I started working on lessons from Ukulele Corner Academy this past week and holy crap, learning fingerstyle playing is hard!
My current practice routine is focused on getting my right hand index and middle fingers coordinated enough to “sweep” (not “pick”) the strings with a clear, even tone and coordinate those movements with the C major scale and the chromatic scale. My guitar lessons have helped with the initial training in keeping my left hand fingers low and close to the fretboard, but it still takes a lot of concentration transferring that skill to the ukulele. I’m also cleaning up my chord changes in the more common keys (C major is pretty much drilled in my brain, G major needs work, and I haven’t even tackled F, A, or D major chord progressions yet).
I know I’ll be stuck on Unit 1, Grade 1 for a while, but I enjoy figuring out why I’m making mistakes, fixing them, and watching myself incrementally improve (is there any other kind of improvement?). My guitar teacher says that practice is a form of meditation, and perhaps that’s what draws me back to my practice space day after day.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.