Philosophy #17: Be Mindful of Form.
I hesitate to use the word “proper,” but there it is. To maximize your comfort, stamina and capacity to grow as a musician, study and emulate proper posture, proper guitar positioning, proper hand positioning, and standard fingering for notes and chords. This comes under the broad heading of following the lead of those who have been there and achieved success. The time to develop your own style is after you’ve mastered the basics.
(Photograph: Snow Dancers)
Play for yourself and trust yourself. Acquiring the skills of basic proficiency with a guitar is not a competition. Avoid comparing yourself with the progress peers are making. And don’t worry about what others might think about your musicianship, your guitar, your song choices and the rest of it. You’re on your own journey.
Most of the snipe I’ve seen have afforded only fleeting glances, but this Wilson’s Snipe sat still for a few moments in Alberta during a trip up the Alaska-Canada Highway. This is the same species we have here in Alaska.
I stepped outside at about 9:30 PM last night. From the willow and alder thickets near Post Office Creek, just a few dozen yards from my home, I could hear the unmistakable sound of migrating snipe winnowing – Spring’s first returning migrants here in Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. Made with their wings, it’s such a strange sound that once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it.
Click the Wiki Commons link below for a listen.
Gallinago_gallinago.ogg (Ogg Vorbis sound file, length 7.2 s, 134 kbps)
Don’t quit. All else being equal, the most important factor in any type of skill acquisition is simply showing up ready to work hard and learn. Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. And was spurred to develop a work ethic that had him first to arrive and last to leave practice. Jack London vowed to write at least 1,000 words a day. Legend has it that his early work was rejected hundreds of times. He kept writing. By all accounts, Roberto Clemente always excelled at baseball. And by all accounts, he was among the hardest-working players in the game. We wouldn’t know his name if he had quit – at least not as a ball player.
It’s almost impossible to look at where someone is in terms of developing a skill and to then predict how far they’ll go, yet the world has no shortage of put-down artists who act like they have a crystal ball in terms of what other people “can’t do.” Don’t listen to them. And never bet against someone who is in possession of a solid work ethic and optimism.
Longitudinal studies have revealed that there is virtually no correlation between where one begins their musical journey and where one ends up. Young learners who begin with great promise often quit, leaving the field wide open for those who initially showed less promise but who are willing to stick with it. In the end, the path to accomplishment lies not with initial talent, but with a commitment to practice. Along the way you’ll have days when everything falls into place and you play beautifully. Keep practicing. You’ll also hit plateaus and slumps. Keep practicing.
Visualize. Athletes anticipate and mentally map out desired outcomes such as the phases necessary to go through in clearing the bar in pole vaulting or in pulling in a football for a catch. This works for musicians too. Get into the practice of “seeing” ahead in a song to anticipate musical passages and chord changes. Practice chord changes by accurately and smoothly moving back and forth with your left hand without even playing. Picture the chords in your mind. Silently practice. These activities build brain synapses and muscle memory.
The Lake – for a Moment
Chignik Lake, Alaska, Dawn March 26, 2019
Listen. Listening well is a skill, and therefore as with any skill it can be developed through practice. A person new to birding may know only a few bird songs – perhaps not even a few. (Hollywood directors frequently – almost ubiquitously – place Blue Jay calls into film settings where no Blue Jay has ever flown; those same directors dub in hawk cries when the birds are eagles.) But with practice, anyone can learn to recognize dozens of bird calls and songs – a skill that seems almost magical at first. Similarly, as a young fly-fisherman I remember an older mentor directing my attention to the sound of bluegills feeding among lily pads along a calm lakeshore. The gentle popping-kissing sound was unmistakable, and my ears became trained to listen for it when I’m on a springtime or summertime lake where these sunfish might be patrolling the shoreline.
With just 153 hours of practice under my belt since January 1, I cannot yet answer the question, Is it even possible for someone in their 60’s to learn to play the guitar with any meaningful degree of proficiency? But what I can say is that after even a few hours of focused practice, you will probably notice that you are hearing notes and music in a new way. Familiar songs on your iPod or Spotify playlists will suddenly sound new as chords, riffs and even lyrics that have always been there suddenly seem to leap out of the speakers. And on your own guitar you’ll probably begin to notice when strings are even slightly out of tune.
Regardless of what you play, listen carefully, for as you practice, so you will learn and eventually so you will play. Make certain your instrument is always in tune. Sound notes with care so that they ring true. Test the chords you’re learning by playing each string individually. Train your ear to expect beautiful tones.