Have you ever felt frustrated because you keep getting something wrong in the music you’re learning? Or worried that there is just too much to learn and you’re coming to music too late to ever master it all?
Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Lisa McCormick, a successful singer-songwriter and the creator of the “Note2Self” methodology of music learning, which can help with exactly those kinds of mindset barriers, especially among adult musicians.
After several years as a successful artist, Lisa turned her attention to teaching and now specialises in helping adult beginners get going with guitar and ukulele. We first met Lisa several years ago after discovering an excellent course she created to help guitarists start playing chords by ear. As well as in person classes 1-on-1 and in groups around Brattleboro, Vermont, she provides courses through her website LisaMcCormick.com and is a senior faculty member at GuitarTricks.com.
What we love about Lisa’s approach is that she really focuses on the joy of making music from day one and strips away the complexity that can often make learning music frustrating for adults.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The emotional baggage that can make it difficult for adults to begin learning a new instrument and how to get around that
- How she helps complete beginners play a song on ukulele in less than ten minutes – and play several songs by the end of the day
- How the Note2Self methodology can equip musicians – particularly those who are self-taught or trying to make use of internet resources to learn – to get away from the negative self-talk and confusion that can hold them back, and instead learn faster by having effective and healthy mental habits
Lisa also shares the simple 3-word mantra from Note2Self that you can start using immediately – and honestly this alone could be transformative for how much you enjoy your musical journey…
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome, Lisa, and thank you for joining us on the show today. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about how you began making music and what that learning experience was like for you?
Lisa: Sure. Yeah. I began as a, as an avid Beatles fan at the age of ten and I started with a guitar. My Dad had a guitar in the house and, he was a huge Beatles fan, so it was always that music playing in the house, which I loved. And I just, tried to begin to figure things out as a lot of people do. You know, I took — as I got a little bit older, into my teens — I took a few lessons in folk music and I took about a year of classical studies, which was really, not that much fun at the time, but it was really useful in my understanding of, of, you know, more the formal aspects of music.
Christopher: Terrific. And it sounds like you were very much self-taught in the early, in the early years, then.
Lisa: Very much so, yeah. So I, you know, I took those lessons as a teenager and then ever since then, I took it on my own, and I basically just used the skills that I had learned, sort of the technical skills, on the instrument, but a lot of ear. Just really, really, really listening and really trying to, discern, how is that artist making that instrument sound that way, you know, what- or what is so magical about that particular chord change, right there? Why does it just, why does it just hit me in the heart, you know, and, so it was very much through listening, and emulating, and experimenting.
Christopher: Fantastic. And I believe you started performing quite early on, is that right?
Lisa: Well, for- informally, yes. As a, as a teenager, I did some church coffehouse stuff with, with a, with a friend.
Lisa: But didn’t really get serious about having a professional music career until I was in my later twenties.
Lisa: And then really- really bore down and have been a professional musician ever since.
Christopher: Terrific. A lot of people have that kind of passionate music hobby early on when they’re young, but few actually follow through beyond their teenage years.
Christopher: What was it for you that made it clear your life was going to be about music? Was it always obvious to you?
Lisa: It wasn’t obvious to me. I, I loved it, but I never considered it an option as far as, you know, a sensible way to make a living. You know, it — you play the guitar on the weekends with your friends and you go out and you get a real job. So, that was- that was the paradigm, you know, that I grew up with. So, I did.
I went out and I got a degree in education, I got a lot of training in teaching, interestingly, teaching adults who have full intellectual capacity but who were severely dyslexic and, couldn’t read. And it was through that and through the amount of work that one of my students in particular put into learning how to read as a young adult that I said, “What if I put — took my passion that seriously and stopped doing the safe job for a minute? I’m still young enough to try it. And what if I poured myself into music like he poured himself into learning to read? What would happen? It’s either, it’s going to work, or it’s not going to work, but at least I’ll find out.”
