Music practice doesn’t always involve making noise

To help relax the fingers and forearm (and shoulders, and neck, and everything else). my guitar teacher wants us to do preliminary exercises at the start of each practice session. Her suggestions include slowly walking our left-hand fingers across the strings, slowly moving our right hand up and down in our picking motion without touching the strings, and gradual string push downs to sensitize each finger to how the string feels before it contacts the fret.

I admit I was rather perfunctory about these exercises in the past, but I decided I should spend some extra time and attention on them this past week. I’m glad I did because they revealed some previously overlooked tension in my shoulders and fingers while I played. Arrgh!

I know I sound like a broken record talking so much about muscle tension, but it seems to be a universal problem among musicians. When you think about it, playing an instrument requires you to hold and move your body in unnatural ways for long periods of time. No wonder our muscles complain.

Staying relaxed continues to be an uphill battle. I don’t know what this says about me, but it’s not surprising. #recoveringTypeA

On the uke front, things are starting to get challenging. I’m practicing the C major pentatonic and diatonic scales and am learning how to play my first 8-bar chord melody song. It’s harder than simply playing chords and strumming, but I’m not much of a strum-and-sing person anyway (I’m a bad singer). Someday, my clumsy fingerpicking will sound musical, but for now I’m simply glad to hit the right notes.

A “duh” moment where I realize I need to kick my ego out of the practice room (again and again)

My guitar teacher told me I’m trying to push my speed too much and not noticing and releasing the tension in my body between notes. That’s why I kept losing control of both my fingers and the pick. She said I was progressing fine on my lessons, but I needed to slow down and be sensitive to any feelings of discomfort, no matter how small, as I played. Then I realized–DUH, no wonder my left forearm was sore! It wasn’t just that I was practicing too long–it was also because I was practicing too intensely. All that muscle tension accumulated because I hadn’t trained my body enough to release it at faster tempos.

Today, I slowed my practice exercises way down, as in playing half notes at 80 BPM again, staying extra focused on keeping my left forearm muscles relaxed as much as possble and guess what? No soreness.

This isn’t the first time my ego got ahead of my body. I dealt with similar pain from playing ukulele, for exactly the same reasons. I’m apparently a slow learner.

How to be More Productive and Focus (+ Free Schedule Maker)

I’d been proud of myself hitting 100 BPM at eighth notes on my exercises but I now know that “accomplishment” rested on a weak foundation, which came back to bite me. This happened when I played drums too, except now I know not only to slow down, but to really notice how every muscle in my body responds and make sure I play with ease before moving up the metronome.

Today was a good reminder that ego has no place in deliberate practice. I played my first note on a stringed instrument of any kind only 10 weeks ago. 5 weeks ago, I didn’t know how to hold a guitar pick, or even a guitar. I need to remember that these are just the first steps in a lifelong adventure. There’s no reason to rush the process, and in fact it’s better not to.

I was wrong: deliberate practice does NOT equal boring blog posts

Deliberate practice is just the scientific method applied to your craft.

Jason Haaheim, principal timpanist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

A while back I wrote that my deliberate practice strategy made for boring blog posts.

Then I stumbled across Jason Haaheim’s blog. He makes deliberate practice fascinating.

Jason is the principal timpanist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and has an unconventional background. Compared to most professional musicians, he got a late start and didn’t play in an orchestra until high school. Rather than going to music school, he got an M.S. in electrical engineering and worked at a nanotech company for 10 years while methodically practicing the timpani before and after work and freelancing with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago (a training orchestra associated with the Chicago Symphony). He continued auditioning until he won his current post at the Met Opera.

That summary sounds so nice and neat and inspirational, doesn’t it? But what it doesn’t show is the grueling, systematic process it took to get there. His journey was a lot messier than the condensed narrative suggests, and he shares what he learned, and continues to learn, in the kind of detail that science geeks and the performance-obsessed can really chew on.

