The Lightbulb Moment

Learning a new instrument is like feeling through the dark, trying to turn on a light you aren't sure exists. I'm here to tell you it exists and this is what it feels like.

We all have two different types of memory. Your short term handles new stuff like "I need eggs, milk and bread at the store". Your long term is that stuff you just know like "2+2=4" and how to ride a bike. Muscle memory resides in your long term memory and when that song you're working on makes the switch from short to long, it's like a lightbulb goes on.

Here are 3 ways to know the switch is about to flip.

1. The song slows down

Anytime you take on new song, that song is going to feel impossibly fast. I was teaching myself banjo awhile back and I would work my way through a tab and feel pretty good about it but when I'd turn on the recording I'd realize I was going about half speed. It was discouraging, but after more and more repetition I got so fast that when I put the recording on I actually had to slow down. The thing is, I didn't feel like I was going faster. The song felt slower. If the part starts to feel slow, the lighbulb is going on.

2. Your body relaxes

It's an actual physical thing you can feel. Your shoulders let down. Your jaw loosens. You can actually feel your muscles change and that not only shows the lightbulb has gone on, but it also makes it easier to play. If you feel tense, you're still in the dark.

3. Your mind wanders

This is like a sign telling you you're almost there. It happens in brief glimpses. You're playing something for the hundredth time and you start thinking about what's for dinner.  This should make you crash but it doesn't. In fact, what will make you crash is trying to focus on what you're doing. It's like when your dad let go of the bike without telling you and halfway down the block you realized he did and so you crashed. That lightbulb is getting brighter.

Too often I see students who settle for letting their eyes adjust to the darkness. You might be able to get by but when the light switch goes on, you become a completely different player. Press on and you'll get there. Don't settle, it's pretty nice in the light.

Jason Houtsma is the co-founder and guitar teacher at Worship Artistry, where he is helping musicians of every level answer the call to worship with passion and confidence. Jason has been leading worship and writing music since he was 15 years old and currently serves as Worship Pastor for Mosaic Church in Bellingham, WA. He is husband to Alli and father to Bjorn and Asher.

The Lightbulb Moment

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I have noticed with my guitar

I have noticed with my guitar playing I'm getting more relaxed and picking up strum patterns more easier. I also notice I'm starting to be able to sing along while I'm strumming. What you have said in this article is very true.


It feels amazing, doesn't it? The more you do it the easier everything comes.

Thank you for the encouragement!

I enjoyed this article and the encouragement. It's nice to see progress and the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm looking forward to the practice exercises coming! Thank you for sharing with us here on the site and continuing to expand the lessons and encouragement. Keep up the great work!

You're very welcome.

Thanks for being a part of the community! You are appreciated.

Thanks for all your help!

I really appreciate what you and the website have to offer. I had recently come off of an 8 year break from playing so I've been a bit behind. I used to have a lot of free time to figure out parts, but now with a family and a full time job it's so great to be able to practice the parts as opposed hoping I've got the right notes here or there.

I know what that's like!

It always cracks me up when my younger students complain they don't have time to practice. They have no idea...

Learning is a logarithmic curve.

Great article man. Learning anything comes with a logarithmic curve. If we use the x-axis to define total time spent practicing, and use the y-axis to define the total gains yielded from a standard period of practice (such as 1/2 hour per day). We can see that when we first begin, the gains come slowly and stay close to the x-axis. As we progress, the gains start to gain a much higher value along the y-axis in relation to the same time spent on daily practice.

I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and the main maxim is, "Maximum efficiency with minimum effort." So this means that I always take the path of least resistance when attempting a throw or reversal. The same holds true in music, let me explain a little. If I am changing frets, do I really need to lift my fingers one inch from the string? No, it's far more efficient to practice slowly and keep them as close as possible to the strings. Less movement equals higher efficiency.

I had a light bulb moment when I realized the concepts I learned for self defense were applicable in music too. When we play rhythm guitar, we should always be looking for easier transitions. For instance, what's the easiest D major fingering that allows me to keep at least one finger fretted while I transition to G major (keep the ring finger on the B string 3rd fret is one of the easiest).

In anything physical sport we play, we reach the upper echelon of skill when movements must become second nature. Playing guitar, piano, singing or playing any other instrument would be no different. When we no longer need to focus mental facilities on the performance of a task, we are free to plan for the tasks which will follow. Not only can we prepare for coming riffs more adequately, we can make macro adjustments to the notes we are currently playing.

This is how the best jazz guitar players or drummers in the world can consistently stay 1/64th note ahead of or behind the impending downbeat of the next measure. These players have practiced until the licks and comping lines become ingrained into their mind and body.

I can't stress enough to my students how important an understanding of diatonic theory is. This is why I love that you didn't include a transposing option for the music on the site. A strong musician should be able to transpose notation or improvise on the fly. When we can do this as players, that is one of the largest steps I feel we can make as musicians.


It's not that we can't put together a tool for transposing. We just want everyone to be able to learn it. I took piano lessons for 6 YEARS and no one ever taught me how to put a chord together and the basics of whole steps and half steps. We're doing our best to teach everyone how to fish.

Thanks & trying to learn as much as Guitar as possible.

Thanks for the add & I am trying to learn as much as possible about playing Guitar. I look forward to being around fellow like minded Guitarists. Best Well Wishes, Billy

Welcome Billy

We're glad to have you as part of our community of learners.

Banjo - cool!

I had that light bulb moment. I started out as a bluegrass picker (really had to learn a lot to play contemporary Christian). When I was learning banjo, the standard technique was to play 78 records on 45 rpms to try to figure what the banjo was playing. I would get some tabs, and would go from plink, plink, plink to plinka, plinka plinka (banjo can be a solitary art). I would finally get to the point where I could "feel" the roll and then the notes merges into a song.