When a practice tool becomes a crutch

One of the first things I did when I started learning guitar was buy a full-length mirror so I could monitor my posture and my hands. It was helpful at first, but lately I realized I’ve been using the mirror as a crutch.

This was clear at my last lesson, where there is no mirror, when I had trouble hitting the right strings and keeping my tone consistent at faster tempos without being able to see my fingers. Relying on the mirror had made my ears and fingertips lazy.

So tonight I practiced a piece slowly without the mirror and wow, it was like starting at the beginning again. Without my eyes to help me find the right chords and notes, I had to rely much more on my ears, sense of touch, and body awareness to navigate. I felt like I was in a dark room bumping into furniture. That’s actually a good analogy because the first few times, you collide with everything and then later you don’t because you sense where everything is located without needing to see it.

It’s a struggle, but I know I’m heading in the right direction. This is a perfect example of moving backward in my practice to move forward. I sound a lot worse now that I don’t have my eyes to help me, but it’s the only way to develop better ears and fingers. No struggle, no learning.

The opposite of the 4-chord song (videos)

On its surface, “Never Gonna Let You Go” (produced by Sergio Mendes, written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and performed by a group of session musicians) sounds like a typical early 80s soft pop ballad. There’s a plinky synth, a duet (what was it with duets in the 80s?), and a guitar solo in the outro, which makes the song easy to write off as just another piece of fluff, but these videos show just how complex the song really is. The chord progressions look like a Calculus 3 math problem!

You can have anything you want, just not everything you want

This past week, I seriously considered buying a digital piano. Perhaps it’s because I love Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque and thought maybe, just maybe, I could learn how to play them someday. I played piano many years ago, so I wouldn’t be going in cold. I even found a piano to buy and cleared a space for it.

Luckily, good sense prevailed. I barely touch the keyboard I currently have except to work out music theory stuff. Playing Debussy? Fat chance, especially when classical guitar occupies all of the time and brain space I’ve allocated to music study. Even my ukulele is an afterthought these days.

And that doesn’t change the other things I already have on my plate. I want to spend more time writing again. I need to get back in shape. I’ve hardly knitted this year, which is unusual for me. Friends and family deserve my attention too.

I’d written before about trade-offs when deciding how we want to spend our time. It was relatively easy to drop my volunteer commitments because I didn’t care about them as much as practicing guitar. But prioritizing also requires ranking, and possibly cutting, things you like. The harsh truth is that as long as we can’t clone ourselves, we have to pick one activity over another for any given chunk of time. Prioritizing and choosing among things that are important to us is uncomfortable, but it’s unavoidable. I’ve observed people who try to avoid this truth and they’re always spinning in circles, rushing around, and wondering why they can’t make headway on the things they say they want to accomplish.

When I asked myself what I’d be willing to drop to fit piano practice into my life, the answer was “Nothing.”

So piano is off the table for good. A nice side effect is I can set aside that money to upgrade my classical guitar. Based on input from my teacher, that may end up happening sooner than I planned. If I still want to play Debussy in the far-off future, there are always guitar arrangements.

Ow, my brain

If my blog posts are sporadic and short for a while, it’s because I don’t have any brainpower left to string words together after my guitar practice. Last week, at my second lesson, my teacher essentially said, “Great job! Here’s twice as much stuff for you to work on.”

So yeah, I’m drowning a bit.

Right now, I’m learning how to get my fingers moving in opposite directions two at a time, first placing them on the second and fourth strings, then switching positions. Yes, including the ring and pinky fingers. Those fingers are never used for anything, especially on the left hand, so it’s been interesting watching them flail and wobble and do everything except what I want them to do. Scott Tennant, the author of Pumping Nylon (which contains this and a bunch of other finger-twisting exercises) is an evil genius.

My teacher also tossed in learning hammer-ons and two new short pieces. No, I’m not going to get these even close to polished in a week. I’ll be lucky if I can play the pieces all the way through at a sloooooooooow tempo.

It figures, out of all the music genres I could’ve chosen for guitar, I pick one of the hardest ones.