Days 9, 10, 11, 12 – Slowing Down to Go Fast

A long time ago, when I started playing, an instructor told me, “Use the metronome. Go slow! Start at 60 BPM and play 8th notes until you play them with clarity. Then jump 5 BPM per iteration until you can play at 200 BPM with no mistakes.” He told me this would take time. I tried this for about 3 days until I could no longer bear playing slowly. I didn’t feel like I was making progress and I felt like I played with more mistakes than I did when I played by feel. Furthermore, I found myself always tense.Guitar playing wasn’t fun, it was painful.

I felt like a failure despite the fact I could otherwise play the guitar decently. My instructor had convinced me that unless I’d learn to take my time, play with accuracy, and through this slow pace learn the neck (rather than memorize tablature), I’d be a solid guitar player.  Because I could play Silent Lucidity, Stairway to Heaven, Tears in Heaven and several other songs decently, I felt I was a solid guitar player already.  I, however, despite my best efforts, remained stuck.  I refused to do the things most instructors, books, and guitar players would tell you to do — study the guitar!

I didn’t know what study the guitar meant.

As far as I new, it meant slow down.  Slowing down is key to a lot of things, but I’ve come to learn that studying the guitar boils down to getting technique under my fingers and theory in my head so that I can get my hands to do what I want, when I want, and where I want.  I must admit that studying guitar, despite its espoused value, was not something I did well. I spent most of my time learning songs and noodling. There’s some value to this, yes, but because I wasn’t doing right things, I lacked the chops that would otherwise allow me to play the way I envisioned myself playing.

Progress these past two weeks has been better than expected. I’ve been committed to picking up the guitar every day.  With the exception of one day in the past two weeks, I’ve had guitar in hand every day — most days for an hour or more. What’s been crazy is the passion I’ve had for playing. In the past, I could easily walk by my guitar in favor of something else, with the understanding that I’d come back to it later.  Later seldom happened, however.

Not only am I picking up the guitar every day and spending time with it, I’ve become increasingly structured in my practice regimen. Every day I spend time working on technique, theory, and repertoire.  I work on them in this order.  I limit the material I play through each phase of practice so that I can work on it slowly and intently.  I’m very methodical about playing perfectly.  I aim to both pick and fret every note precisely; no buzzes, no missed notes, no muted strings.

This degree of attention has allowed me to become more relaxed.  As a result, I’m playing faster and more fluidly than I’ve ever played — in just two weeks. Because I’m paying close attention to learning the fretboard and the theory that underlies it, my fingers go where my mind and ears tell them to go.  This has never previously been my reality.  I’d always relied on the memorization of tabs over long hours of practice. Now, when my mind hears something, my fingers know how to follow.  I don’t have a seamless ability to do this yet, but the mere fact that I can hear things in my head and put them to work on the fretboard is a major accomplishment.

I can’t express to you how much I wish I had listened to my instructor(s) years ago. To dwell on this, however, would be fruitless and could, in the long run, be self-defeating. I’m simply enjoying the fact that I feel like I understand what I’m doing.  I feel like I know how to shape the path toward becoming a competent, performance-worthy guitar player.

10/30, 10/31, 11/1, 11/2, 11/3, and 11/4 Time: 8 hours

Total Time: 20 hours

Time Remaining: 9,980 hours

Days 5, 6, 7, 8 – Finding Time to Write and Overcoming Motivational Issues

Finding Time to Write
While it’s not been difficult to find time to play guitar, I have found it difficult to find time to write.   I spent this past weekend away from home.  While this didn’t present any hardships finding time to play (I took my Martin backpacker guitar with me), I found it difficult to write — no laptop, no internet connection.

In enjoy the writing.  While I’d venture to guess there’s not a large audience for somebody’s journaling of their guitar learning journey, I still find it cathartic (and necessary) to put my ruminations about the experience in print.  If nothing else, there’s a degree of accountability to myself (and the scant few who come across these pages) to practice (and get better at) playing guitar.

While I’ve not been putting words to print on a daily basis, I’ve been jotting notes along the way.  They keep fresh in my mind the things I’ve practiced and the lessons learned along the way.  What’s more, this journaling has given me a basis upon which to shape the text of this blog.

So, with all of this in mind (assuming anybody is reading these pages), I will make every attempt to write on a daily basis.  However, it’s probably much more realistic that I’ll be posting only several days a week — the bulk of the entries posted during the weekends.

Overcoming Motivational Issues
When I’m deeply passionate about something, I have great capacity to find joy in the process.  A by-product of finding this joy is a deep (and focused) commitment to practicing/learning.  What’s been odd about my guitar journey, however, is the disconnect between my joy of playing guitar and my desire to practice.

Why does any of this matter?  It doesn’t really, though for me it’s been defeating.  You see, my lack of desire to practice stems from a lack of motivation.  Motivation is both fleeting and unreliable.  My lack of motivation can be rooted to some degree in the following:

Practice, on most days, begins with drudgery.

