The metronome doesn’t lie

My guitar practice includes learning arpeggio exercises written by Mauro Giuliani and testing myself with a metronome. My teacher would like to see me eventually play them at 100 BPM or faster, ideally at 120 BPM, but for the past month or so I’d been stuck at 80 BPM. Each day, I’d start at a slower tempo, around 60 BPM, then gradually crank up the metronome 1 or 2 clicks, but once I got around 80 BPM, my fingers couldn’t keep up.

Like any student, I figured I simply needed to put in more effort, but after a few weeks of hitting this wall I brought the problem to my teacher. He used his metronome to test my speed, but he hid the display from me. He first set it at a slow tempo the way I normally do, but instead of increasing it gradually, he skipped around, jumping around from slow to fast to moderate and back again. All of the tempos he selected felt comfortable. After my final run, he showed me the metronome.

I’d played at 94 BPM, and it felt easy.

My teacher noted that the way I’d been trying to increase my speed, which is often taught as the “correct” way, can work, but it takes a long time and can create mental blocks. If you think something is hard, it will be. He suggested being more daring when I practice. If I make mistakes, so what? It’s better to experiment fearlessly in the practice room and let things blow up sometimes because that’s how we learn. (Funny how that also works in learning languages too — you can’t learn unless you’re willing to fail fast and often.)

Yet again, I’d let my attitude hold me back. I’m just glad I have a good teacher who believes in me when I have trouble believing in myself.

My anti-social social media account

Remember when Twitter was a place where people shared what they had for breakfast? Yeah, simpler times. I’ve always liked being able to write without having it to be something. The simple act of organizing thoughts into words and putting them out there like a message in a bottle was a low pressure way to maintain a writing habit.

Twitter in 2010 was interesting because it had a cocktail party vibe and, since I had so few followers at the time, it was an easy way to digitally jot down whatever came to mind. For me, it was the equivalent of a digital sketchpad. If someone found it interesting enough to interact, that was great, but I never feared that something I tweeted would make the internet fall on me.

Needless to say, the online world now is very different than it was in 2010. Going viral is a threat, not a blessing, and the repercussions can bleed into real life with devastating effects, especially for people in marginalized groups.

Tiptoeing back into the social media pool (and identifying what sucks about it for me)

I haven’t had a social media account since 2015. I’ve never gotten on with Facebook specifically because it’s designed to keep tabs on people you know (which I’d rather avoid), and none of the more image/video based platforms like Instagram and TikTok have remotely tempted me.

But I missed microblogging, and since Twitter is even crappier now than it was when I quit 8 years ago, I checked out a few alternatives, such as Spoutible and Mastodon (I didn’t even consider Post because Twitter taught me that the last place I want to be is somewhere full of journalists).

I soon realized that it wasn’t the algorithms, the ads, or even the trolls that I didn’t like — as anti-social as it sounds, it was the interaction. Or rather, the expectation of interaction. When a site is set up so interaction is easy, it feels bad when you post something and no one responds. On the flip side, when someone does respond, you feel obligated to respond back because it feels impolite not to.

In a worst case scenario, you might even feel obligated to react to the outrage of the moment even though no one asked for your opinion — on Twitter, not reacting equals not caring. How dare you not have an opinion, or worse yet, not even know about X?

All of those social expectations are just too exhausting for me. Being served up stuff I never signed up to see in my feed is exhausting too. When I peeked at Spoutible, the dynamics were similar, just on a smaller scale (and like Twitter, it’s essentially run by one person, which is a no-go for me). When I checked out a few of the larger Mastodon servers, it was the same thing.

On Mastodon, my own way

I realized that if a site is designed for easy social interaction (which most people want), then it derails my brain to the point where it’s difficult to do anything creative. This is why I don’t have comments on my blog, and it’s now why I have my own Mastodon server. People can still contact me through my website contact form, and they can follow and reply to me on Mastodon, but it takes a little effort. That’s a feature, not a bug.

I love having control over my own server, much like having control over my own website. Also, by having my own Mastodon server, I see only exactly what I want to see, which is not much. I follow three bot accounts: one that shows how much of the year has passed, one that links to Calvin and Hobbes comics, and one that links to XKCD comics. On my feed, there are no trending hashtags to pique my curiosity and no people on soapboxes. It’s the equivalent of not bringing junk food into my home.

