A Guitar Lesson for My Sister, Or A Paean to Practice.

My sister asked me for tips on teaching herself to strum basic chords on guitar while she sings. Since I taught myself to strum basic chords while I sing, I’m a reasonable person to ask.  The most simple answer—which I gave her, and which is hardly a surprise, I expect—is to practice.  We were texting and she put her “sigh” into words. 

But when I say “practice,” I want her to see that idea in the same light as I do—as something good.  That’s why I’m writing a “paean”—a song of praise—though it’s not really a song, but an essay.  And, I suppose, it’s not really to my sister, or not only to my sister, because these are the fundamental ideas that I think lie at the heart of good writing, or even, good living.

Practice, I must admit, is a central idea in how I approach life. It’s not a concern that rises to the level of obsession, but it is something that I think about and preach for.  (And, naturally, I try to practice what I preach on this subject.) Practice, I believe, leads to a better life—not just for me but for people in general. But I don’t want to digress too much into talking about practice because this is ostensibly a guitar lesson for my sister. 

Practice is difficult

If I were singing a song of praise for practice, it would be easier to ignore or leave aside the manifest difficulties of practice, but an essay making an argument for practice should deal with the complexities of the issue.

There are good reasons to sigh if someone tells you that you need to practice to accomplish your goal.  Practice is difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. It can be painful. To ignore these aspects of practice would be to ignore reality.

To practice the guitar as a beginner means making unmusical noises. It means fingers that hurt from pressing on fine, taut wires (nylon strings can make fingers sore; steel strings are worse). And it means the frustrations of trying to get untrained fingers to make precise motions.  These frustrations may be exacerbated by the fact that for the beginner, it the less competent hand that requires the necessary fine motor control to properly fret the strings.  (In the long run, this makes sense for the guitar, because it is the picking that is the more difficult part, which is why right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand, and left-handed guitarists—Hendrix, McCartney, e.g.,—put the fret board in their right hand.  This is, I think, counter=intuitive because the fretboard, with all the multiple frets and multiple strings, appears complicated, while the strumming/picking appears simpler—as just the sweeping of the pick across the strings.)

Failure is frustrating, and practice begins with a lot of failure.  My sister, for all her musicality, and for all her manual dexterity, will probably do more noise making than music making in her practice, at least to start.

And even once she’s practiced enough that she spends more time making music than noise, there will still be difficulties. Practice tends to bump up against limitations. 

Practice can be boring

To do something right—especially something musical—repetition helps.  You want your fingers to go to the right strings and the right frets at the right speed? Repeat the motion, over and over, and you’ll get better.  

Repetition gets boring, though. Boring and frustrating. When you switch between those two chords for the 100th time, you may well be bored. Bored and frustrated—it’s not out of the question that you get bored of the  simple task you’re practicing even before you can do it well.  That’s both boring and frustrating. Practices are like that.  The habits/skills/abilities that support a strong, competent practice don’t develop without repetition.  Trying to play a song? Keep working through it until you play it well. Trying to write a document? Keep writing and revising!

Practice is often frustrating

The anodyne to boredom is to try something new. But, in practice, trying something new means trying something that you haven’t practiced before, and that means that you’re likely to come up against your own limitations again.

Once you have mastered that first simple song—at which point you may well be sick of it from having played it so many times—you will be tempted to learn something new. But, since you won’t have practiced that new song, playing it will be difficult and frustrating, and may have a low reward/frustration ratio.

Practice tends to be like this, in whatever arena.  To avoid boredom, we try new things, but those new things are difficult and frustrating, and the way to master them is to practice, which can wind back to boredom (while including a healthy dose of frustration).

The key, I think, is to find the balance between these two areas—where there is sufficient challenge that it’s not boring, and sufficient competence that it’s not too frustrating.  If we can find that balance, we can possibly find some of the best moments of our lives.

Practice can be rewarding

Practice isn’t always unpleasant. It is not just a move from boredom to frustration and back.  Practice is also exhilarating and often enjoyable.  It carries rewards both in the long run and in the immediate present.