Christopher: Fantastic. And…
Christopher: …and where did you take it from there? When you said, “Okay, maybe I can pursue music as a career,” what was the next step?
Lisa: Get a job waiting tables. (Laughs)
Lisa: Uh-huh. And just do a lot of practicing. Again, back into my own studio, back — you know, I bought a, back then it was the Fostex 4-Track, you know, and I started- I started experimenting with writing songs and with arranging things and playing different instruments on top of different instruments and one thing led to another and people would say, “Well, you’re really good. You should play,” you know, and “Play a gig in town” and, and it just began, began me on the path.
Christopher: And you, you took it far. Like, you had a successful alb you were recording, you were performing…
Christopher: …and now, looking back, clearly you took a, a turn, and you went more into the teaching side of things. How did that come to be?
Lisa: Mm-hm. That came to be after, actually, five albums, and several years of full-time touring. That was all I did, was on the road all the time. It was over, you know, about 250 shows a year, became a songwriter and, and so I was doing the singer-songwriter solo show, very successfully, but after several years of it, I just felt like I wanted a change up in my lifestyle. You know, that’s kind of a, it’s a grind…
Lisa: …after, after many years. And you’re in the car a lot, and you’re never home on the weekends with your friends, and, and so I started to, to loosen up on that schedule and, make up the time and the income by starting to teach lessons, and it took off like a rocket ship.
Christopher: And did you have a particular expertise in your teaching?
Lisa: Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but I think that’s what I’m articulating now with Note2Self, is that I’ve brought a lot of expertise based on my own internal learning process. I taught myself to be a professional-level musician.
Lisa: So part of that is there’s a lot of inquiry. There’s a lot of inquiry into yourself, into your thoughts, into your finger movements, you don’t have a teacher standing there, saying, “No, do it this way. Do it that way.” It’s all internal. And so, I, I could use that internal experience with a student and I could say, “I wonder if you’re thinking that this is a really hard chord change,” or, “I wonder if this finger really needs to go way out in left field before it heads back over to the C.” You know? So, I had a, sort of a natural ability to work with a student both on a really interior level and, and on a very, you know, practical, “Here is your instrument. What does it sound like when you play it?” you know, exterior level.
Christopher: That’s fascinating, and it’s such a powerful and valuable perspective to bring, I think, and particularly to adults. You know, at Musical U, we find that that psychology and mindset and emotion around learning music can be such a huge part of what needs to be worked through, you know, way beyond the instrument technique and the specifics of listening skills. It’s so much about, kind of, managing your own mindset and being self-aware in terms of how you’re approaching things and following through.
Lisa: Absolutely. And, and especially with adults, you know, they bring, they bring a lot of baggage to the table. You know, they’ve had a lot of experiences with music and just with life in general. It could be that someone told them when they were a kid that they had no talent, you know, that they — someone — their piano teacher, hit them on the knuckles, you know, when they got it wrong.
Or it could be that they feel they missed the boat and it’s way too late, and — you know. So there is a lot of emotional baggage that comes with the territory, and a lot of courage to say, you know, “I’m a grownup, and I’m used to being good at what I do, and I’m gonna pick up something and I know I’m not gonna be good at it right away, ’cause I’m a beginner.” And that’s — that takes a lot of courage, and I love to meet the person there and honor that courage, and say, “Well, let’s, let’s work with this. Let’s go with it.”
Christopher: That’s wonderful. I think you describe it so well, and, I know that a lot of our listeners are in that position, you know, they might have just picked up music. They might have come back to music after a long period, or they might even have been learning actively for the last few years, but they still kind of have that mental baggage of, “What if I don’t have what it takes?” Like…
Christopher: …”Am I really musical? Do I really have the, the gift?”
Christopher: And I love that you are passionate about working through that with them and showing them, kind of, practical ways forward.
Lisa: Absolutely. I love that, too, and so do they. I mean, they learn so quickly that it shocks them, and it, and it blows some of their, negative beliefs out of the water to the point where they’re, they will leap out of their chair in my studio and say, “Oh, my God! I’m doing something I’ve never been able to do!”
