Keeping to the heart of it: Another guitar lesson for my sister

My previous post was inspired by my sister asking me for tips to teach herself guitar and the parallels between what I wanted to say to her and what I would say to a writer/researcher who was struggling to develop an effective writing/research practice.  I’m going to keep down that same path here, while, perhaps, stretching the parallel a little too far.

Keeping the beat; Keeping to the heart of the matter

One of the suggestions I made was that she work on keeping the beat. “Rhythm is everything,” I wrote.  On reflection, I feel like this is true in two ways, though at the time, I was only thinking of one of those meanings.

The first meaning is about music alone (not writing, at least as I was thinking of it): Music depends on rhythm more than it depends on tonality. So, to my sister and any other aspiring guitarist, I would say that getting the rhythm right (especially the strumming/picking) is more important than getting the notes right. Ultimately, of course, you want to get both right. But the question is how to learn and how to learn effectively. Because rhythm is at the heart of music—because music isn’t really music until there is a rhythm—it is the thing that the musician most needs to get right.  With respect to my sister, in particular, I know that she has solid command of the tonal dimension as a singer, and as a singer she is also possessed of sufficient internal rhythm to sing with other people. Given this, it makes even more sense for her to learn rhythm first and foremost—that’s what will enable her to accompany herself, even if she’s only strumming once for each new chord.

The parallel to writing is a little tenuous here—what’s most important in writing is not rhythm, but idea. But at the same time, it’s a reasonable parallel to remind the writer that the crucial element in their creation is the idea that they want to communicate.  This is what the writer needs to practice to develop skill as a writer, but also to develop a personal voice.

Practice and motivation

Speaking generally, practice is better when you focus on what’s really important.  In music, superior rhythm will make better music, and better music generally contributes to more enjoyment of the practice. In writing, superior focus on ideas will be generally lead to a more positive experience—it’s more enjoyable to develop an idea than it is to get bogged down in concern for grammar, for example.

Focusing on priorities can help in dealing with the real difficulties that practices face. This can be particularly true in areas of complexity that are relatively low priority.  In playing the guitar, it is easy to see the strings and the frets as complicated, and spend a lot of energy thinking about mastering that complexity. These things are important, it’s true, but there’s a reason that right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand: the real priority, and the real difficulty is in the action of the righthand, which controls the rhythm. In writing, a lot of people get stuck worrying about grammar—grammar is important, often complex, and one of the first things schools teach about writing. But grammar isn’t at the heart of writing. Ideas are. And people worrying about getting grammar right can lose touch with the ideas that motivated them in the first place, and that can lead to the practice becoming tedious and boring, rather than a way to do something that feels important. To judge whether the grammar or the ideas are more important, think of what is possible for an author: can an author have an editor to fix bad grammar? Yup. Can an author have someone else come up with ideas? Not ethically, at least.

The rhythm of practice

The second meaning of “rhythm is everything,” that occurred to me was that the larger life rhythms of practice are also crucial.

Practice is going to develop better if it’s done regularly and frequently (but without overdoing it).  Given the neurophysiological component of playing guitar (or any other practice, really, including writing), it’s not surprising to think about how practicing every day, or almost every day, will have greater efficacy than occasional practice.

For my sister to become a good guitarist—good enough that she can enjoy playing—she really needs to play a little bit every day. Fifteen minutes a day, seven days a week (totaling one hour, forty-five minutes) is going to do more to help her growth as a guitarist than three dedicated hours each Saturday.

Writing, too, benefits more from regular daily practice than it does from occasional intensive bursts.  There is a real obvious physiological component to writing that practice will help develop—whether you write by hand, by typing on a keyboard, or by dictation (using voice recognition, perhaps), there is a physical element that can become easier with practice.  I never studied typing, for example, but I’ve been using a QWERTY keyboard for decades and there is a certain physiological familiarity that helps me write with far greater ease than writing by hand or using a touch-screen interface. The ease of using the tool that develops with practice allows greater attention on what is important because less attention is needed for the physiological element.  

There is another level at which the rhythm of practice is crucial for the writer, and that is at the level of ideas.  If you think about your work and try to write something every day, then everyday, your brain focuses on your ideas for writing.  The regular practice keeps the ideas fresh in your attention.  If you write early everyday, it’s more likely that you’ll think abut the writing project later in the day. If you write late in the day, everyday, you’re more likely to think your writing early in the day.  If you’re writing only once a week, there’s a good chance that the demands of life will keep you from thinking about your writing project (you may even compartmentalize it, saying “I think about my project in the time I have scheduled for it”). If that’s working for you, great, but for people who are struggling to develop a project a regular practice is better,  The regular practice, however brief, makes it easier to start each work session by following up on the previous session’s work. The weekly practice often has to spend a lot of effort just getting back up to speed on where the work left off.

Keep it simple; keep the challenges relatively small (on the small scale)

To develop a practice that can be maintained, it’s useful to do things that you can accomplish successfully and build upon.  Don’t worry about doing the most difficult stuff immediately.  Worry about doing something that moves you forward.

I specifically suggested that my sister work on moving between the G and C chords, a common and fairly simple chord transition to make.  For a beginner, making that change while keeping a steady beat and also strumming/picking with the other hand is plenty of challenge. And adding in singing while keeping the beat is another level of difficulty. But this represents a small enough challenge that it can be accomplished relatively easily, at least in basic form. 

The ability to accomplish something is important in developing a practice, because it provides positive feedback. And simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad.  There are excellent, enjoyable two-chord songs that could be played using C and G (”Feelin’ Alright,” by Dave Mason/Traffic, and recorded by Joe Cocker, is I-IV, which, in the key of G, is G-C). Simple two-chord songs are obviously not works of complexity to be compared with great symphonic works, but that doesn’t stop them from being great music—not at least if we evaluate the music on its ability to reach a wide audience. A parallel to writing still holds: if you can express a simple idea in writing, or one part of a larger idea, that provides the satisfaction of accomplishment, and is also valuable in its own right.  So doing simple stuff helps build the practice.  And then, in the long, run, the practice develops skills to do more, better.

With each accomplishment, of course, a new challenge can be added, and as practice develops and strengthens itself, there is room to work on developing things other than the simplest fundamentals.  A guitarist who can keep the beat playing simple chords, can work on playing more complex chords. A writer who is getting simple ideas down on the page in simple sentences can work on writing out more complex ideas in more complex sentences.  But underlying the development is the continued rhythm/idea that holds the musical/writerly exploration together.