerned––and I’ve never encountered an exception to this, at least for me personally––is to use those skills to the best of my ability (however poor that ability currently is). 

In the act of attempting to pinpoint a note on the guitar based on humming or singing it, I am training my ear. I am becoming more familiar with where I can find certain notes on the fretboard. I am seeing patterns emerge that I might remember later (the humble beginnings of what I may later recognize as a chord shape or a scale or mode).

Nanosynthesis is about skipping all of the stuff in the beginning and middle and going straight for the end result at a pace that you can manage. 

That’s exactly what’s happening here. I’m zooming into the one thing that I can do, however difficult it may be, however slowly I can do it, however limited I currently am, however many gaps there are in my knowledge and skill. 

One of the main benefits of this approach is that it immediately and undeniably exposes the gaps in my skill and knowledge. 

And I can take note of what those things are so that I can work on them in a deliberate manner at a later date. 

So sometimes, instead of just shrugging off these Comfort Clingers, I will take a moment to write them down. Not to fix them or change them or to address them in that very moment. But to chart a course for skills I want to develop next.

The act of trying to create something that I can’t––which is part of the Meta method (#8)––essentially spells out my future curriculum for me. I’m not having it handed to me by a teacher or instructor or online course or YouTube video.

I’m determining the curriculum myself out of my own volition, based on my own specific creative goals and real lifeweaknesses and limitations. The things that hinder me in the creative act are the things that are most important to learn and master for me. They have nothing to do with what others are doing or what others might think or prescribe or decide for me. 

This is incredibly clarifying and empowering. It drowns out all of the noise and gives me crystal clear goals to focus on. And it’s all happening in realtime as I attempt to create something that’s outside of my current comfort zone and capability.

Talk about a productive act!

So back to replicating what you hear in your head.

Hum it, find the notes on the guitar, shrug off the limitations you’ll face along the way (or write them down as part of your plan of future skills to develop, which is more an exciting thing than it is an encumbering thing), and keep going. Note for note. 

And importantly: Once you’ve figured it out, note for note, in some way or another… don’t expect yourself to be able to play it exactly the way you hear it in your head yet. If you can, that’s great. But what I find is that I’m usually far from being able to play what I just came up. 

…Just like I am far from currently able to play something from a master that I’m seeking to emulate.

But you now have the beginnings of a new Scenario. An exercise that you can use during your Deep Practice sessions.

In effect, you become the master that you are aiming to emulate. You are imagining yourself playing something that you currently can’t, and giving it to yourself to work until you can. 

By doing this, not only do you get to expand your comfort zone and up-level your skills… but you also get to create something you care about along the way. And if you are anything like me, that’s among the primary reasons why I play the guitar: as in instrument for creating and composing that which I wish existed. 

But we can take this a step further…

Because sometimes I’m just not able to come up with any cool ideas in my head, let alone accurately hum them out loud so I can replicate them on the guitar.

Instead, there are tools you can use to do this. Tools that are more conducive to you stepping outside of your current level of capability. Tools that in some sense force you to compose.  

Or, said more gently, allow you to compose without having to have the requisite skills on the guitar. 

Tools to compose music that you can’t currently play, but once it’s composed, you can practice into it. 

That is, you can practice it until you are able to play it up to speed with Control, Clarity, Consistency, and Musicality (just as you would do if you were learning, memorizing, and mastering material from a master you are emulating). 

Stay tuned, as we’ll dive into this tools another time.

Talk soon, 

Joshua 

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