Lisa: “This is awesome.” Yeah.
Christopher: So, I’d love to talk a little bit about your approach to teaching, because I think you and I first connected because you published this terrific “Guitar Intuition” course online that could help people to, kind of, understand how chord progressions work, and learn to start figuring out songs by ear…
Christopher: …and, in fact, I think you, you wrote a great guest post for us called, “The Sexy Secret of 1-4-5,” kind of, digging into that, and, and the power that comes with really understanding chords.
Christopher: So, can you tell me a bit about that, I mean, is that coming from your self-taught beginnings where you were figuring things out by ear? Is that why you took that angle on things?
Lisa: Well, partially that, and partially, just, actually learning that myself, learning about 1-4-5. Learning about how chords work. But then, turning to the resources that other people who want to learn about it have available to them, and they’re, and they’re — really a lot of them are confounding. I mean, someone will say, “I want to learn about 1-4-5,” and somebody hands them the circle of fifths, you know, and it’s like, “Aghhhh. That’s way to complicated.” 1-4-5 is actually an extremely simple concept if you explain it simply. And it can be used immediately and really powerfully right out of the box. You don’t have to understand the, astrophysics behind it, you know?
So, yeah. So, part of my mission as a teacher is just to, like, let’s, let’s cut through all this formal stuff that people think should come first, before you’re actually making music and loving it.
Christopher: That’s great. I am wholeheartedly in support of that.
Christopher: Let’s make things simple and practical and show people how they can, yeah, have that creative freedom in music…
Christopher: …and really understand what they’re doing.
Christopher: That’s wonderful.
Christopher: So, more recently, you’ve moved from guitar or maybe added to guitar with a speciality in ukulele and I’d like to talk a little bit about that, because you’ve had enormous success in Brattleboro with your new ukulele orchestra. I’m personally a huge fan of the ukulele, both as an amateur player myself but also as an instrument to recommend to beginners, because…
Christopher: …to me, it’s so much more approachable than guitar and gives you a lot of the same enjoyment and versatility that guitar can. I’d love to hear your perspective. Why do you think that’s been such an enormous success, and how do you approach things with those adult beginners on ukulele?
Lisa: Well, I think, you know, you hit it on the head in terms of the comparison of the ukulele to the guitar. I think prior to this, sort of, recent wave of popularity of the ukulele, people thought of the guitar as, kind of, the entry level, you know, “Oh, maybe I’ll pick up guitar.” But, guitar is not that easy, and, you know, it’s six strings. It’s a lot to manage, and, the ukulele, the pallette is so much simpler. There’s four strings and you can make your very first chord with one finger and you can play songs with one chord or you can play songs with two chords, which you could on any instrument.
But with the ukulele, you can do that in the first six minutes of your, of your very first lesson. So, it’s a, a very quick, and gentle and easy route into the thrill of making music, which, like, blows the fear out of the water really quickly. Like, “Oh. I can, I can make a C chord. Wow! I- Wow! I can make, I can make an F chord. Oh, my gosh! And I can, I can play this song. You got to be kidding me!” You know, it just — it comes together so quickly. So, it builds their confidence really quickly.
Christopher: Mm-hm. And that’s a really great description, and can you tell us a little bit about what one of your sessions looks like with that group?
Lisa: Sure. Yeah. I teach this thing that’s coming up soon, actually, called, “Ukelele in a Day”…
Christopher: Wow. I think that should be required study for every person on the planet.
Lisa: Yes. I think so, too. That’d be great. It starts at ten in the morning. We go to three in the afternoon, and we assume that nobody knows anything about music or instruments, and I even have ukuleles there for people to borrow if they don’t own one or can’t borrow one. And we just start right at the beginning, with making music, so, in other words, I have myself and I have assistants get everybody in tune. We don’t start with what’s the name of the strings. We don’t start with how to tune. We start with, how do you make a C chord?
