Jumping into the deep end with my first classical guitar lesson. Also: the misleading nature of the 10,000 “rule”

I had my first classical guitar lesson a few days ago and wow, is this going to be demanding (in a good way)!

Unlike my group lesson teacher, my private teacher doesn’t take a sequential approach (making people learn technique first before learning songs and reading music). Instead, he tosses students in all at once and continually refines their work as they progress. He explained that when he was teaching classical guitar at a university, his students had juries every 12 weeks, so he had to find efficient ways to teach and prepare them.

So he pulled out my Prep Level book (mind you, this is a pre-Grade 1 book), got a sense of my music background (Yes, I can read music. Yes, I know the names of the strings. No, I don’t know where the notes are on the fretboard unless I spend a few seconds figuring out each one), then selected a simple piece and asked me to play it.

Did I mention that I don’t know where the notes are on the fretboard? Between notes, this was my brain:

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Thanks to my group lesson teacher, my technique was not catastrophically awful and my private teacher made some excellent suggestions and adjustments, but I was definitely flailing in the deep end. When I mentioned this, he said, “Yes, I tossed you in the deep end, but I won’t let you drown.” I’m glad I record my lessons because I’m holding him to that!

I can definitely see the strenghs of my private lesson teacher’s approach. After only a few days, I’m a bit more confident about what notes are on which string. I’ve learned how to plan ahead for the next note or chord as I play the current one. Most importantly, I’m learning how to be more comfortable paying attention to multiple things during my practice and being okay with how intensely laborious this is.

I’m still continuing with my online group lessons on my steel string acoustic guitar because I’m getting so much out of them and it doesn’t require that much additional commitment. Playing on an acoustic guitar requires more finger/hand strength than a nylon string classical, so I treat my acoustic guitar practice like fitness/body awareness training. The different approaches of my two teachers nicely complement each other at this stage of my learning.

On a slightly different topic, I’ve added a deliberate practice progress bar in my blog’s sidebar to keep track of my hours, just for fun. I’m only counting focused practice time, not lessons or other supporting activities (all are important, but I’m too lazy to weight those hours according to their importance). No, my goal is not to reach the mythical 10,000 hours. The 10,000 hour “rule” is too simplistic and often misinterpreted, but it does highlight that being good at anything requires massive amounts of focused work. Anders Ericsson’s research pointed out that the practice quality, not just quantity, made a difference. Also note that the violinists he studied, who had put in roughtly 10,000 hours of practice, were students. Excellent students, yes, but not experts yet–they were only about halfway down that path, if that.

What I’m actually excited about is seeing the improvements along the way and the hours it took to make them happen. Where will I be after 1000, 5000, or more hours of practice? We’ll see.

Guitar is about to get intense

I have my classical guitar. I have my first set of books. My audio recorder arrives on Wednesday, and I have a notebook, pencils, and a nail file in my tote bag. My first lesson is Thursday.

I feel like I’m about to get married. That sounds weird, but it’s not a new idea–Elizabeth Gilbert has said something similar about being a “Bride of Writing.” I know I’m embarking on a huge commitment of time and energy with no end in sight, as music always is.

My teacher uses the Royal Conservatory of Music method, which includes grade levels and, if I’m so inclined, exams. It covers not only songs, but music theory, ear training, music history, and technique. There are 10 levels, a preparatory level, and an Associate’s Diploma. I’m not deciding whether to work through all of those levels right now because I don’t want to psych myself out before starting what will be an extremely long game. I’m focused only on what’s in front of me, which is the preparatory level. My teacher is either lucky or cursed to get a blank slate like me.

I still plan to keep taking my weekly online group lessons for my acoustic guitar, but practicing for those will be a much lower priority. I think my classical studies will naturally help my acoustic playing anyway. The ukulele? Well, it did its job in making stringed instruments less intimidating, so it’s now firmly in the “no pressure, play when I feel like it” category.

Thanks to Jason Haaheim’s Deliberate Practice Bootcamp, which I attended last week (and highly recommend), I have a better idea of how to practice more effectively and keep robust records of my progress that go beyond my trusty notebook. This won’t exactly be fun, but I feel compelled to do this for my music studies. Is there a term for a hobby that’s treated more like a job (a “jobby”)?