The long-run rewards of practice are, I think, the most obvious.  The expectation is that the frustration and difficulty of practice will payoff with a long-term accomplishment. If you work hard enough, then you have he satisfaction of a job well done.  To be sure, this is a very real and very worthy aspect of practice: there is a lot of long-term comfort in being able to look back at a job well done.

At the same time, there’s another kind of pleasure that can accompany practice, and this is the sense, in the moment, that you’re doing something well.  This is distinct from retrospective pride, though it is certainly related.  But the sense of pleasure in the moment of practice is not so much, I think, pride at an accomplishment, but rather a sense of personal power and ability. And it’s not just satisfaction with self, as it can be absorption into the act.

A very large part of why I learned to play guitar was because I love music, and although my musicianship isn’t nearly up to the standards of the recording stars whose work I love, it is enough to spark my own appreciation of music. I may not play that two-chord song as well as my heroes, but I can play it well enough that I enjoy the song.  Similarly, there are times when I’m writing when I’m entirely caught up in an idea that I think is interesting, and the interest in the idea I’m trying to convey is itself a form a pleasure.

In short, I think practice offers three kinds of reward: the long-term accomplishments; the short-term sense of power/ability; and the absorption into something of interest.

Conclusion

My main point here, I suppose, is not so much to dispel negativity about practicing as to balance than negativity with the positive side, especially the positive aspect that gets overlooked: the pleasure in practice.

Yes, practice is difficult and frustrating.  But that is not the only face of practice.  Practice is also pleasurable and uplifting.  There are times when practice is difficult, perhaps even painful.  But in a good, healthy practice, there should also be times when you feel your strength and ability, and times when you can celebrate accomplishments. 

Perhaps this is all a product of my personal experience: the best things in my life have grown out of practice and effort and working through problems. There are good things that I’ve enjoyed–movies, books, television–that didn’t require effort or investment. But those were small things compared to the satisfactions I’ve felt when my writing, or my music, were going well. And that is why, I write this paean to practice.

How to Become a Better Writer (3): Find Your Voice

Back at the beginning of September, when I started this series of posts, I had been triggered by a video discussing musical practice, and what makes a good musical practice. On the one hand, I thought that the video was generally right: everything it suggested would help if someone were to incorporate it into their practice.  But I also felt that it was missing something crucial—something that has been central in my understanding of practice for a long time.  That missing element, which I rarely see discussed, is the element of personal motivation and satisfaction—which, in this post, I’m going to link to the idea of finding your own voice.

To recap the somewhat wandering narrative of this series of posts: My starting place was the intention of exploring/discussing how to become a better writer, but I immediately got on the tangential question of what it means to say that someone is a good writer.  There were, I argued in three posts, several different criteria for what counts as a good writer, suggesting consideration not only of the quality of writing produced (in the first post), but also the writer’s own perception of the process (in the second), and the long-term impacts of the writing process on the writer (in the third). By the time I got through these, I wrote a couple of more specific posts about practice that were responding to specific ideas that I had come across while working on the three “good writer” posts—one about approaching revision (whether to piece together drafts from fragments of old work—what I called “Frankenstein-ing” a draft—or to take the good ideas from old work but to try to find completely new expressions—what I called “growing a draft from the cloning vats”), and one about dealing with criticism, and particularly about moving on despite criticism.  Because the narrative has started to wander, I may close the series with this post, especially because, in a way, the whole subject of my blog is how to become a better writer, so it doesn’t really make sense to dedicate a separate series of posts to that subject.

For this post, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most important tool in becoming a good writer: finding your own voice. By this, I am not referring to tone or style, but rather to discovering or recognizing your own values—what really matters to you—and your own sense of value in what you do.  In this sense, I am linking the idea of finding your own voice with the idea that the process of writing can be rewarding at a personal level.  This linkage is crucial and is what I think is missing from discussions of practice that focus on specific types of exercise or discipline.

Speaking and Writing

How many people do you know who prefer writing to speaking? How many people do you know who find it easier to write?  How many people do you know who hate to write? And how many people do you know who hate to speak?  Because of the difficulties of writing and also the context in which writing is usually learned, writing becomes something that many people hate to do, even if they love to speak.