And, so, really, six minutes into class, I’ve got a room full of people playing a C chord, and then how do you make a C chord in a very simple 4/4 rhythm? And, seven minutes into class, everybody’s playing C in 4/4. And then I start to sing the song, “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree,” which you can sing with just the C chord, and they all start singing along and they all jump out of their chairs and scream.
So, my, my theory is: Build. Create success immediately. Invite them into making music immediately, and then explain, you know, and then, when the questions arrive, then explain what needs to be known to make more use of this. So, what it looks like: We start with one chord. Then we add a second chord. We play, “Eleanor Rigby” with two chords. We play, you know, “Down by the Riverside” with three chords, and, you know, by the end of the day, they’ve got several three-chord songs and, and a basic 4/4 strumming pattern that’ll last them for years.
Christopher: That’s incredible. I think that’s such a beautiful approach and I, I was only half-joking before. I think if everyone started on their first day of school and had that kind of experience, we’d have a very different generation of musicians and far fewer people who said, “Oh, I’m not musical,” or, “I can’t sing,” or…
Christopher: … “I don’t understand music.” That would be wonderful.
Lisa: Right. Yeah.
Christopher: So, after all your years of experience teaching music, and, particularly with adult beginners, you’ve now formulated a new music learning methodology called, “Note2Self.”
Christopher: Could you tell us a little bit about that, where it came from and what makes it different?
Lisa: Yeah. It’s, it’s kind of where it, it helps you when you have, you know, you’ve looked at the Youtube video, you’ve read the instructional book, you’ve tried to follow those patterns. Now it’s time to turn that stuff off and it’s just you and the instrument. Well, what on earth do you do? You are not a trained teacher. You’re not a trained instrumentalist.
So, what Note2Self does is, it helps you to understand all the different factors that are going on in the process of making music, and that includes, you know, the size and the shape of your instrument, that includes your thoughts, that includes your own physical body, and, you know, any quirks – your arthritis or the broken finger, or, you know, any — it includes your physical body, your mental body. And the other aspect of the word, “Note,” besides music is that it includes dialog with yourself. It includes saying, “You know, every time I land that finger too far to the left, the note sounds bad. Note to self: Don’t land the finger too far to the left.”
Lisa: You know, very simple, like, just, a conversation with yourself that is non-judgmental. It’s just based on noticing and inquiry. Every time I do it that way, it sounds bad. Every time I fix it and do it this way, it sounds better. Let’s take that in. Let’s make that part of the process.
But a lot of people don’t have that. They, they don’t have that self-coaching understanding. It’s like, I — every time I do this, it sounds bad, therefore, I’m bad.
Christopher: That’s —
Lisa: That’s the end of, that’s the end of the conversation.
Christopher: Yeah. That’s so interesting, and it’s really clear how that stems from your own experience and the fact that you were self-taught and took on that role of teacher as well as student, early on.
Lisa: Right. Right.
Christopher: So, I had the chance to look at some of the Note2Self material before we spoke, and what I love about the approach is, two things. One is that you focus on the, kind of, creative autonomy and helping the student. I actually feel like they can create their own music, not just play each note they’re told to.
Christopher: And also that you focus so much on the mind-set and emotion that’s associated with playing music, as we’ve touched on, especially when improvising or when playing in front of others, that kind of self-talk that can go on, and, and potentially, really limit what you are able to do. Can you tell us more about the note and the self in the Note2Self, because I thought that was a really elegant framework.
Lisa: Well, in terms of what you were just asking, in terms of how it plays out, if you’re doing an improvisation or a performance of some sort, I would say that the thought is, you know, “Here comes the hard part of the song where I always screw up,” or, “I’m about to do a performance and I’m really, really, really nervous, and so, I’ll probably screw up,” right?
They’ve got thoughts that are, that are predicting bad results and what happens with that is that those thoughts are actually play out in your body. Your body actually takes on more tension, more physical tension when it thinks you’re about to mess up, it, it’s not comfortable with that. So your fingers become more tense. Your wrists become more tense. Your voice, your chest, your throat, everything becomes more tense when you have a fear or an anticipation this isn’t going to go well.
