When a practice tool becomes a crutch

One of the first things I did when I started learning guitar was buy a full-length mirror so I could monitor my posture and my hands. It was helpful at first, but lately I realized I’ve been using the mirror as a crutch.

This was clear at my last lesson, where there is no mirror, when I had trouble hitting the right strings and keeping my tone consistent at faster tempos without being able to see my fingers. Relying on the mirror had made my ears and fingertips lazy.

So tonight I practiced a piece slowly without the mirror and wow, it was like starting at the beginning again. Without my eyes to help me find the right chords and notes, I had to rely much more on my ears, sense of touch, and body awareness to navigate. I felt like I was in a dark room bumping into furniture. That’s actually a good analogy because the first few times, you collide with everything and then later you don’t because you sense where everything is located without needing to see it.

It’s a struggle, but I know I’m heading in the right direction. This is a perfect example of moving backward in my practice to move forward. I sound a lot worse now that I don’t have my eyes to help me, but it’s the only way to develop better ears and fingers. No struggle, no learning.

You can have anything you want, just not everything you want

This past week, I seriously considered buying a digital piano. Perhaps it’s because I love Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque and thought maybe, just maybe, I could learn how to play them someday. I played piano many years ago, so I wouldn’t be going in cold. I even found a piano to buy and cleared a space for it.

Luckily, good sense prevailed. I barely touch the keyboard I currently have except to work out music theory stuff. Playing Debussy? Fat chance, especially when classical guitar occupies all of the time and brain space I’ve allocated to music study. Even my ukulele is an afterthought these days.

And that doesn’t change the other things I already have on my plate. I want to spend more time writing again. I need to get back in shape. I’ve hardly knitted this year, which is unusual for me. Friends and family deserve my attention too.

I’d written before about trade-offs when deciding how we want to spend our time. It was relatively easy to drop my volunteer commitments because I didn’t care about them as much as practicing guitar. But prioritizing also requires ranking, and possibly cutting, things you like. The harsh truth is that as long as we can’t clone ourselves, we have to pick one activity over another for any given chunk of time. Prioritizing and choosing among things that are important to us is uncomfortable, but it’s unavoidable. I’ve observed people who try to avoid this truth and they’re always spinning in circles, rushing around, and wondering why they can’t make headway on the things they say they want to accomplish.

When I asked myself what I’d be willing to drop to fit piano practice into my life, the answer was “Nothing.”

So piano is off the table for good. A nice side effect is I can set aside that money to upgrade my classical guitar. Based on input from my teacher, that may end up happening sooner than I planned. If I still want to play Debussy in the far-off future, there are always guitar arrangements.

Ow, my brain

If my blog posts are sporadic and short for a while, it’s because I don’t have any brainpower left to string words together after my guitar practice. Last week, at my second lesson, my teacher essentially said, “Great job! Here’s twice as much stuff for you to work on.”

So yeah, I’m drowning a bit.

Right now, I’m learning how to get my fingers moving in opposite directions two at a time, first placing them on the second and fourth strings, then switching positions. Yes, including the ring and pinky fingers. Those fingers are never used for anything, especially on the left hand, so it’s been interesting watching them flail and wobble and do everything except what I want them to do. Scott Tennant, the author of Pumping Nylon (which contains this and a bunch of other finger-twisting exercises) is an evil genius.

My teacher also tossed in learning hammer-ons and two new short pieces. No, I’m not going to get these even close to polished in a week. I’ll be lucky if I can play the pieces all the way through at a sloooooooooow tempo.

It figures, out of all the music genres I could’ve chosen for guitar, I pick one of the hardest ones.

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.