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 3.5

Not really half a day, but I kinda practiced last night and fully practiced tonight.

Last night, I had a FaceTime conversation with my daughter, who’s away at college.  It was great to talk to her, but after a long day of work the FaceTime conversation distracted me from playing guitar.  Sitting here at my desk, however, it was hard to keep my hands off the guitar while we talked.  I didn’t do anything deliberate; mostly noodling.

I found the distraction of talking while noodling on the guitar a rather interesting experience.  Rather than moving up and down the neck with a focused attention, my hands were moving up and down the neck with a sense of freedom.  There was an ease and comfort I felt, having freed my mind from the fretboard and letting my fingers work. Now, to be fair to anyone who reads these posts, I can’t admit that anything I was doing was too musical.

Despite any real musicality, I was playing the varieties of chords and chord progressions with a great deal of accuracy.  In addition, I was playing through my scale patterns (using a lot of legato and slides to accentuate my practice) with a great deal of fluidity.  Needless to say, it was fun.

The conversation with my daughter, while a distraction from deliberate, mindful practice sparked inspiration.  As I chatted with her, the guitar rang in the background. She hasn’t heard me play guitar in six or seven years.  She asked me, “Are you playing guitar again?”  I told her, “Yeah, I just picked it up again this past weekend.” She responded with an emphatic, “Yay, I’m happy for you!”

I was surprised by her happy, supportive response.  She knows, however, how much I’ve loved guitar but how elusive playing has been for me.  Nonetheless, her emphatic response further spurred my resolve to grind on.

I added a couple of songs to my repertoire today: Tin Man and Horse With No Name, both by America.  The chord progressions themselves aren’t difficult.  The strumming patterns, however, are a bit wonky.  I’ve never been much for trying to implement strict strumming patterns per the artist’s original implementation, but play by feel.  I’ve decided, however, that as I learn guitar this time around, I want to play each song with some sense of authenticity…realism.

I’d like to get the six songs I’ve been practicing locked down over the next month or so. In doing so, I’d like to move on to some more challenging material. But, what I’d really like to do is perform these songs somewhere, with someone else on vocals.

Anyway…here’s what practice looked like today.

Agenda for October 24, 2018

  • Alternate picking exercise
    • E harmonic minor scale on the open E string
    • 16th notes (60, 70, 80, 100 bpm)
  • String skipping exercise
    • Skipping strings through the 6th root minor pentatonic shape
    • 8th notes, (80, 90, 100, 112 bpm)
    • C root, G root, D root, A root, E root, B root
  • Legato exercise
    • Hammer-ons through the 6th root minor pentatonic shape
    • 8th notes, (80, 90, 100, 112 bpm)
    • C root, G root, D root, A root, E root, B root
  • Song Practice
    • Everybody Hurts – REM
    • Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
    • Horse With No Name – America
    • Tin Man – America

Today’s Time: 2 hour

Total Time: 4 hours

Time Remaining: 9,996 hours

Day 2

Well, first things first.  I learned that trying to create a blog post on an iPad from the comfort of my bed is a recipe for disaster.  My last post was fraught with typos and formatting issues.  Will certainly have to stick with the desktop as a means in which to document my journey.

It feels good to get two consecutive days of deliberate (mostly deliberate) practice in. Though I haven’t really played in quite some time, I feel like my dexterity is there and my fingers haven’t been too sore. Despite my high level of comfort with the instrument, I’m going to take things slowly.  My son (a bass player, himself) had to remind me to engage with the metronome.  I don’t know how many times I’ve told him that over his years of practice.  The student has now become the teacher.

On another note, got another hour in tonight.  Would have liked to have gotten more in, but I had a late night at school.  Nonetheless, here’s what my practice looked like today.

Agenda for October 22, 2018

  • Alternate picking exercise
    • E harmonic minor scale on the open E string
    • 16th notes, no metronome (need to use one)
  • String skipping exercise
    • Skipping strings through the 6th root minor pentatonic shape
    • 8th notes, no metronome
    • C root, G root, D root, A root, E root, B root
  • Legato exercise
    • Hammer-ons through the 6th root minor pentatonic shape
    • 8th notes, no metronome
    • C root, G root, D root, A root, E root, B root
  • Song Practice
    • Everybody Hurts – REM
    • Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran

Today’s Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 2 hours

Time Remaining: 9,998 hours

Day 1

Today was spent primarily setting up the blog.  I did, however, manage to get some practice time.  I got just over an hour on the guitar today.  I tried to be deliberate in my practice, though this is something I’m going to have to get better at.

Agenda for October 21, 2018

  • Warm-up (1234, 4321) up and down neck, across all strings
  • Pentatonic scales (connecting all five positions, no metronome)
  • Song practice
    • Everybody Hurts – REM
    • Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
    • Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
    • The Best of My Love – Eagles

Today’s Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour

Time Remaining: 9,999 hours