:deep breaths: I still have a few days to wrap my head around this next stage of my music adventure. When I picked up a guitar for the first time 3 months ago, I didn’t expect to ramp up my studies this quickly. Heck, I didn’t even expect to take private lessons, or study classical guitar, and yet here I am. We plan, God laughs.

Time and trade-offs

This week, I quit my last ongoing volunteer committment and I feel so much lighter.

Volunteering is encouraged in our society, but I seem to lack the personality trait that makes for a happy volunteer. I’ve also noticed that when you give your time away, people don’t value it. I guess it’s human nature not to value things you get for free. Realizing that made my decision to quit volunteering a lot easier.

I especially don’t like groups who use social pressure and guilt to squeeze more work out of people. I resent that kind of manipulation, especially when the group is disorganized and wouldn’t need to ask so much from its volunteers if it were run more efficiently.

These days, I’m much more aware that saying “yes” to something necessarily means saying “no” to a lot of other things (for more thoughts on this, check out Scott Young’s post here). I now reflexively say, “Let me think about that” when I’m asked to do something. This is a big improvement from my old people-pleasing ways. I now ask “Would I rather do this or that?’ to force myself to consider what I’ll give up if I say “yes” to something. Even something as seemingly small as, say, two hours volunteering at the library means giving up two hours of music practice, spending time with my family, writing, working out, loafing, reading or whatever else I might rather do. Explicitly asking myself how I want to spend my time forces me to make a real choice instead of saying “yes” by default.

The only volunteer activity I’ve kept is writing for Postcards to Voters, which is a fantastic organization that allows me to commit as much or as little time as I want with zero pressure and on my own terms. They really seem to understand that volunteers are providing a gift and appreciate any effort, no matter how small. They are also constantly improving their own processes (there’s that deliberate practice again!), which makes me respect them even more.

As much as we don’t like to think about it, our time on earth is finite. Others will gladly seize control of your time, energy, and attention for their own purposes if you let them. Don’t let them.

Guitar lessons: levelling up

My guitar teacher said I’m ready to move up to her Stage 2 class! I did not expect to level up this soon, but I guess all those hours of practice trained my fingers enough for her to say I’m ready to learn chords and songs, both strumming and fingerstyle.

I joked to a friend that I wasn’t this excited when I graduated law school. It’s so weird, isn’t it, to be this thrilled about something so seemingly trivial? But who cares, I’ve hit a big milestone in my guitar journey, and I’m just getting started.


I recently watched They Came to Play, a documentary about the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. Contestants must be over 35 years old and NOT professional musicians (i.e., they don’t derive their main source of income from playing or teaching piano). Pianists from all over the world submit a CD and the top 75 are invited to Texas to compete.

What struck me was the sheer level of dedication among the contestants. Among the pianists featured in the film are a retired tennis coach, an eye doctor, a manager at Lockheed Martin, a lawyer, a church musician, a dental assistant, and an AIDS survivor. All of them are highly accomplished musicians who happen to have day jobs. I doubt anyone listening to them would think they are unskilled simply because they’re not professional concert pianists.

The word “amateur” has its root in the Latin word amatorem, which means “lover.” The first definition of “amateur” in The American Heritage Dictionary is “a person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.” Being an amateur simply means doing something primarily for love rather than money.

But somewhere along the way, “amateur” became a dirty word, especially in the arts. I’ve read so many articles over the years highlighting the differences between professional writers vs. amateur writers. These articles assume that amateurs are unskilled and uncommitted to improving their craft. I suspect many articles about amateur vs. professional musicians are the same way.

Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s because our culture loves to attach a market value to everything. As Austin Kleon noted in Keep Going, we compliment people by telling someone they’re so good at something they love that they could make money at it. But the flip side of that view is that if someone isn’t making money at something, they must not be any good.

In artistic fields, where luck and access to resources are huge factors for commercial success, the push to “be professional” makes little sense to me. Perhaps “be professional” is used as shorthand for “treat your craft seriously,” but if that’s the case, I think we should be clear about that.