And if you rethink that and say, “Well, either that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well or because I’ll use that as an opportunity to figure out how to make it better next time,” or just to, to note to self: Don’t entertain those thoughts. Don’t allow myself to sit here and think, “I’m terrible at this.” It’s useless. It’s a useless waste of time to think that way.
I might feel that way, but you can — almost can — have to pretend that you don’t, sometimes, and say, you know, “Just don’t engage.”
Lisa: Don’t engage with that negative voice.
Christopher: I, I think so much of what you’re teaching with this message resonated with me from the, the mindfulness meditation studies I’ve done…
Christopher: …and I don’t want to take us on too much of a tangent, but, you know, that idea of noticing your thoughts and not necessarily identifying with them and having the…
Christopher: …self-awareness to be able to detach, see the thought come, and decide it’s not useful and let it go, again.
Christopher: I think bringing that to the musician and showing people how to apply that in their music practicing as well as performance is such a valuable thing to be doing.
Lisa: Absolutely. And, and I’ve studied mindfulness meditation, myself, so, I agree. It’s very much along the same lines.
Christopher: So, I, I think one thing that really jumped out at me in reading about this methodology was that you have a mantra and this touches on the meditation theme, I guess, as well…
Christopher: …for Note2Self students, which incapsulates the whole spirit of it, I think. Can you…
Christopher: …tell us about that?
Lisa: Yes. The mantra is, “I love this,” and it comes down to the, I mean, the fact that you are, that you are pursuing music at whatever time in your life it is and whatever, uh, instrument it is, and whatever background you have, you’re probably doing it because you love it, because you love music and because you love the idea of being able to play, you love the idea of being able to get better at it and learn to play new things that are really cool, and to acknowledge and recognize that in that process, it’s not always 100% fun, and it’s not always 100% success, but that’s all part of the process and that’s how you do get better, so if one makes a mistake, you know, a repeated mistake, say, they — going from G to B7 and they always mess it up, and they think, “God, I just — I’m, I’m just terrible at this,” well, there comes the tension again. There comes the negative thinking and, and the body restriction, and, and the prediction. Yeah, if you think you’re gonna be terrible at it, chances are, you are.
But if you screw up the G to B7 again and you say, “You know, I love this. I just love this. Okay, let’s figure out what’s going on. Why does this keep going on? I love it. I think of it as a puzzle. I have a puzzle to solve. I keep making this wrong move, but that’s because my fingers are misunderstanding something about the move. They’re shoot- they’re going too far. They’re not going far enough, or they’re hitting at the wrong angle, and that’s a simple misunderstanding. I love this. I love figuring this out.”
And so, to encourage people to use, “I love this” as a, as a mantra to say when things are going, uh, frustratingly poorly, and when they are going well, also to give credit and to give notice to the fact. “Wow. I just got that. I love this. I just got a new thing. I just learned to play something new. I love this.” So, to, just, really surround the entire process of music learning and playing music as a, as a pursuit of something you love.
Christopher: I think that’s so smart, and, you know, I think if the listeners took away just one thing from this episode, that idea of taking the attitude of, “I love this,” to every aspect of their music making…
Christopher: It would be transformational, I think, for a…
Christopher: …lot of people, and, you know…
Christopher: …obviously, it’s something that takes practice and you need to remind yourself to say, “I love this,” and really feel it, but I’m sure it’s…
Christopher: …something that the more you do it, the more of it becomes a natural part of how you approach music making.
Lisa: It does. It does, and it, and it helps, really helps break the habit of thinking negatively. And that’s why I think people’s learning gets really accelerated, because they use “I love this” to shoot down the negative thought that just keeps them stuck in the same rut.
So they learn something more quickly, which they actually do love even more. So, the loving of it just — it, it becomes, a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a sense.
