The metronome doesn’t lie

My guitar practice includes learning arpeggio exercises written by Mauro Giuliani and testing myself with a metronome. My teacher would like to see me eventually play them at 100 BPM or faster, ideally at 120 BPM, but for the past month or so I’d been stuck at 80 BPM. Each day, I’d start at a slower tempo, around 60 BPM, then gradually crank up the metronome 1 or 2 clicks, but once I got around 80 BPM, my fingers couldn’t keep up.

Like any student, I figured I simply needed to put in more effort, but after a few weeks of hitting this wall I brought the problem to my teacher. He used his metronome to test my speed, but he hid the display from me. He first set it at a slow tempo the way I normally do, but instead of increasing it gradually, he skipped around, jumping around from slow to fast to moderate and back again. All of the tempos he selected felt comfortable. After my final run, he showed me the metronome.

I’d played at 94 BPM, and it felt easy.

My teacher noted that the way I’d been trying to increase my speed, which is often taught as the “correct” way, can work, but it takes a long time and can create mental blocks. If you think something is hard, it will be. He suggested being more daring when I practice. If I make mistakes, so what? It’s better to experiment fearlessly in the practice room and let things blow up sometimes because that’s how we learn. (Funny how that also works in learning languages too — you can’t learn unless you’re willing to fail fast and often.)

Yet again, I’d let my attitude hold me back. I’m just glad I have a good teacher who believes in me when I have trouble believing in myself.

Two years of guitar and the difference between information and knowledge

I can’t believe it’s been 2 years since I picked up a guitar for the first time. The guitar back then was a Taylor GS-Mini, a 7/8-size steel string guitar that I’d ordered (because pandemic) after tons of research. Conventional internet wisdom said I needed a smaller guitar because I have smaller hands.

I switched that GS Mini for a full-size nylon string classical guitar four months later. My guitar teacher was the one who suggested going for a full-size guitar, and I have no regrets.

It was yet another example of why I have to view conventional wisdom, and practically everything on the internet, with a chunk of salt. Yes, there’s tons of information online, but too much of it comes from people who are parroting information they’ve read elsewhere, not true knowledge. There’s a big difference between having ideas and being able to execute them, and after too many years taking advice from people who only have ideas, I’m getting much better results listening to people who know how to execute and ignoring everyone else.

Reminder #435623 never to read the comments

Five months ago, my guitar teacher encouraged me to attempt the traditional 19th century piece “Spanish Romance,” which I love. I checked out some YouTube videos to get an idea of how different people interpreted it, but like an idiot I read the comments. Someone criticized a video (not the one I linked above) because of the performer’s choppy phrasing. I agreed with that criticism, but the commenter went on to say that “Spanish Romance” is a standard repertoire piece (which it is) that every beginner guitarist knows how to play.

Um, tell me you don’t play guitar without telling me you don’t play guitar.

Yes, “Spanish Romance” is a standard. But a beginner’s piece? I’ve seen comments on tutorials from people who say things like “I’ve been playing two weeks and this is the first song I learned!” which tells me they only got through the first six, maybe eight measures. Measures 7 and 8 have a half barre, not something a beginner would try off the bat but doable with practice. But measures 9 and 10? Oof! I’ve spent hours just on those two measures alone because the index finger has to hold down all six strings while (1) the third fingers curls down to the first string for one note and (2) the pinky stretches four frets to reach another note. All without letting up the pressure on the index finger.

The entire second half of the piece has even more shifts around the neck, barre chords, and finger stretches/contortions that I won’t get into here, but the reason those silly comments have stuck in my head for this long is because it’s such an insult to anyone who invests the effort to learn a new skill. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s so much easier to toss out opinions online and sound authoritative without people questioning whether you actually know what you’re talking about.

The knowing-doing gap in the writing world and the tsunami of bad advice

A similar epiphany happened with my writing too. Last year, after struggling with my writing for nearly two decades and fed up with conflicting advice that messed with my head and got me nowhere, I started taking workshops from WMG Publishing, which are run by two writers (Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch). Both of them have decades of experience to back up what they teach. Those workshops were a game-changer for my writing, especially in the craft area. It also opened my eyes to the tsunami of BS in the writing world, which is why I no longer read writing blogs or participate in writing communities except for my local “shut up and write” groups. I’ll let other people chase their tails. I’ve done this long enough to finally recognize the garbage advice for what it is.

It’s tempting to think that information gathering is productive, but after a certain point it’s just a way to procrastinate. It’s a lot less ego-bruising than stepping into the practice arena and facing your shortcomings again and again. But practice is the only way to improve, and the pursuit of excellence can be torturous fun, especially in the moments when you get close to bringing the perfect jewel that exists in your imagination into reality.

Those rare moments are what keep me going for the long haul.

Less pressure, more joy

“Stop trying to win at your hobbies.”

from The Practice of Groundedness by Brad Stulberg

I’ve been experimenting with productivity hacks for a long time, all the way back to my college years when the Franklin planner (remember those?) were a thing. These days, I wonder whether my productivity quest is doing more harm than good.

On the writing side, tracking word counts, page counts, writing speed, or time in the chair has never lasted longer than two months. On the music side, tracking practice time has lasted longer, but I sense it’s outlived its usefulness. It’s like the creative side of me constantly rebels against any kind of structure I impose on it. Plus there’s the question of whether to count certain things. Do I turn on my timer when I experiment with guitar pieces that aren’t assigned by my teacher? How about noodling on the couch and discovering new chords? Or when I practice my electric guitar instead of my classical one? What If I want to just pick up my guitar for ten minutes and try to play something from memory? Is that “practice” and do I have to stop and set the timer before I start?

When I knit, I don’t encounter these problems. I know there are people out there who track how many yards or grams of yarn they use up, set production goals, and beat themselves up when they miss them. I don’t do any of that, yet I finish plenty of projects without all that tracking because I enjoy the process. I tried to track my knitting for a few weeks and it sucked all the joy out of it, plus I ended up knitting less.

Similarly, I’ve somehow managed to eat a vegan diet for years without tracking how many days I’ve been doing it. Same with not drinking alcohol. Funny how the things I don’t track are the things that successfully become habits. Hmmm….

Maybe I should apply that relaxed mindset to my writing and my music too. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid to because all the “experts” say it leads to laziness. It goes against so much of the conventional wisdom out there. but conventional wisdom has not helped my productivity or my attitude at all. It makes what should be fun feel too much like work.

My guitar teacher isn’t one of those “track all your practice time” people. Instead, he encourages me to use the timer only as a way to guide focused practice chunks. For example, if I’m having trouble with a particular chord change, he advises setting the timer for 5 minutes and focusing intensely on identifying where the problems with that change are, what my body/arm/hand/fingers are doing, and how I can make my movements more efficient, relaxed, and accurate. He also explicitly told me NOT to track my time practicing electric guitar and just enjoy learning it, which I found interesting. I suspect it’s because he knows that when you only track time in the practice room, you’re tracking the wrong thing. Wiggling your fingers by rote for 4 hours isn’t the same as practicing with focused insight for 1.

So now I’m experimenting with loosening up and not tracking so much. I’m not a business manager monitoring KPIs on a dashboard, and I’ve spent too many years as an attorney billing my time in 6 minute increments. Creative pursuits are supposed to be enjoyable, and treating them like work apparently makes me wants to avoid them. I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

I don’t know if getting rid of metrics will improve anything, but at least I won’t beat myself so much anymore. Beating myself up over not “succeeding” in my hobbies — how ridiculous is that?

Interesting link: The mash-up I didn’t know I needed: a Bad Lip Reading version of Hamilton. Don’t drink beverages while watching!