I’m thrilled at all of this information because it gives me more ideas for improving my own practice. I particularly like how Jason treats his practice journal like a lab notebook and keeps it online with his self-recordings so he can easily search and cross-reference his notes, even over many years. Perhaps it’s because I also have a science background, but I really love how he turned his practice journal into a database. I will definitely incorporate his method soon.

My guitar teacher understands the importance of deliberate practice as well. She shares this video with all of her new students so we know what to expect from her and vice versa:

A big part of deliberate practice is learning how to diagnose and fix our own mistakes as much as we can–after all, we spend far more time in the practice room than in our lessons. My guitar teacher handles this by giving us a handout with the most common hand/finger mistakes she encounters in beginners and exercises to remedy them. That way, we can spend the lesson time on areas where we’re stuck, on things we don’t know how to fix ourselves. So efficient!

I currently practice in front of a full-length mirror so I can watch my hands from different angles and also check for any visible tension in the rest of my body as I play. This is in addition to staying in tune with how my body feels, especially when I’m pushing myself. That’s helped me self-diagnose a lot of problems. I call my teacher my personal trainer for my hands because our entire focus right now is turning my clumsy, weak, ordinary fingers into flexible, strong guitarist fingers. Deliberate practice is as important for absolute beginners like me as for pros like Jason.

I’ll end this post with what may be the nerdiest, and my favorite, description of what music is:

Your job [as a musician] is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing.

Jason Haaheim (quoting William Short, principal bassoonist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)

Making music without hurting myself

This past week, I cut my guitar practice in half (to 30 minutes a day) to reduce the risk of injury. Yesterday, I got cocky and practiced over an hour.

My left arm reminded me that was a bad idea.

I know better. I mean, I wouldn’t go and run 6 miles right out of the gate, or even after a month of training, so why did I think playing an instrument would be any different? Especially something as unwieldy as a guitar?

I’ve managed to make surprising progress in 4 weeks, but I have to remind myself it’s only been 4 weeks. My finger, hand, and arm muscles are still in the beginning stages of development. I’m still learning how to be aware of how my whole body responds and to let go of any tension that occurs while I practice. I’m glad my teacher emphasizes good technique and whole body awareness to avoid problems later on. Even Steve Vai had to learn this the hard way (although he still manages to shred with only one hand).

I was never taught the importance body awareness in my previous music training, which may explain why I hit plateaus I couldn’t break out of and, in the case of drums, had to ice my arms for a week after over-practicing with poor technique for months.

To improve my ergonomics, I use a guitar support to hold my guitar at the correct angle without a footrest. I also sometimes use a strap on my ukulele when I want to play standing up or move my left hand more freely without worrying about supporting the neck at the same time (thanks to, um, female anatomy, I’ve found it nearly impossible to support and play the uke higher on my chest, so I rest the uke on my right leg when I’m not using a strap).

Injuries are depressingly common among musicians. It’s not easy being patient with myself to avoid them, but that’s why focusing on the long game is so important–practicing less now and gradually increasing my time will let me practice more in the future.

Bonus: more chord progression fun with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Previous post on chord progressions here.

“Little Brown Jug” broke me

I get it, I need to learn simple songs since I’m a beginner, but does every song have to be, well, kind of lame? I was fine with “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” because everyone starts with that or “Hot Cross Buns.” Then came “Oh My Darling Clementine” and “Li’l Liza Jane” (I spiced it up with my own lyrics) and after that “Wayfaring Stranger” (I actually liked this song and learned to play in a minor key). I managed to get through “What Did The Deep Sea Say” because singing along to a moderate calypso strum was enough of a challenge to make me forget I was dying inside. I tolerated “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Down in the Valley” to learn how to strum faster. I even got through “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” especially with Tiger’s Opening Day coming up.

Then “Little Brown Jug” appeared in my next lesson. We’re supposed to learn how to play fast downstrums with accents on beats 2 and 4. The songs after that? “Oh, Susanna” and “Buffalo Gals.”

I just can’t anymore.

It’s been two days and I still haven’t touched “Little Brown Jug.” I’ve practiced the strum technique (it’s not hard), but the song itself makes me want to garrote someone with my C string. It’s not a feeling I want associated with my music practice, and I decided it was time to look around for something that was a better fit.