Christopher: That’s really nice. So, can you paint a picture for us? If we imagine, say, a 45-year-old guy who’s been learning guitar, maybe with a teacher, or maybe just with Youtube tutorials for a few years, but he doesn’t feel like it’s really giving him any creativity or he’s not getting the joy from it that he kind of initially thought he might.
Christopher: He’s struggling, a bit disappointed, a bit frustrated. What would the before and after look like if someone like that was to adopt the Note2Self methodology?
Lisa: Hm. The — well you’ve got the before, you know, pretty much nailed.
Christopher: It’s a — yeah — a little too common situation, I think.
Lisa: Yeah. Right. The, the before, there’s a lot of people in that situation and it’s both, frustrating and they are doing something that they love, but they’re not getting the love out of it, the enjoyment that they want to. To me, the prescription would be what I call, a “mastery piece,” and that is, you choose one song, that you feel you could really, really focus on, really, really study.
Make it your study. Make it your goal to work out every little bug in that song, even if it’s a simple-level song. It doesn’t have to be a difficult song. In fact, it shouldn’t be a difficult song. But make a commitment to master it. This is my mastery piece. And in doing that, you’re engaging automatically. You’re engaging in the Note2Self process, because you’re engaging in that sense of inquiry: “Why is this not going well? What can I do to fix it?” And in so doing, you’re fixing it, and in so doing, it’s getting better, and in so doing, you’re enjoying it more and your confidence goes up. And so, I always say, “Let’s,” you know, “let’s clear the clutter. Let’s,” you know, “stop working on 10,000 songs at once, let’s pick one thing. And so, you’re gonna learn to play this from top to bottom. It’s got to be in your skill zone. I don’t want you to pick something over your head, ’cause that’s gonna be too frustrating, and — but you’re gonna just learn to play it at your very best. And that’s gonna really shift your experience of music making.”
Christopher: I like that. And you, you touched on such an important point there, which is often that frustration and overwhelm comes from scattering yourself across too many things…
Christopher: …which I think for the self-taught musician is so easy to fall into the trap of. I love that idea to just focus in and say, “I will study this thing and I will enjoy the process of perfecting it.”
Christopher: So, what, what stage are we at with Note2Self at this point? What form does it take, and if someone’s listening and feeling super-inspired to adopt this kind of, you know, self-aware mindset inspiring, super-rewarding approach to music learning, how can they learn more and get involved themselves?
Lisa: Well, they can come to my website, LisaMcCormick.com, and, as I said, I’m in the process of writing the book, so I’ve got, you know, that will be coming and all the news about that will be on there. You can also — they will also be able to see how I am using it with my students, currently. So maybe get some ideas for themselves of how to begin to touch in and use some of these methods themselves before the book is published. So that’s, that’s what I would do, or fly on over and take one of my workshops. (Laughs)
Christopher: Terrific. So, LisaMcCormick.com is the place to go.
Christopher: We’ll have a link to that and everything else we’ve talked about in the show notes for this episode. Lisa, do you have any parting advice or tips for the listener?
Lisa: Yes. Just, just be aware of, be your own cheerleader a little bit more. You know, there’s no use, there’s no use in holding negative judgmental thoughts, like, “Oh, I don’t have a musical bone in my body,” or “I’ll never be very good at this.”
Those thoughts don’t help. Just don’t give them any headspace. Don’t give them space. And go in there and love it, you know? Go in there and listen and hear how beautiful what you can do is, and feel how beautiful it feels to refine what you can do and make it even more delicious. But get away from the negativity, if you can.
Christopher: That’s wonderful. And I, I think I would just challenge our listeners, you know. Take this week and every time you practice music, remember Lisa’s mantra of, “I love this,” and see if you can start to internalize that, because I think that, along with the rest of the Note2Self methodology, could make such a transformative impact on your music learning.
Thank you so much, Lisa, for joining us today.
Lisa: Thank you, Christopher. It’s been great talking to you.