Professionals aren’t automatically more committed or “better” (whatever that means) than amateurs. People choose not to make a living from their art for all sorts of reasons, such as lack of opportunities, not wanting the pressure, not wanting the lifestyle, not being marketable at the time, whatever. Denigrating amateurs simply because their art isn’t their job ignores the complexity of the decision and the fact that there isn’t enough market demand for most artists to get paid a living wage, or at all. Amateur artists can be as serious, skilled, and dedicated to improvement as professionals, and we shouldn’t automatically assume they’re dabblers (and if they are, that’s fine too–not everything has to be taken seriously).

If you have a chance, check out They Came to Play (I borrowed it from the library via Hoopla). Be wowed by the featured musicians and then give the amateur artists around you some love. Check out a community theatre production or a community band concert or an open mic night or a self-published book. The level of skill may surprise you.

Gah, guitar fingerstyle!

Why won’t my fingers do what I want them to do?

I’ve been asking myself that a lot the past few weeks. I’m now learning fingerstyle on the guitar, and those steel strings are no joke. Rubbing my fingertips against metal wires again and again is not fun, but at least they’re starting to toughen up. My biggest challenge right now is getting my fingers to move independently without (1) changing the position of the other fingers, (2) changing the position of my hand, or (3) tensing my fingers, my hand, my arm, my shoulder, or any other part of me in the process. Whew, that’s a lot of work to stay relaxed!

My teacher has me slooooooowly moving each finger in the correct way without striking the string to get my muscles used to the sensation. then doing the same motion while lightly brushing the string so that my hand stays relaxed. This makes a lot of sense because when you push against a string, it will push back and the muscles need to tense a little to keep the string under control. The key, and the difficult part, is to introduce the minimum amount of muscle tension and also to release that tension once you let go of the string. Increasing the force gradually acclimates the muscles to stay as relaxed as possible.

The more I study, the more parallels I see between learning guitar and getting into shape. Both require gradual conditioning of the muscles before tackling bigger challenges. The muscles may be different sizes, but the framework is the same. So I keep practicing my reps with good form and celebrate the tiny improvements along the way.

Learning the uke eventually means teaching the uke

James Hill says that once you learn the ukulele, teaching comes with the territory. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rank beginner like me–someone will see how much fun you’re having and ask you to teach them.

In my case, that someone is my mom.

She bought a uke last month and I’ve been teaching her the basics. She now knows the C, F, G7, and Am chords (“the big four”) and is working on changing between them smoothly. Yesterday, I had her try to figure out the chords to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by ear (like me, she’s classically trained and depends too much on sheet music so I wanted to show her how empowering learning by ear can be).

The ukulele, more than any other instrument I’ve encountered, is incredibly social. I don’t know whether it’s because of its unintimidating size, its cheerful sound, or the laid-back culture surrounding it, but I’ve noticed the ukulele draws people in. Sure, you can play it seriously, but you don’t have to and that’s okay. And even if you play it seriously, that doesn’t mean taking yourself seriously, and I love that.

I can’t wait to see where Mom’s ukulele adventure takes her.

How my relationship with classical music reminds me of Logan’s Run

When I started studying guitar, I tried to keep classical guitar off the table as a possible next step. But as I explored my options, I kept returning to it. My teacher says that we naturally gravitate toward the musical styles that reflect the qualities we possess. I gravitate toward indie singer-songwriter acoustic guitar, which I embrace. But classical guitar too? Well, that’s more complicated.

Why do I have a complicated relationship with classical music? It isn’t because I don’t love it–I do. It’s because of the emotions and memories tangled up with it.

Like many immigrant parents, my own parents believed music was a great hobby but a terrible thing to continue beyond high school. I was told I would be an electrical engineer since I was eight. It didn’t matter that I had zero interest in it. “Liberal arts” was practically a swear word in my house, and my dad, who taught at a commuter engineering college, often ranted about the uselessness of liberal arts degrees and even looked down on other types of engineering. It was easy to ignore while I was young, though, because I had more pressing stuff to deal with–surviving school.