  • Warm-ups suck
  • Dexterity exercises suck
  • Scale practice most often sucks
  • Metronomes suck

I love playing!  But, if I start with playing songs, I get discouraged because I’m not adequately warmed-up enough to appreciate my playing.

  • My hands cramp
  • I’m stiff
  • My tone sucks
  • I make errors in the fretting of notes and chords

What’s a person to do?  Well, I’ve done a few things.  Here’s what they are:

  • I’ve set goals — practice goals, weekly goals, 3-month, 6-month, and 9-month goals.  I measure and adjust accordingly.  I love reaching goals and establishing new ones.  This gives me a feeling of accomplishment.
  • I plan (within some degree of reason) each practice (another topic for another day).
  • Each practice item is a check mark – I’m motivated by check marks, even when I otherwise lack motivation.  Similar to goals, I love checking things off a list.  This gives me a sense of accomplishment.
  • Practicing songs is my reward – good, bad, or otherwise, I love making music.  As much as the preamble to practicing repertoire sucks, I persevere such that I can get to this part of my practice time.

I realize that the aforementioned may be perceived as nothing more than mind games, but they’re mind games that work — for me.

Getting started at guitar practice for me is akin to the days that I’d go on training runs in preparation for marathons and half-marathons.  I loved the marathons and half-marathons.  I, however, hated training runs — at least the first 2-3 miles.  You see, the first two to three miles of every training run were stiff and plodding, kind of like the first 15 – 30 minutes of guitar practice.  I, however, loved the endorphin high and the meditative state I’d achieve after the first few miles.

Now, I don’t get an endorphin high (not yet at least) while playing guitar.  I can, however, reach a meditative state after a while — a state in which things flow with seemingly effortless fluidity.  I get lost in songs.  Calculated movements become less calculated — fingers go where the music tells them to go, as opposed to where my mind had previously strained to direct them.  I feel both competent and confident about my playing when I achieve this state.

As a runner, I overcame the first 2 – 3 mile doldrums by affirming that I was soon to experience the meditative high I so enjoyed.  This often got me out the door in a timely manner and within 15 – 20 minutes of each run I was locked in.  The same self-talk is required of me in picking up the guitar to practice.  While picking up the guitar is not hard for me, picking up the guitar to practice is.  If I don’t pick up the guitar with intention, I know that I’ll soon be noodling on it rather than purposefully growing my chops.

So, prior to picking up the guitar, I run through the following:

  • What my goals for practice are
  • The order of events and how I’ll tackle them
  • The affirmation that after about half-hour to forty-five minutes I’ll be working on repertoire — the part of practice I so enjoy

Mind games?  Perhaps. But, for me, helpful.

Agenda for 10/25, 10/26, 10/27 and 10/28
With all of this talk about practice, I must confess, I didn’t get a chance to practice today (10/29).  I had meetings after school until after 7:00, completed my ballot (it’s election season) and completed the draft of this blog entry.

Nonetheless, I’ve been spending time prior to practice each day honing in on how I want to approach technical development.  The ins-and-outs of this process and its outcomes will be elaborated on in a future post, so I’ll not say too much about all of the exercises I’ve gone through over the past few days.

My repertoire hasn’t changed at this time, so I’ll not be addressing that either.  I have, however, been playing around with a couple of songs I played quite a number of years ago and have been thinking about adding them to my repertoire for no other reason than to broaden my scope and keep things interesting.  The songs?  Silent Lucidity by Queensryche and Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton.

With that, here are my hours for the past few days:

10/25, 10/26, 10/27 and 10/28 Time: 6 Hours

Total Time: 12 hours

Time Remaining: 9,988 hours

Day 4

Well, got a couple of hours under my fingers tonight.  It was a good night.

I didn’t do anything really technical, nor was I very deliberate in my practice.  I simply practiced a lot of songs, over and over and over.

I did video record myself.  It’s an exceedingly awkward process.  The audio quality sucks and the video lags.

I’m using a Logitech HD 1080P camera of some sort to record the video and the audio. I’ll certainly have to figure out how to better capture video if I’m going to post any of my progress.  I don’t mind being scrutinized for the quality of my playing, but I don’t really feel like getting bashed for the quality of the audio and video.

As I stated above, recording yourself is an awkward process.  It’s not so much that I feel uncomfortable in front of the camera, but I’m distracted by both the camera and video playback as I record what I’m doing.  It’ll take some getting used to, but I’ll manage.  It’ll just take some time.

On another note, I realize why I miss playing guitar.  When I was playing guitar consistently for a period of time some years ago, I would experience these moments when I played that were meditative in nature.  I achieved a state of mindfulness, a state of being present in the current moment, tonight.  It’s an amazing feeling.  I’m sure other people have these experiences when they play.  They’re hard to quantify.  For me, the best way to describe what is going on at these moments is deep connectedness and presence.  There’s an insane clarity and comfort that is achieved.

