Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guitar forever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, music, learning

"Is it nature, is it nurture?
I don't know. Should I care?"

These are lines from the chorus of a song I wrote in 1995, the first song I ever wrote that satisfied me. It only took about forty years to write. Some musician I am! But it didn't take me long at all to learn to play music. The current wisdom is that attaining expertise in a skill like playing a musical instrument, or speaking a language, or programming computers, takes 10,000 hours of practice. That comes to nearly three hours of daily practice (7 days a week) for about ten years. This is what is behind "five years of relevant experience" in job postings: 40 hours/week = 2,000 hours per year with a two week vacation.

Well, I must modestly say that I was getting paying gigs within about a year of learning guitar. That first year, I did practice 3-4 hours a day, most days, which must come to around 1,000-1,200 hours. But it took much more than ten years to attain 10,000 hours of practice. A lot of that was jamming with a variety of musicians so I could learn from them. I never "took lessons".

Fast forward about fifty years. Now I teach guitar one evening weekly. I have half a dozen students. It is my "fun job", and I don't care that it pays much less hourly than my day job. But how to encourage my students, most of whom are beginners? Boy, do I have the book for them: Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus.

Dr. Marcus is a professor of Psychology, a specialist in the philosophy of learning. In his mid thirties, he decided to overcome a life of frustrated music yearning and learn rock guitar. He was soon told by a friend who'd offered him "a lesson or two" that he is "congenitally arrhythmic", meaning he can't keep a beat. He also confesses to difficulty carrying a tune, though he can hear them well enough. Some folks can't recognize tunes, and perhaps one person in 30 or so is "amusical", unable to tell "Twinkle Little Star" from "Adeste Fideles" if they can't hear the words. Marcus is not that afflicted, fortunately. And, his rhythm and "ear" are much better now.

The book seems to proceed in half-year chunks. At the six-month mark, the author reports he could play a few chords in tempo, making the changes fast enough to keep up with some songs. My students typically get to this point after about eight lessons, with 2-3 chords, easy ones like A and E, plus maybe a D. Though I introduce F, the nemesis of beginners, early on, I tell them to take time getting it to work (My Mom showed me F the first day, and it took me a couple of frustrating months to get it to sound right).

Early on, he recommends a book that helped him a lot: David Mead's Acoustic Guitar: Crash Course. I will recommend it to my students. He also recommends helping beginners learn some 2-chord songs first (which I do), and explains the easiest 2-chord song he knows: Horse With No Name. It has just these chords:

The E minor (Em) starts every line in the song. The other "chord" arrives in the middle of every line. The tune is the most boring tune that ever became popular. The words make it. That second "chord" configuration is given its weird name because the sheet music publisher has to call it something. But it sure is easy to play.

Marcus has access to a plethora of great musicians most of us will never meet. He was able to get help with many of his problems, so he could practice more effectively. Throughout the book he drums in this important principle: practice is not just lazily playing what you already can play well, it is challenging your abilities with skills you haven't fully learned, and correcting mistakes as soon as you can recognize them.

In language learning there is a similar principle. Learning French, I recall getting to the point that I could read books like Le Petit Prince with ease, and converse about them with some facility, but I hit a plateau until the teacher said, "OK, quit the kiddie books and read Paris Match every week, and get your family to vacation in Canada or France, where you can talk to people who have a bigger vocabulary than I do." That was a huge help.

The author discusses the influence of talent. Musicians who rise to the top of the field need talent. Talent saves a lot of time, but it must be honed by practice. The Beatles were making waves in England and Germany quite soon after they got together, but it was a few years before they were ready for the Ed Sullivan Show. Most garage bands have to practice ten times as much to get a paying gig or two. If they ever do.

At the end of about two years, the author knew he had grown a lot, and not only as a musician. He tells a touching story about writing a song that helped him connect with his uncle—and all his family—in a new and most powerful way. Even when you are not making music, knowing music affects how you communicate. For me, someone who is rather emotionally impaired, music healed some of that and helped me develop a more rounded personality.

Dr. Marcus set a high goal. I don't know if he knew it, but rock guitar is probably the second most difficult style; Flamenco is insanely difficult, and I put rock and classical styles tied for second. Basic folk music is quite a bit easier, although the various "roots" styles I have learned over the years are quite a bit more challenging…but not like well played rock. His success is a tonic for us all. Trite as it sounds, "if he can do it, so can (almost) anybody".

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