But writing is just another tool to express ideas.  People use writing for the same basic reasons they use speech, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that people would use writing with the same enthusiasm they use speech—if only writing weren’t so darn difficult.  And, actually, it turns out that people will use writing—a lot—if it feels easy and natural. The whole world of text messaging and social media shows that many people are perfectly happy, even enthusiastic about writing, given the right context.

Learning to write involves a lot of trial and error, and often a lot of correction.  Writing in schools, where most people do most of their early writing, is often centered on assignments and grades and criticism/correction of the many errors that early writing projects entail. None of that is much fun to deal with—at least not for most people.

But if you get good enough, writing is less difficult, and more like speaking in the sense that the technical difficulties related to communicating become less significant, and it is easier to focus on the ideas being communicated. Which hopefully means getting to communicate about the things that are important to you.

Following your passion

Speaking of following one’s passion is something of a cliché of new age philosophies, and as such, it is often dismissed as being impractical—“woo woo” as the barista at my local coffee shop might put it.  That is, however, a mistake.  It’s taking the worst extremes of a suggestion as representing what is typical, and then rejecting the typical on the basis that it’s too extreme.  Yes, sure, when considering the idea of following your passion, it’s easy to imagine people pursuing some artistic career with little ability and little chance of turning that pursuit into any practical means of supporting themselves.  But because we can imagine such examples, doesn’t mean that we have to live them ourselves.  It is entirely possible to be passionate about something important or lucrative or both. Many medical professionals are following their passion.  Many teachers are following their passions.  Most of my work is with scholars, many of whom have or aspire to the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and for many the search for knowledge is a passion, and also something of great value to wider society.  The idea that philosophy is a pursuit of passion isn’t a new-age idea, though.  It’s an idea that was present in Ancient Greek culture, in which the pursuit of knowledge was literally called “love” (philo-) of “wisdom” (sophos-).

If we consider a basic claim of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, that the best moments of people’s lives are when they are engaged in the difficult challenging activities that lead to the flow experience, then we can believe that following passion is not so much about pursuing some whim, but rather about trying to succeed in difficult and often valuable endeavors.

Most people care about real things.  Even people engaged in activities that might be considered frivolous can be doing something valuable to multiple people.  What might seem ridiculous to one person might, in fact, be extremely valuable to another. Just above, I offered the example of someone pursuing an artistic career with no hope of supporting themself, as if that were a frivolous thing, but that’s a problematic example.  For one, it’s not sensitive to specifics of context that might matter to the individual—perhaps the artist gains a real  and necessary personal therapeutic benefit from pursuing art.  And, for two, it’s not hard to find examples of artists whose work was derided in their own time but are respected now.    

Following your passion can sound impractical, but the realities of following passion are far different.  People who follow their passions are often driven to become very good at what they do. Writing happens to be one thing that people can become passionate about.

Passion and Practice

People who are passionate about something, often work on that thing.  They practice.  And practice is the crucial factor in becoming good at something.  This connection between passion and practice is another old idea.  There is a quotation from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie” on this point that I have long appreciated: 

For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much [a lover of philosophy—“philo-philosophos”] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught?

(From Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1962/1962-h/1962-h.htm; Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource. Please support it.)

Sidney highlights the importance of motivation—of the desire to accomplish something, in this case to learn—in the accomplishment of goals. The key assertion, which he phrases as a question, is that people who are motivated to learn will learn (and regardless of whether their teacher is the better or worse).

Passion leads to practice.  Practice leads to skill.  And skill leads to greater satisfaction in the activity, while also sparking enough dissatisfaction to continue to grow.

Conclusion

Do you want to become a better writer? Why? What ideas do you want to express? What stories do you want to share? What knowledge? What ideas?  What is it that you really care about?  What, to refer back to this post’s title, do you want your voice to be saying?

As you find your voice, and begin to understand what is important to you, it becomes easier to write because you have greater motivation to deal with the difficulties involved in expressing yourself clearly.