My journey with music has been tortured and not at all linear. I remember vividly the day I got to choose an instrument in 4th grade. I picked violin. And I remember equally vividly the day I thought the 4th grade version of “Fuck this shit.”
Like many before and since, I had a crappy teacher. She was unimaginative, kind of shrewish, and the sort who liked to pick on her students under the guise of “gentle teasing”. In my music class was a kid named Matt, and he and I were buddies. One day she teased me -in front of him and the rest of the kids- of having a crush on him.
I was angry and mortified and from that day forth quit. The teacher was really stunned and upset and quizzed my parents on why I was quitting. All I told them was I didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it anymore. While that wasn’t entirely true, I will admit I hated practicing- probably because the way she taught me made it seem like a major drag.
Fast forward about 5 years and I expressed interest in guitar. My parents arranged for me to take lessons at a local music shop. I had a nice teacher, whose name escapes me, and while he didn’t make me feel dumb or anything, he didn’t really give me direction or drive me to learn. I practiced more and got a bit proficient, but lost focus and ended up quitting that too.
Off and on from then till now, I’ve dabbled, pondered, dabbled some more, got frustrated, and pondered still more. But guitar never really left my mind. I’d bought a super-cute little acoustic electric number in Atlanta in 1998. It traveled to St Simons Island, Florida, back to OH, all the way to Nevada and finally Seattle.
Last year we took it to a local repair shop, because I finally learned enough to realize the action was too bloody high and it needed restrung. The luthier took a look at it, handed it back to me and said “Well, it would make some lovely wall art. It’s so warped it’s unplayable.”
DAMMIT. My dreams were once again dashed. But as luck would have it, we were next to a Guitar Center, and we walked over. Bayou and I played with a dozen or more instruments until I found her. “Her” being Amberlee, a tobacco sunburst colored Les Paul Epiphone. She was heavenly. It was love and I wasn’t about to leave without her.
They have me a deal because she had a few minor blemishes, and I also got a great Marshall amp for cheap because it was a floor model. The dreams were about to begin again. A couple websites, chord books, and the like later and I was practicing. It even inspired Bayou to get her Fender back from a friend who had had it for several years. We began practicing together.
But then it happened- again. The burnout. The frustrating experience of not getting better. This time, I did it to myself. Bayou had gotten a blues guitar book. I’d been following it about to the letter, working on the 12-bar blues, a couple scales, and a few other random things. I’d told myself that the only way I would improve was to master those things before moving on. Well, that was stupid self-advice. I ended up putting Amberlee down in the spring and didn’t pick her up except for a few random moments here and there.
A few weeks back, we went to a house concert for an acoustic set by Antje Duvekot. The kindly operator of the show had reserved front row seats for Bayou with her boot/crutches, so I was able to see the guitar Antje plays in crystal clarity. I started thinking about how much I loved the sound and how I wanted to be at least a competent player.
Two days later I picked up Amberlee, tuned her, and proceeded to strum and finger-pick a bit. And something was different. Gone was the dull ache in my stomach when I stumbled over chord transitions. Gone was the aggravation with not understanding a strum pattern. It was almost like I just stopped thinking and just started doing. I refreshed my chord memories, chose a couple new songs to play around with, but left my books on the shelf in favor of YouTube.
That’s when I had at least half an epiphany; I’m a visual learner with physical activities. If I want to learn concepts/facts, I listen/read and THEN ask to be shown if I don’t get it. But with music, I need to see and see with repetition.
God, it was -again!- so simple but I hadn’t even picked up on the difference in how I learn stuff where the body is involved vs mental exercise. So I turned to YouTube in earnest; every time I hit a block, I searched. And there is a wealth of help in video form; barre chords? No problem. What the hell is that strum pattern Oasis is using? Easy- it’s right here. Want an alternate chord for that brutally hard F? Here you go, another way of doing it. Hell, there are even tutorials on how to make a capo out of a pencil!
Had this sort of dynamic, more-like-real-life visual teaching existed when I was a teen, things would have been massively different. With YouTube -and now the various iPad apps I’ve found- I can play something over and over until it sticks.
All of my searches revealed another simple but hidden truth- about practice. When I had last picked up my guitar, I was all about rigid practice- 30m a day minimum, same content, no moving on till I mastered this, that, or the other.
Not anymore. I practice sometimes for 5 minutes. Sometimes I just strum through the chords I know to practice smooth transition, which takes about 2 minutes. Other times I sit for two hours, switching between playing something and watching videos. But gone is the schedule and gone are the “rules” regarding what I practice. If I feel more bluesy, I work on the E minor pentatonic scale and the various chords associated in blues. If I want to work on the major chords, I do that. Finger-picking? Sure. But I do not limit myself and if I want to try something totally new, I pick up a piece of that and give it a spin.
This is such a huge departure for me, because so many different activities I do or have done demand a level of fixed, regimented action. There is little room for interpretation or skipping steps. Allowing myself to approach this with no agenda except to improve and have fun has been amazing.
Finally, after all these years, I feel like getting proficient is actually possible. I have a long way to go and it’s a marathon, not a sprint, which I have to keep reminding myself. Setting aside ego and the “Crap I’m an amateur and I don’t want to be seen by experts screwing stuff up” has also been hard, but not as hard as in the past. We have a number of friends who like to teach and play around on guitar, and I don’t feel like a total waste of space sitting next to them.
Is this unorthodox and probably “inefficient”? Maybe. But it’s working for me and that’s what matters. Finally understanding how to facilitate my own learning without erecting barriers (unknowingly) is as rewarding as mastering all or part of a song.