I’ve wanted to learn fingerstyle playing for a while now. I originally was going to wait until I finished my current strumming lesson plan, but “Little Brown Jug” broke me.

As a palate cleanser, I hunted around and found “Peace Like an Ukulele” by James Hill, which sounded like exactly what I needed. Plus, it was free–you can’t beat that! And the best part is that it’s all played with the thumb, just like when I tune my uke. I love that he wrote it as a simple, meditative piece that sounds harder to play than it actually is.

In case you’re not familiar how innovative James Hill is on the uke, here’s a sample:

It’s time to change gears when the songs themselves make me want to avoid practicing. I’d rather do tedious technique exercises (and I do on my guitar) and learn no songs than do what I’m doing now. Luckily, I found that James Hill has lesson plans that look like they’ll be a better fit (more diverse music, more music theory, and more emphasis on chord melodies). I also plan to sign up for Ukulele Corner Academy to focus on classical music. Yes, classical ukulele is a thing, and I’m so here for it.

I’ll still complete my strumming lessons, but I’ll find my own songs to practice to. That’s not the teacher’s fault, by the way. It’s simply a mismatch of musical tastes. I’m learning how to play, and that’s what really matters.

Ukulele practice is a guitar practice preview

I’ve been studying ukulele for 7 weeks and guitar for 2 weeks now. Learning both simultaneously has worked out even better than I’d hoped. When I started on this adventure, I decided to learn ukulele first to overcome my intimidation around stringed instruments. I thought it would take six months before I was ready to tackle the guitar.

I bought my guitar 5 weeks after buying my ukulele.

The ukulele has a reputation for being easier to learn than guitar, at least in the beginning, and I’ve found that to be true. Fewer and softer strings, simpler chord shapes, less pressure required to hold down chords, smaller size, all of these help. Right now, the guitar still feels unwieldy to me (and my guitar is a smaller model), and the steel strings are much harder to hold down than the nylon strings on my uke. The callouses on my fingertips from practicing my uke aren’t quite enough to handle my guitar either.

Then there’s properly positioning my fingers at the guitar frets–I’m currently only at the fifth fret with my index finger and despite my piano background it’s already a stretch to get my pinky at the right position on the eighth fret when I try to play notes. The pinky can reach, but staying bent and low to the string without tensing up is difficult. This is never a problem with the uke.

Just because the ukulele is easier than guitar doesn’t make it “easy,” though. This week, I learned the D7 chord, which is a barre chord that requires me to hold down three strings with one finger and the fourth string with another finger. I guess barre chords are the bane of every string player’s existence. It took me several focused practice sessions to just figure out the right placement and pressure of my finger and thumb to get the chord to play cleanly while still staying light enough to change chords. I’m still trying to get the chord changes consistent, but at least now I know what a barre chord is and the basic mechanics of playing one so I won’t be flailing (as much) when I finally learn them on guitar.

Thanks to the uke, I’m not intimidated by chords or fingerpicking anymore. I’m not even close to learning those on the guitar, but once I do I’ll just be learning a concept I know on a new instrument. Once I tackle learning the fretboards on both instruments, I’ll work on the uke first, as always. 4 strings and 2 octaves will be a great way to work up to 6 strings and 3 octaves.

Deciding to quit writing fiction

I was going to post some ukulele thoughts today, but other things are on my mind.

The pandemic has forced me to rethink why I write in the first place. I’ve chased the publication dream for 20 years now (16 in fiction) and have had some work published here and there. Over that time a lot has changed, and I’m especially glad that self-publishing is much easier now.

But writing and publishing are two separate things, and I’ve forgotten how to do one without thinking of the other. This isn’t unexpected–if you check out any article, forum, or blog about writing, it invariably focuses more on publishing than writing. Every writing conference I’ve been to has been the same way. Lately, I’ve been side-eyeing the advice that getting an agent or publisher or readers is simply a matter of hard work and good writing (and by the way, the people providing this advice almost always have something to sell to hopeful writers). I suppose it’s nice to think writers have that level of control over what happens with their work, but hope is a poor substitute for reality when making decisions.

