Music, practice, focus
Studio Mike 1.0Travelling the road of life I learned how to play guitar and piano, neither very well. I endured piano lessons and hated practicing. I could not wait, could not wait, could not wait for the time to be up. Finally my mother surrendered and told me I didn't have to keep playing. She also told me that I'd be a social failure if I couldn't play the piano, but it was my choice.
When I got to college there were two groups of cool guys I set out to emulate. One group drank. A lot. Wow! How cool! I decided that I'd be one of the cool guys and learn to hold my liquor. And so I went to work. Within a few months I was able to kill a fifth of whiskey in a night. Mission accomplished! I pretty much stopped my serious drinking after that. Pretty much. There were some exceptions. Stories for another time.
The other group was cool because they played guitar and sang folk music, and girls seemed to like that. And I liked girls. So I bought myself a cheap guitar at Sears (of all places) and learned to strum and sing. I learned to finger pick a few riffs. I was nowhere as good as the cool guys, but good enough to be tolerated, even accepted. But not good enough to get laid.
After I graduated from MIT I spent a term at the University of Hawaii where I met a guy who had a simple, easy, nice way of playing piano. I watched him, asked questions and learned his style. Nice sound for very little effort. Here's how it works. Left hand: play four finger chords alternating white keys, up the scale. Like CEGB then DFAC then EGBD. None of those nasty black keys. Slow easy rhythm. Right hand: pick out the melody.
It turns out that those chords work for lots of songs. And if you don't know a song, you can doodle around with your right hand and sound good. I knew enough music theory to name the chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7. Occasionally up to Fmaj7, G7, Am7. Throw in a diminished 7th for accent. A few other tricks added over time.
That was good enough.
After I retired I planned to improve my skills. Software for music composition was becoming cheaper and cooler, so I imagined composing my own stuff, playing keyboards and guitar, laying down a drum track, and singing. I had gotten a Keystation 61 Midi keyboard as a present, somewhere along the way, and got some software that turned my computer into a synth. I tried to muck with it, but I didn't make much progress.
Then a few years I bought myself a small studio for father's day. I got an electric guitar, an amp that plugged into the guitar body, a Behringer 12 input mixer. A couple of mics and stands. Some electronics for vocal effects. A shitload of cables and connectors. I spent some time and had some fun trying to hook it all together and actually produce something, but lost momentum and the project died.
I tried to relaunch if a couple of times with pretty much the same result.
Now I'm at it again, and this time I think it's going to be different because it's not just about making music. It's about keeping my brain from rotting.
There are a bunch of things that are supposed to be especially good at slowing the inevitable aging process that turns one's brain into cream cheese. One of them is learning to play a musical instrument. Futzing with an instrument, like I've done most of my life doesn't do much for the aging brain. But "deliberate practice" is supposed to work. It exercises your brain's most important muscle, the "attention muscle." This is the brain muscle that goes first in older people. Once it goes, it's all over.
I'm using a web-based program called Yousician to help me practice. Its got exercises for guitar and keyboards, and it lets you practice about an hour a day on each instrument for free. You can get unlimited access for about $15.00 a month, and I'll start paying them need more capability or want to spend more time practicing.
It works this way. I hook my instrument, suitably amplified, to the mic input on my computer. Yousician scrolls the score in front of me, plays a backing track, listens to my playing and tells me how well I'm doing. If I hit a note or chord correctly, the note or chord turns green. Miss it, it turns red. Even better, Yousician tells me if I'm early (a little or a more than a little), late (same deal) or on time (perfect!). It's got a points system, unlocks more advanced songs when you've done "well enough" on the easier ones.
I've rarely wanted to get really, really, really good at anything. Good enough has always been good enough for me. And it's good enough for Yousician. But right now it's not good enough for me. I find myself reaching for perfection. Partly because I'd like to get good at making music, but mostly because I really, really, really want to keep my brain from rotting.
That means: exercise the attention muscle.
To play something perfectly takes a LOT of attention. I have to be aware of where my fret hand and fingers are placed, where I'm picking, the precise timing of the notes (not too early, not too late). When I miss, I don't just start over, but stop and try to understand why that happened. That means I need to be aware of what happened before the miss. Not just "Oh, shit, I played the wrong note." I need to be able to look back in time to see where things first started going wrong. That means I have span even more attention. Good for the 73 year old mind!
Once in a while I'll make a mistake because I've just become aware of something new, and good, and the change distracted me. In the piece I'm working on today I have to shift hand position part way through the song. I've gone through the song dozens of time, and one one run through, a few notes after the shift, I mess up. I stop to understand why that mess up. I find it's was because I'd changed my hand position so perfectly, so effortlessly that my attention was sucked into celebrating my accomplishment, and a few notes later I crashed.
Today I spent a couple of hours working on a new song.The first time through I did really good job sight-reading my way thought it. Much better than the first time through some of the other, easier songs I've played.
As I practice toward perfection I'm not only playing more accurately, I'm being aware of more things at the same time. I hear changes in the sound of the notes based on changes in the way that I pick the strings. Never noticed before. Changes in the sound based on where my fretting fingers are positioned within the fret. Never knew that made a difference. When I tune the guitar I'm much more aware of when I'm on and when I'm off than before. When I go out of tune in the middle of a practice session I can hear it!
We'll see where this goes. Hopefully I will continue, and somewhere down the road I'll be playing like this guy: