Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Music and Health

  One of my favorite health blogs had a great post about the benefits of picking up an instrument. Much of this certainly rings true to me after my own experiences lately, with so many points hitting home.  Enjoy:
Making Music: Why You Should Pick Up an Instrument and Start Playing

Monday, October 28, 2013

Knocking the Dust Off

  I dug up some old friends today...

Except the viola, which is a new-ish friend.
    I thought while I was feeling as motivated as I am that I'd whip out the ole guitars and brush up a bit on my skills. "Skills" being the word for lack of a better. I'm a lot more rusty than I'd have expected and, naturally, my calluses are gone. I fumbled through a few songs and it felt like someone was sawing on my fingertips with a knife. I'm looking at you, high E string. Bloody fingers aside, I enjoyed playing more than I have in ages.

  I can say without hesitation that taking up piano classes is the best decision I've made for myself in many a year. I had no idea it would positively domino into so many other aspects of my life. I've felt like my old, long-lost, creative self again that I thought had been squashed under the weight of everyday life. I'm glad to see that's not the case and that I was only lost for a time.

"I can’t pull you closer than this; it’s just you and the moon on my skin."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Deliberate Practice

  It's easy to get caught up in the general day to day grind of life that causes the weeks/months/years to slip away without you realizing it. Focusing on 'just getting through the morning', then 'just getting through work', then crashing from exhaustion at night, only to focus on the same thing when a new dawn arrives. For years I did this and no one pointed it out to me and I wasn't self-aware enough to notice for a long time. That's certainly no way to live life, and that's how I did things for far too long. I'm not sure what snapped me out of this behavior, but I'm thankful for it. I lost a bit of myself during that time but hopefully it's not too late to recover those pieces.

These only go around so many times...who knew?

  I read some articles this week about deliberate practice that were so inspiring I could almost feel the heat radiating from the light-bulb that appeared above my head. The cumulative result of several articles and a few conversations was that I began to think of practice in ways I never had before and to understand why I had failed to excel at skills even when I felt I had the capacity to do so. The concepts are probably obvious and old-hat to most of you but for me, having nothing new to try and improve on in a long time, I suppose the ideas never had an opportunity to reveal themselves in their due time.
  When I would think of practicing, my first thought would usually be, "I'm going to work on this for an hour." I never put more thought into it than that. I figured that an hour of practice was an hour of practice, never considering that I should be mindful when I practice, or prioritizing goals over the time limit. One hour, and I was done. If I even took that full hour. Exhibiting mindful practice seems that it should be a given but for me it wasn't.
  There are so many fantastic quotes I ran across in the last few days related to this topic that I could fill up several pages, but if I average what all of them were trying to say, it's a very simple concept that, no matter how short or long a time you work at something, always devote your full conscious mind to what you are doing. It seems pretty evident that 10 minutes of very deliberate, focused practice is better than an hour of distracted, thoughtless effort, yet somehow that never made itself known to my mind. I can be a bit slow. But thankfully I'm not the only one, because it turns out that most of us don't practice that way, and usually the people who truly excel in the world are the folks who do.

  As motivated as I have been these last several months, I realize now that my level of effort could be greatly improved. I often find myself falling into a pattern of working on something that I've already become decently proficient at because it makes me feel accomplished to be able to perform a task well. Obviously continuing to work on something I'm merely "good" at so that I can become "great" at it is a worthy feat, but when that is all I focus on, that can quickly and quietly become a limitation. I need to force myself into new territory and uncomfortable situations, work on things that I am quite bad at and forcing myself to improve, instead of simply moving on because I am not (yet) that great at it. I realized I need to devote this manner of thought to everything that I do, not simply music. My work, my health, all of it. I need to be that guy who people always say gives every ounce of his effort to anything he does. In some areas I feel people might say that now, but I wanted to be that motivated in all aspects of my life.
  I'm still trying to fit this new inspiration into my days more smoothly, specifically with music. One of the stories I read was focused on a basketball player and while I'm not a sports loving sort of fellow, the message certainly came across. When the player practiced, his goal was a given number of shots. Not "I'm going to shoot for two hours" but instead "I'm going to make 400 shots today." Maybe that can translate as easily as me saying "I'm going to make it through this song flawlessly 10 times" instead of simply practicing for an hour. I don't yet know, but I've been experimenting and though I've not hit the mark yet, I feel like I've made a lot of strides in a short period. And even though I've tackled some things that I am currently awful at, there is a greater sense of accomplishment working this way. I can sense that I'm working towards a long-time goal instead of the need for instant gratification.

  I didn't bookmark all of the articles, but two of them can be found here if you want to motivate yourself:
1) What Mozart and Kobe Bryant Can Teach Us About Deliberate Practice
2) Deliberate Practice: What It Is and Why You Need It

"Let me in the wall you've built around-
we can light a match and burn it down"

Monday, October 7, 2013

My Cadence Is Off

  An odd problem I bumped into yesterday was that apparently I have a bit of an issue playing repetitive chords while keeping a good cadence. I'm not sure that's the word I want to use here, but we'll go with it for lack of a better one. Basically in the same way that you might strum a chord several times on a guitar before switching to a new chord, which seems natural to me, I struggle with the piano equivalent because it feels a little unnatural. To be fair to myself, I've only tried it a few times since yesterday but it felt more awkward than I'd have expected. All the songs I've learned up until now have had very limited repetition to them. If you'd asked me which sounded easiest, I'd have said "playing the same chords over and over will be cake" but that isn't turning out to be true for me.

  Form a mental image of playing drums, as if you were alternating a single drum lick back and forth between both hands. That's not something I find very complex to do, it feels natural to my body. But if I minimize that movement and limit it to a smaller range of motion, such as drumming my index fingers alternately on a desk, I can't really do it rapidly. When I try I end up banging both fingers against the surface in unison. I probably look like an impatient kid banging on the table because his dinner isn't ready yet. I'm not sure why, but I've always had that limitation. which I learned many, many years ago when I was in fact air drumming on a desk in school. I don't know why I can do it with full arm motions easily but not with shorter wrist motions. I've been wondering if that would somehow bleed over into playing piano and I figure the repetition I'm struggling with is related to that limitation. 

  I feel like there's some body motion that might be the key to this. When I play guitar and get into a strum pattern, I have a bit of a sway to my posture, a nod with my head, perhaps even a tap with my foot. I recall when I first started learning, I was very rigid and strumming felt very robotic. After I became more comfortable with the instrument, I began to loosen up, though it's not something I actually noticed until I reflected. I haven't really gotten that sort of full-body participation going with my piano playing yet. But I'm still getting myself comfortable with the instrument, just the way I did with guitar, so I'm assuming that in a little time I'll overcome this hurdle the way I have all of the other ones that have stumped me when first presented to me.

"So I'll wait for you; and I'll burn"