On its face, deliberate practice is boring. In music, it’s certainly boring to listen to. Even the most patient listener wouldn’t want to hear me switching between the same two ukulele chords for 5 minutes straight with only my corrections and tempo adjustments to relieve the monotony. Also, who the heck wants to read about it? There are no surprising hacks and no instant results.
But for me, deliberate practice is everything. I suppose it illustrates the disconnect between what looks interesting from the outside and what’s actually important. I’ve always been frustrated by my parents, especially my dad, who are big classical music fans and believe that accomplished musicians simply…appear. The classical music world’s obsession with prodigies doesn’t help. I suppose this was why they didn’t think I could be a musician–because they saw I had to work at it. News flash: we ALL have to work at it. Oh well, I’ll continue to hole up with my ukulele and enjoy the tiny improvements that are invisible to everyone but me.
I also started learning guitar this past week. Right now, I’m focused on building proper technique (I’m learning from The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar by Jamie Andreas) and will probably not be able to play a song for many months. Boring? Yes. Effective? We’ll see, but I feel this is the right approach for me.
Many people know Ira Glass’s advice to creative people about overcoming the gap between your abilities and your taste, but just in case you don’t, here’s a Brain Pickings article about it:
I love the advice to do a lot of work to improve your skills, but over the years I’ve found one piece of his advice that doesn’t quite ring true for me (bolding mine):
Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
In my experience, as I continue to work and learn, my taste improves faster than my skills do. As a result, the gap actually gets bigger, not smaller. I suppose this is a blessing because it means I’ll never be complacent, but dwelling on the gap feels lousy. I guess this is yet another reason to focus on the process and not the goal because the goal posts always move farther away if I’m doing my work correctly.
My first few days owning a uke were bewildering. How do I hold this without dropping it? Which peg tunes which string and which way am I supposed to turn it? How am I supposed to hold down this string without touching that one? Where do I press? How hard do I press? Why do I get a “chunk” sound or a buzz instead of a clear tone? I even texted a uke-playing friend asking, “G7 chord WTF?” because I couldn’t get my fingers to land in the right spots.
After a few more days of practice, though, I managed to get the basic C, F, and G7 chords down and even change between them, slowly. The uke still didn’t feel as comfortable and stable as I wanted, but I was at least making passable sounds. My fingers stopped being sore as I built up callouses. I put in more practice time, but I didn’t monitor my body as closely as I should have.
Then my elbow started hurting.
I figured out that the way I was holding the ukulele in my left hand was making my forearm tense. Too much practicing too soon probably didn’t help either. So I’m backing off on practicing chord changes and returning to more fundamental things so I can watch for body tension more closely. Areas I’m experimenting with: the lightest touch I can get away with on the strings (to keep my hand relaxed), different finger locations (a millimeter makes a big difference), arm positions, thumb positions, where the neck rests on my hand, my breathing, my posture. In other words, boring but important foundations.
One problem I caught right away once I slowed down and paid more attention: I was resting my right pinky on the uke while I was strumming. That’s the kind of bad habit I want to eliminate right away before it becomes ingrained.
I used the downtime I would’ve spent practicing in other ways, like studying music theory and ear training. My music reading is a bit rusty and my ear training is non-existent (it’s bizarre that I went through so many years of serious classical music study without it–it’s why I’m now concentrating on learning by ear as much as I can).
I definitely enjoy teaching myself with online lessons more than taking live lessons. I can take as much time as I need to learn something without the pressure to show outward progress each week. If it takes me two months to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” smoothly, with proper technique and without tension in my body or hands, that’s okay.
Austin Kleon reminds us that we’re verbs, not nouns, and over the past month I’ve taken this to heart as I’ve re-evaluated everything about my creative life. For years, I’ve labelled this website as “Grace Wen: Writer,” and I suppose that made sense when I was focused on getting published, building a “brand” (I hate that term, as if we should permanently mark ourselves like cattle), and everything else writers are “supposed” to do to attract attention. But calling myself a writer always felt so limiting.
So I changed the tagline of my website to “Music, writing, and other things I’m learning.” It reflects where I’m at in my life right now a lot more accurately. I’m still writing, of course, and I’m now studying music again (which feels like coming home–ahhhhhhh…). I’m also dabbling with kawaii doodles. The key difference is that I’m not identifying myself by any of those activities. They’re what I do, not what I am.
Will any of this lead anywhere? I have no idea, and at this point I’m done with specific goals (essentially nouns) that I have little control over. Learn, practice, make, share, repeat–those are the verbs I’d rather concentrate on.