My guitar playing is coming along. I think I have a bit of a head start because of my piano playing, back in my previous life. I remember I first wanted to learn to play piano when I was seven or eight because the music teacher in my first grade class could play and I thought the movement of her hands across the keys was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. I have the same feeling now when I see some amazing guitarist, not so much the rock or pop kind, but these contemporary fingerstyle instrumentalists, when I see what they can do. I wonder if I could ever do that? As I type this, the fingertips of my left hand ache as they hit the keys. I have developed massive-seeming-to-me calluses on them, but they still hurt all the time! It’s only been a few weeks, so I’m hoping for fingertips of steel, any minute now. Ambition to learn lights a fire under my butt, which is a good thing—motivation is a necessary ingredient, right?—but I’ve noticed that there is a difference between inspiration/ambition and being in a hurry. Desire keeps me going. But being in a hurry doesn’t seem to help at all.
I had three piano teachers over the course of my piano-playing. The first—I was eight, I think—seemed to be in a state of perpetual anger at me. Maybe she just didn’t like teaching piano. She was very nice in front of my Mom, but when it was just the two of us, she scowled and beat time on the piano with a ruler, accusing me of not practicing. She would drill me on sight reading and I would read the finger numbers on the music as a cheat (instead of reading the musical notes) to try to play better than I could, for fear of her. Wrists up! Fingers arched! Back straight! She wanted progress faster than I could deliver it, and so I faked it and cheated, and learning stopped. I nearly gave up piano because of her. Her hurry hurt the process of me learning piano.
But I still had desire, and eventually, I was back at it. My second piano teacher, years later, was a young man, Patrick, who enjoyed playing, and would arrive early at the place where the lessons were and play long, rolling improvisational pieces before our lesson. I loved to sit and listen. At the time I had a friend, Crystal, a Japanese Mormon and an amazing pianist despite having tiny, tiny hands. Crystal was my hero. I remember her sitting down to play George Winston’s “Thanksgiving” at a piano in a department store at the mall and a small crowd gathering and clapping for her afterward. Her tiny hands flying across the keys were beautiful. I studied with Patrick so I could, maybe, maybe, play like Crystal. And since there was no sheet music for George Winston’s music at the time, to play anything by him you had to pick it out by ear, listening over and over and finding the notes on the keyboard. So that’s what I did. Patrick taught me tons of music theory to help in the process of picking out music, key signatures, chord structure, scales, improv techniques, progressions, transcribing, etc. And now the time-tattered remains of this knowledge is being rebooted by my guitar studies. I actually know what a suspended fourth chord is, say, or an augmented seventh, or embellishments for a I, IV, V7 chord progression might be. Thank you Patrick!
But there was a difference, I found, in knowing what to play (having picked it out) and being able to play it. I was in such a rush, I would move on to the next piece before my fingers learned how to play the hard parts of the song I had been working on. As a result, I could play half of most of Winston’s songs. Even now, the miracle of muscle memory let’s me still play the first half of “Thanksgiving.” But I could play all of only a very few songs. I was in too much of a hurry! Eventually I moved away and didn’t study piano for several more years.
(I wonder whatever happened to Crystal?)
My third and final piano teacher—I can’t remember her name to save my life, although I was twenty, I think, when I started with her—taught me classical pieces. I had this idea that I wanted to play ‘the masters.’ There was not much direction to our work together. Find a piece and learn to play it was the basic template. But this gal (what the heck was her name?) had had serious trouble with tendinitis, and as a result, had studied and learned much about playing piano in the best possible way for the human body. She approached playing as a physical training as much, or more, than a mental thing. Using the heavy, relaxed weight of my arms to push down the keys rather than rigidly arched fingers, for example, was big with her. Relaxed shoulders was her mantra. And practicing sections of a piece at glacial speed, so that even the most difficult run was easy—I mean, whole seconds to move from one note to the next—was key. “Playing the piano is training your muscles to make intricate motions,” she used to say. “Practice a mistake and you’re training the muscles to make the mistake. Go slowly enough to never make a mistake, and speed will come on it’s own.” “Tense fingers can’t move quickly. Try to go quickly and you make more tension. It’s a vicious cycle.” And this, over and over: “If you make a mistake, you’re practicing too quickly for the level of your technique.” This turns out to be very good advice for learning guitar! Thank you, whatever your name was! But thinking about it now, maybe I was in too much of a hurry to take her good advice. I wanted it now. I was too impatient to practice so slowly, and the fire of my ambition went out. It was all too slow.
But all that talk about muscles and injury reminds me of where I’ve come to in my yoga training. Instead of pushing or straining to go further in a pose, I’ve been practicing the David Williams way, at 60% ability, finding the ‘sweet spot’ where a pose feels wonderful, and taking the long view for advancement rather than trying to rush forward. Accomplishing a more advanced version of the pose is not the goal, but rather, doing an enjoyable practice every day. Going further in a pose happens on its own as a side effect. I have noticed less yoga ambition in myself, a good thing, but with less fire under me, I’m less motivated. Will I quit, like I did with piano? Keeping the desire, without the hurry, seems to be the trick to master.
Could playing guitar like Vicki Genfan ever be a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable guitar practice? It’s hard to be patient enough to play slowly enough to play with perfect technique. It’s hard to wait for the muscles to learn in their own way, rather than pushing them (and creating tension that blocks progress) by applying more control, more force, more pressure. But I think that, looking over my piano history, cultivating that patience would be the path to playing the way I would love to. How to keep the desire without hurry?
Which makes me think of why Paul and I unschool the kids. We really believe that learning to read (for example) happens as a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable interaction with a word-rich environment. I observe it happening in the kids—watching them learn to read has been so cool! Trusting their speed, their ‘reading sweet spot,’ rather than having ambitions for them to learn at an externally chosen speed, takes the same kind of patience as doing yoga at my body’s current level of ability, or practicing chord changes in slow motion. The predominate paradigm for kid-learning is that you have to apply more control, more pressure, and push kids to learn to read (or learn anything), with tension-producing drills and practice whether they want to or not. Constantly there is a message of “getting” a child to learn. But how many people are damaged by being pushed to read before they are ready—people who are told they are slow, or ‘remedial,’ and put in the ‘stupid kid class,’ and all the loss in status and self-esteem that comes with that. Like taking a body and trying to force it into a backbend, or taking a hand and trying to force it into a G chord, creating tension and injury that goes against the very goal one is trying to achieve.
I know this about unschooling. I guess I just have to be generous with myself to apply it to my own learning.
So, what’s the rush, I’m asking myself in my guitar playing. Why so impatient? Go slow, just like whats-her-name trained me to do, and my body stays relaxed while my muscles and nervous system acquire the motions I want to be able to do (lightening fast chord changes!). Without losing the desire! Keep the fire burning! Desire without the hurry. Advancement as a side-effect of daily, slow-enough-to-find-ease practice. Patience.
Maybe I’m in a hurry because I know, underneath, that I’m going to die? I’ve only got so much time, after all. But even so, I’m not just talking about it being more pleasant to learn this way. Even from the point of view of the ambition: forcing (and the tension it creates) blocks advancement. And in some cases, say a yoga injury that ends practice for good, or the way people think they ‘can’t do math,’ pushing and hurrying STOPS advancement altogether.
How to cultivate the relaxed patience to let learning happen at the speed it actually happens, instead of bearing down harder, trying to get it to hurry up? I don’t know. Tequila? No, okay, maybe not. I seem to be able to do it for the kids, what’s the trick there?
(Gah! Forget that! I want it now!)
(Breathe, grasshopper. Breathe.)