Back to School

A little history: I’ve been playing guitar since I was twelve years old, but like many of the self-taught people I (and perhaps you) came up with, I learned long ago to cheat my ass off. Maybe you’re familiar with the syndrome. You know, I can sort of read music, but I don’t do it well, and I figure out all the ways to cheat on chords, scales, arpeggios, you name it. Everything I play, I do by ear, and what music theory I do know is a result of osmosis and pure dumb luck.

Now, while I know that part of the joy of playing music is being able to improvise, my love of shortcuts has always limited me. There are many guitar techniques I won’t try, either because they’re too difficult or I feel there would be too much learning required to pull them off. And when I want to do something new, it has to happen right now, or I’m off to the next shiny thing that crosses my path.

Well, about three months ago I decided to go “back to school” and learn or re-learn all the authentic techniques—reading music, learning to play classically, trying to trade in my half-assed finger picking for bluegrass and Travis style fingerpicking (think Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) and classical-type fingerwork. I also hid my flat picks and have restricted myself for the time being to only playing my little Yamaha classical and my Ovation acoustic, so I can build up my finger strength. For now, the Strat “rests” in the closet. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. It needed the rest.

The result is that I feel I’ve improved my playing more in the past three months than during the last ten years. My sight-reading is getting better, and I’m playing music I never dreamed I’d even attempt. The only other musical discovery I can compare this to is the thrill of waking up one morning at about fourteen and suddenly being able to play barre chords. If you’re not a guitarist, you might not understand that, but feel free to substitute a suitable epiphanic episode from your own experience.

In case you’re wondering, I’m trying to apply this lesson to my writing as well. When I think back on the years that I’ve been a writer, I can recall times when I avoided taking on a project, whether because of its length, scope, subject matter, or the degree of emotional depth-plumbing necessary to get it done. I remember thinking, essentially, that I wasn’t up to the task. Big mistake.

Online Writing Workshops for Writers at All Levels

What I’m taking away from my self-imposed musical bootcamp, then, is this: If I get the urge to write something–whether it’s a short story, a novel, an article, or even (gulp) a poem–and I feel it’s worth taking on, I’ll do it.

After all, what’s the worst-case scenario? It could be a dismal failure, which is something I’m already quite good at dealing with. It could turn into something completely different than what I had in mind. Either way, I learn something about me that I didn’t know the day before.


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