A staggering percentage of the population doesn’t even read a book a year, yet at the same time hundreds of new books appear on Amazon each day, adding to the millions already there. Most of them go unnoticed. That’s not anyone’s fault–it’s simply the result of too many writers chasing too few readers. Plus, asking someone to read my stories is a big request. I’m asking them to invest a large chunk of their limited attention on me, and if they do, it’s a solitary experience that’s hard to share with others.

Whenever I’ve played music, on the other hand, the connection is easy and immediate. People don’t have to focus exclusively on my playing–I can be sonic wallpaper and still feel I’ve connected with them in some way. They’re free to give as much or as little attention as they want. With more than one listener, it easily becomes a shared experience among them. I don’t need Amazon or social media to find listeners–I can simply go outside and play in the park. If I want to connect with people via my creative work, music seems far more effective than writing.

There’s also a more personal aspect: my parents. They don’t read much (declining eyesight and language barriers can do that), but they both love music as much as I do. Dad doesn’t play an instrument. Mom plays piano and sings. I can’t connect with them through my writing, but I easily can through music. This is more important to me as I get older.

This isn’t to say that I won’t write fiction or submit stories ever again, but I’m relegating it to “whatever, whenever” status. No plans, no goals, no habit tracking, no imposed schedules or discipline. All that effort properly belongs in my music studies instead. The fact that I’d rather spend two hours practicing a tedious guitar exercise than writing is a sign I can’t ignore.

I deleted my Submittable account and my submission tracking spreadsheet and I already feel so much lighter.

Author Stephen H. Provost sums it up best when he detailed his own reasons for why he quit writing fiction (after having much, much more success than me):

If I come up with a killer story idea that grabs me by the throat and demands to be written, who am I to argue? But I’ll have to feel like it’s worth my while. Right now, it simply isn’t. I’ve got better things to do.

Learning about chord progressions is like finding music’s Rosetta stone

I recently learned about chord families and chord progressions and WHOA it’s like finding the Rosetta stone! For those who are unfamiliar with these concepts, guitar teacher David Southwick provides a good primer.

Many songs use one of a handful of chord progressions, with I-V-vi-IV being a common example (on my ukulele, I played C-G-Am-F to try it). What can you do with that single chord progression? Here’s an example:

I started listening to music more carefully to determine the “feel” of each chord, much like how each note in a scale has a particular “feel.” I have a long way to go, but I now feel more confident about learning songs by ear because once I know the main chord progression, I can use it as scaffolding to figure out the rest of the song.

It annoys me that I didn’t learn any of this while studying classical music. I was taught music theory in a vacuum and purely on paper (which makes no sense when it comes to music), and I didn’t learn about how notes fit together to form a song. Transposing to a new key was a huge pain in the butt because I learned how to do it one note at a time. With chord progressions, I can transpose in chunks instead of isolated notes. Notes are never isolated in music (they always relate to each other), so why treat them that way?

It’s wonderful how learning one new bit of information can make such a big difference in how I listen to and think about music. Bonus: I want to write songs eventually, and that process is now a lot less intimidating.

My essential practice tools: a metronome and a notebook

After I bought my ukulele, the first two things I reached for were a metronome and a notebook. The metronome is a leftover from when I studied drums and has way more functions than I need, but it does the job. I actually like working with it because it keeps me honest about maintaining a steady tempo. It also forces me to back off when I practice chord changes too quickly and create tension in my fretting hand (when I get overconfident about my speed, my forearm complains the next day–I take the hint and return to slower practicing as I diagnose what I’m doing wrong).

The notebook is a no-brainer: I use it to plan my practice sessions and track problems to solve. Over time, it’ll be a nice record of my progress, especially since improvement is so slow.

Practicing is unglamorous, sometimes boring, and almost always frustrating since I’m testing the limits of my abilities. But despite all that, I find it satisfying. It requires all of my attention and analytical skills, and I trust that with regular, deliberate practice, I’ll eventually suck less.