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 online 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 technique and musicianship 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 online 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.

After my private lesson, I decided to discontinue my online group lessons on my acoustic guitar and return to Guitar Tricks to work on non-classical guitar at my own pace. The online lessons were valuable for learning proper biomechanics, but I don’t need help learning how to build a major scale or identify intervals–I can do that already. For technique issues, my private teacher can pick up where my online teacher left off and do a better job since he’s watching me in person, not through a screen.

On a slightly different topic, I’m tracking my deliberate practice hours in my blog’s sidebar 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 consider what I’ll give up if I say “yes” to something. Even something as seemingly small as 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.