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.

Music practice doesn’t always involve making noise

To help relax the fingers and forearm (and shoulders, and neck, and everything else), my guitar teacher wants us to do preliminary exercises at the start of each practice session. Her suggestions include slowly walking our left-hand fingers across the strings, slowly moving our right hand up and down in our picking motion without touching the strings, and gradual string push downs to sensitize each finger to how the string feels before it contacts the fret.

I admit I was rather perfunctory about these exercises in the past, but I decided I should spend some extra time and attention on them this past week. I’m glad I did because they revealed some previously overlooked tension in my shoulders and fingers while I played. Arrgh!

I know I sound like a broken record talking so much about muscle tension, but it seems to be a universal problem among musicians. When you think about it, playing an instrument requires you to hold and move your body in unnatural ways for long periods of time. No wonder our muscles complain.

Staying relaxed continues to be an uphill battle. I don’t know what this says about me, but it’s not surprising. #recoveringTypeA

On the uke front, things are starting to get challenging. I’m practicing the C major pentatonic and diatonic scales and am learning how to play my first 8-bar chord melody song. It’s harder than simply playing chords and strumming, but I’m not much of a strum-and-sing person anyway (I’m a bad singer). Someday, my clumsy fingerpicking will sound musical, but for now I’m simply glad to hit the right notes.

A “duh” moment where I realize I need to kick my ego out of the practice room (again and again)

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.

How to be More Productive and Focus (+ Free Schedule Maker)

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.

I was wrong: deliberate practice does NOT equal boring blog posts

Deliberate practice is just the scientific method applied to your craft.


Jason Haaheim, principal timpanist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

A while back I wrote that my deliberate practice strategy made for boring blog posts.

Then I stumbled across Jason Haaheim’s blog. He makes deliberate practice fascinating.

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)