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.

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, because 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 when 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, other honors bands and orchestras, chamber groups, solo and ensemble competitions, and two amazing, intense summers at Interlochen after my junior and senior years in high school.

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 almost impossible 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, barely any 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.