The result? I’m writing more like I used to 20 years ago, before I knew anything about the “right” way to write and interact online. It’s fun again. I’m sure most “experts” in the writing world would recoil at the boundaries I’ve set up, but following their advice played a big role in what made me quit a few years back. I know “they” say that creative people can’t be reclusive anymore, but if I have to be reclusive to continue doing creative work at all, then it’s a choice I’ll happily make.

05/01/2023 edit: Well, after exploring Mastodon for a while, I decided to delete my account. There wasn’t anything wrong with Mastodon per se, but I didn’t have a good enough reason to continue using it. I’d like to find a better way to share my writing while minimizing the downsides to my brain. The search continues….

Two years of guitar and the difference between information and knowledge

I can’t believe it’s been 2 years since I picked up a guitar for the first time. The guitar back then was a Taylor GS-Mini, a 7/8-size steel string guitar that I’d ordered (because pandemic) after tons of research. Conventional internet wisdom said I needed a smaller guitar because I have smaller hands.

I switched that GS Mini for a full-size nylon string classical guitar four months later. My guitar teacher was the one who suggested going for a full-size guitar, and I have no regrets.

It was yet another example of why I have to view conventional wisdom, and practically everything on the internet, with a chunk of salt. Yes, there’s tons of information online, but too much of it comes from people who are parroting information they’ve read elsewhere, not true knowledge. There’s a big difference between having ideas and being able to execute them, and after too many years taking advice from people who only have ideas, I’m getting much better results listening to people who know how to execute and ignoring everyone else.

Reminder #435623 never to read the comments

Five months ago, my guitar teacher encouraged me to attempt the traditional 19th century piece “Spanish Romance,” which I love. I checked out some YouTube videos to get an idea of how different people interpreted it, but like an idiot I read the comments. Someone criticized a video (not the one I linked above) because of the performer’s choppy phrasing. I agreed with that criticism, but the commenter went on to say that “Spanish Romance” is a standard repertoire piece (which it is) that every beginner guitarist knows how to play.

Um, tell me you don’t play guitar without telling me you don’t play guitar.

Yes, “Spanish Romance” is a standard. But a beginner’s piece? I’ve seen comments on tutorials from people who say things like “I’ve been playing two weeks and this is the first song I learned!” which tells me they only got through the first six, maybe eight measures. Measures 7 and 8 have a half barre, not something a beginner would try off the bat but doable with practice. But measures 9 and 10? Oof! I’ve spent hours just on those two measures alone because the index finger has to hold down all six strings while (1) the third fingers curls down to the first string for one note and (2) the pinky stretches four frets to reach another note. All without letting up the pressure on the index finger.

The entire second half of the piece has even more shifts around the neck, barre chords, and finger stretches/contortions that I won’t get into here, but the reason those silly comments have stuck in my head for this long is because it’s such an insult to anyone who invests the effort to learn a new skill. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s so much easier to toss out opinions online and sound authoritative without people questioning whether you actually know what you’re talking about.

The knowing-doing gap in the writing world and the tsunami of bad advice

A similar epiphany happened with my writing too. Last year, after struggling with my writing for nearly two decades and fed up with conflicting advice that messed with my head and got me nowhere, I started taking workshops from WMG Publishing, which are run by two writers (Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch). Both of them have decades of experience to back up what they teach. Those workshops were a game-changer for my writing, especially in the craft area. It also opened my eyes to the tsunami of BS in the writing world, which is why I no longer read writing blogs or participate in writing communities except for my local “shut up and write” groups. I’ll let other people chase their tails. I’ve done this long enough to finally recognize the garbage advice for what it is.

It’s tempting to think that information gathering is productive, but after a certain point it’s just a way to procrastinate. It’s a lot less ego-bruising than stepping into the practice arena and facing your shortcomings again and again. But practice is the only way to improve, and the pursuit of excellence can be torturous fun, especially in the moments when you get close to bringing the perfect jewel that exists in your imagination into reality.

Those rare moments are what keep me going for the long haul.