Making music without hurting myself (plus bonus chord progression video)

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.


Bonus: more chord progression fun with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Previous post on chord progressions here.

Learning about chord progressions is like finding music’s Rosetta stone

I recently learned about chord families and chord progressions and WHOA it’s like finding the Rosetta stone! For those who are unfamiliar with these concepts, guitar teacher David Southwick provides a good primer.

Many songs use one of a handful of chord progressions, with I-V-vi-IV being a common example (on my ukulele, I played C-G-Am-F to try it). What can you do with that single chord progression? Here’s an example:

I started listening to music more carefully to determine the “feel” of each chord, much like how each note in a scale has a particular “feel.” I have a long way to go, but I now feel more confident about learning songs by ear because once I know the main chord progression, I can use it as scaffolding to figure out the rest of the song.

It annoys me that I didn’t learn any of this while studying classical music. I was taught music theory in a vacuum and purely on paper (which makes no sense when it comes to music), and I didn’t learn about how notes fit together to form a song. Transposing to a new key was a huge pain in the butt because I learned how to do it one note at a time. With chord progressions, I can transpose in chunks instead of isolated notes. Notes are never isolated in music (they always relate to each other), so why treat them that way?

It’s wonderful how learning one new bit of information can make such a big difference in how I listen to and think about music. Bonus: I want to write songs eventually, and that process is now a lot less intimidating.