Playing music was the one thing that got me through my teen years. It wasn’t easy being a nerdy, non-athletic Chinese kid in an over 99% white Michigan county. Like every good Chinese kid, I played piano. In sixth grade, I started playing clarinet, then switched to bassoon when my hands grew large enough to reach around the instrument. By eighth grade, I made it into the Michigan Youth Symphony. After that came All-State, lots of other honors bands and orchestras and chamber groups and solo and ensemble competitions, and two amazing, intense summers at Interlochen after my junior and senior years.

Meanwhile, as college application season loomed, I tried everything my sixteen-year-old brain knew how to do to go somewhere with a music program. I planned to double major in engineering and music so my parents could get what they wanted and I could get what I wanted. I was accepted at University of Michigan for both schools and even received scholarship money, but it wasn’t enough. My parents refused to fill out financial aid forms, so I couldn’t borrow or get grants to make up the difference. Since I could attend where my dad taught for free (and I even got a merit-based full scholarship at the same place–too bad I couldn’t double-dip and bank that money), that was the only acceptable option for them. It didn’t matter that the college only offered seven majors, four of which were in engineering (the others were architecture, business, and computer science), making it difficult to broaden my horizons. To them, college was for job training and nothing more.

So a few weeks after my final summer at Interlochen, I was at a commuter college I didn’t want to be at, majoring in something I didn’t want to study, still living with my parents, and abruptly cut off from the music world. The college I attended had no music groups, no arts or culture, no friends I knew, no campus activities, and few social opportunities. We barely even had sports to gather around because the only sports they had were Division III bowling and hockey. Forget about getting a liberal education–only three non-technical classes were required for an engineering degree, and even those were perfunctory because apparently getting engineering students to read something longer than a short story was too much to ask.

I also later learned that when I was a high school senior, a recruiter called my home wanting me to join the Army Band. That would’ve been a sweet deal, continuing my music studies while serving my country and having college paid for. My mom told the recruiter that I had a full scholarship at the commuter college and ended the call without telling me about it. She now admits that she should’ve told me about the opportunity so I could’ve decided for myself.

I’m proud I did NOT flip out when I learned this. #maturity

I’m the first one to say there’s a statute of limitations for blaming your parents about things, but I also know how difficult it can be, especially when major life choices (or in my case, non-choices) are involved. I’ve managed to wring the best possible outcomes out of those non-choices, but I’m not going to lie to myself, or to them, and say their decisions were “right” because of those outcomes. They weren’t right because those were never their decisions to make.

Could I have continued studying music despite the obstacles? Of course, and I tried. I even played in the campus orchestra when I was in law school. (Why did I go to law school? To avoid being an engineer.) But a teen/early 20-something in the pre-internet era could do only so much without support. Learned helplessness may have also played a part–there are only so many times you can run into a brick wall before you just decide your life desires don’t matter. Once I started my law career, I lost all hope about continuing to play bassoon and sold it.

I’ve since moved on, but I can’t honestly say I’m over it. Irrational emotions still bubble up when the topic of college arises in conversation. I avoided returning to classical music for many years because it hurt too much. Orchestra concerts are bittersweet when they perform something I’ve played. Parents who actually respect their kids’ choices still push my buttons. I wince when people say college is to learn how to learn (I agree, but unfortunately this wasn’t the view where I attended). Even the phrase “the college experience” sets me on edge because people who believe in its importance don’t seem to recognize how privileged it is. I don’t show any of this outwardly, though–it’s my issue to deal with, alone.

Now that I think about it, it’s kind of like Logan’s Run, where my musical life clock was pushed forward to a premature Last Day. Also, like the youth-obsessed culture in the movie, there’s a pervasive belief in the prodigy-obsessed classical world that it’s impossible for an adult student to reach a high level in music performance. I suppose it’s good I chose guitar because it removes a lot of emotional baggage. Playing in an orchestra or concert band is not a option with guitar, which eliminates a lot of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. With classical guitar, I get to explore new paths while taking advantage of my past experience.

If I seem intense about my music studies now, it’s because I’m racing against time. I don’t want to be patronized and congratulated for “taking up a nice hobby” while being told to “be realistic about my goals.” Music is, and always has been, more than a hobby for me, and I want to see how good I can get. Perhaps someday, like the old man at the end of Logan’s Run, I can demonstrate that there are no limits to what you can become.