Anyway…tonight was fun.  I blasted through quite a few songs tonight.  Here’s what I played:

Agenda for October 25, 2018

  • Everybody Hurts – REM
  • Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
  • Take It Easy – Eagles
  • Blackbird – The Beatles
  • Tin Man – America
  • Horse With No Name – America
  • Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen

Today’s Time: 2+ hours

Total Time: 6 hours

Time Remaining: 9,994 hours

Why Guitar 10,000?

30-Years of (Almost) Nothing

I picked up my first guitar nearly 30-years ago.

I loved the adulation my dormies received when they played guitar at random gatherings.  I loved the hero-worship received by the guitar players who played in bands at our university’s student union building.  Most of all, I loved the seemingly endless possibilities the guitar provided me as a prospective student of the instrument. All of this I wanted to experience!

That was 30-years ago.

I still love the instrument.  I love the creativity that abounds in varieties of players I’ve been exposed to over the years: Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, and more.  The list of influences is endless and the aforementioned players offer only a limited glimpse into the variety of players – well-known and obscure – who have both entertained me and influenced me over the years.

Despite my love for the instrument I’ve struggled to take it seriously as a player.  I’ve played in fits and starts, incapable of dedicating myself to the time and consistency required to achieve any level of proficiency.  I’ve taken lessons several times hoping to find inspiration.  While I’ve had some amazing (and sometimes not so amazing) teachers, I’ve failed to live up to my end of the teacher-student agreement (teacher teaches and inspires, student practices and grows).

Over the years, I’ve purchased a variety of (nice) guitars and gadgets in hopes of being inspired to play.  Any degree of inspiration incurred as a result of a new purchase, however, was fleeting at best.  So, now I sit atop a collection of guitars, amps, effects, and more that collect dust in the varieties of locations throughout the house where the gear sits.  This, however, was not my plan…not what was intended when I picked up my first guitar some 30-years ago.

About 15-years ago I decided I wanted to play guitar in a small band, or as a solo artist, when I retired from my career as an educator. I have no delusions of grandeur related to these aspirations, I simply want to remain connected to people in some capacity as I grow old.  I have always believed that music is a means in which to connect with people.

Despite my aspirations to entertain people in retirement, I find myself getting closer and closer to retirement and non-committal to practicing the instrument.  This strategy doesn’t bode well for my retirement dreams.  I learned several years ago, too, that hope and wonder are not great strategies for achieving anything.  What I need is a plan. What I need is to get up off my ass and get playing!

10,000-Hours or 10,000-Experiments?
Several years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  It was in Outliers that I learned about the 10,000-hour rule.  The premise of the 10,000-hour rule is that you need 10,000-hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class performer in any field.

I was intrigued!  Could it really be so simple?  Could I become a world-class guitar player with a mere 10,000-hours worth of practice?  “Is this all that differentiates the greats from the also-ran”, I asked myself?  Seems too good to be true.  I also wondered, “Is the 10,000-hour rule really a rule or a plan or is it more of a construct?”

In recent years, the 10,000-hour rule has been derided as too simplistic.  It has been criticized for providing minimal variance in performance in a variety of fields, particularly those fields that are rapidly changing.  The 10,000-hour rule is quickly being supplanted by the 10,000-experiment rule.

The premise of the 10,000-experiment rule is that you’re constantly looking for ways in which to collect data about the world around you, rather than simply performing a repetitive, though deliberate, task.  The ongoing collection of, and reflection on, the varieties of data you collect throughout the day lead to growth, particularly in fields that are rapidly changing.

Music, however, is not rapidly changing.

Couldn’t it be argued that attainment of world-class performance (in whatever field you aspire to achieve such levels) is really a combination of the two. After all, both frameworks take many years to practice.  Furthermore, could it not be assumed that the data collection and reflection required by 10,000-experiments lends itself to designing deliberate practice sessions within the 10,000 framework?  Does one really exist in isolation of the other or do they lend themselves to one another?  I believe it’s the latter.

Grand Experiment, New Beginnings, and Future Dreams
I’m a science teacher by trade.  I spend days on end teaching my students to be keen observers of nature, great collectors of evidence, and effective communicators of the evidence they’ve collected and analyzed.  What’s more, I teach them how to act on their findings…how to take next steps.

I’ve decided to put my teaching into practice as a prospective, performance-worthy guitar player.  I’ve decided that I want to experiment on myself and my future plans; I want to document my practice over the course of  10,000-hours to determine whether or not I can become a competent, performance-worthy performer.  This aim is further served by the public accountability I’ll hold myself to in the context of this experiment.

While over the course of the past 30-years I’ve amassed several hundred hours of playing time, I start over today as a novice player, clock at zero hours of practice time.

I’m only 14-years or so away from retirement (I’m 51-years old).  As such, I don’t know if I’ll achieve 10,000-hours by the time I reach 65-years old.  I do, however, aspire to amass a quantity and quality of practice hours over this span that lead to my retirement dreams.  I plan to document this journey here in these pages and in a variety of other platforms as well.

I look forward to this experiment.  I look forward to documenting this journey.  I look forward to the prospect of living my dreams in my future retirement.