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23 November 2011 @ 09:31 am
Learning an instrument as an adult  
My 5-year old son has been playing piano for about 10 weeks now and (admittedly, everyone thinks their kids are special and unique snowflakes) he seems to definitely be showing some aptitude for it.  He's a bright little fellow who is good at symbol translation of any sort--reading, math, and now it seems music too.  

  I took maybe 3 years of piano lessons as a 8-11 year old.  I recall practicing unenthusiastically and very rarely, and being more interested in watching TV or reading a book or playing games on the Apple II+ or just generally having freedom to do nothing.  As a result, I made very little progress from an objective standpoint. 

I like to have a project to improve on.  It's one of the things I enjoy most in life.  Fast forward a quarter of a century, put away varying degrees of obsessiveness on

chess: a hard game where I plateaued in skill, and competitive nerves made unfun,
World of Warcraft for a couple of years:  feels like improvement, but is an illusion, since no change in ME is actually ever made--there's no skill, just time.  Never again will I work on an improvement project which does not result in improvements in ME and what I can do
Scrabble:  less hard game but with the same competitive issues I still have
Starcraft II:  never got as serious as scrabble: didn't train, so never got quite as annoyed, but never got good, and eventually plateaued and learned to ragequit

Working with my son has (re?)kindled some interest in music theory and playing an instrument for me as well.  A few weeks ago, I took the plunge and bought an electric guitar.  I figure that all that cardboxing taught me how well a regimen of study/practice, applied daily over the course of a couple of years, can lead to real improvement.  

I also started guitar lessons, since I'm basically a blank slate, and I believe in shaving on someone else's face.  Why learn a bunch of bad habits and then have to correct them later?  My first lesson was a couple of weeks ago with a substitute teacher for the guy who will actually be teaching me.  I could have deferred but I was excited and wanted to give it a whirl.  

The guy I got (the sub) was a 20-something guy who played in a band.  It was pretty clear this guy didn't have much experience teaching guitar, and wasn't all that interested.  It was his last lesson of the day, he knows I'm some guy who's bought a guitar and is here for his very first lesson ever.  He spent as much time talking about how my fingers were going to kill and look at his fingers and boy is it hot in here and if you want to look cool don't play in classical position as anything.  He wrote down a bit of tab for me to practice and tried to sort of wrap up after 20 minutes of a 30 minute lesson.  He also was pretty quick to say "hey, do whatever feels good" and "the beatles didn't know how to read music and look how they did" and "all sorts of amazing players have funny technique" and "use whatever you find on the internet, man".

I left this lesson pretty discouraged about the lesson quality.  I mean, I mostly know how to educate myself using books and the internet.  I don't need to pay anyone $22.50/half hour to tell me to go look on the internet.  I don't need to pay anyone to tell me "do it whatever way is easiest for you right now."  I can read "place the left hand on the fretboard with your main finger oriented topwise and your pick transversely contrapositive (20 degrees magnetic north) to the strings" and try and translate that into playing.  What I want from a guitar teacher is someone who can save me the hours of trying to figure out that sentence and you know, help me put my fingers in the right configuration.  And here I mean "right" in the sense of "it might be tougher now, but you'll have less to unlearn later if you decide you want to play more technical pieces."

So I went to my second lesson with some trepidation and plans to finish out the introductory set of 8 lessons if this guy was a dud too and find another guitar school if necessary.  Was worrying about it being awkward still taking my son to his piano lessons at this music place while moving on myself, etc.  I googled the name of my actual teacher and found out he was a first year music student and figured he might be more of the same.

After my second lesson (the first with my real teacher), I left elated.  He's a young guy, probably early 20s, but the difference between him and Subby McRunouttheclock was night and day.  He's been playing for 14 years, teaching for 6 and half.  He's a classical guitarist so he has lots of technique.  He's a first year music student, but he's been in university a few more years than that (i.e. not a 17 year old out of high school).  He can communicate to me on a really analytical level, which I appreciate.  I had a whole bunch of questions about hand technique and he patiently explained best practices.  I asked about his plan for teaching, and he said that depended on me--did I want to learn to play some rock (learn some chords and licks, dick around), or did I want to do music and theory?  I said the latter, and he got me going on a book/program.  It appeals to me for a number of reasons:  I'm interested in the theory, I'm pretty sure I'll benefit from and embrace a structured program (in the same way I was able to create a program for myself for scrabble word learning) and regular focus, and I figure if I learn the fundamentals from a beginner program with a teacher's help to correct mistakes before they become bad habits, I can branch out to whatever musical specifics turn out to interest me in a couple of years: right now, learning blues and classic rock are my leanings.  I don't have music running through my head all the time, or any burning desire to compose right now, or anything like that.  I'd like to spend a little time getting my technical chops up--like in Scrabble, just being able to find most of the bingos gets you quite a long way--and over time pick up the "strategy" of music. 

Anyhow--I was excited about the fact that I'm going to learn to do something new and neat, and that I found a teacher that I think I can really work with.
synodalhajsynodalhaj on November 23rd, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
To be fair to Subby, I would imagine there are a fair number of people who buy an axe and want to learn how to shred up some Nickelback RIGHT NOW, DEWD. In doing intro lessons you probably see a lot of kids, some of them disinterested, and a lot of people with unrealistic expectations, and lots you'll never see after the loss-leader lesson 8 ends, and get a little jaded. The 30-something guys like me who bring in "I just bott an electric gitar teach me to playz" electric guitars probably do not make up the most serious candidates, nor the most promising ones. And so his laissez-faire style probably works well at keeping the interest of people who might brook at rules and theory and all that, and spread a little music (or facsimile thereof) where there would be none otherwise. It just was a terrible fit for me.

I'm glad you agree on the technical base. I'm willing to drill a million scales and arpeggios and exercises if it means down the road it will be easier to do the stuff I want to do, and I'll enjoy the anticipation of mastery that's associated with the practice. I'm often trapped in the future. At times it's almost like the skier who thinks on the slopes about the sex he'll have tonight, and during the sex about the skiing he'll do tomorrow. I am happiest when I have a clear goal for improvement, and I'm pursuing that goal in the most efficient manner that I can think of (subject to constraints of reasonability).

As you point out, it's important to enjoy the journey, and the process. Any program that you will do is probably better than the optimal program that you hate :) And one of the nice things about music is it's non-competitive and can be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than being defined by missing EGHINST or the second in DEINPST. I'm hoping in a while I'll be able to play a little bit with my son and/or wife!

I will definitely take you up on the offer to discuss theory, once I learn enough to have meaningful questions :)

P.S. I wrote a chord progression that's catchy the other day, it goes I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V, what do you think? ;-)

real lad scorescesarsalad on November 23rd, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
oh yeah, dipnets
real lad scorescesarsalad on November 23rd, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
I've been playing guitar since I was about 15. I'm pretty terrible, but played in a couple bands in college. I was also lucky to take a couple music theory / classical guitar classes and it definitely helped me improve. Stick with it! Guitar is awesome. If I only could sing I would play more.
arbretristenagekinoki on November 23rd, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
Music is fun. That being said, I had only one teacher, from when I was 6 to when I was 14 (moving away). She was great when I was little kid, mostly because I think I showed more interest in just plunking at the kid's book songs and getting good at them (oh, and collecting the stickers that showed she thought I did them just fine). When I got older, about 8-11, were the painful years because I never really cared to practice. I got tired of playing scales and whatever, though those are some of the useful blocks of getting better.

At 12-14, I realized that I had enough of a foundation to go and start learning a lot of pieces by choice. I already knew that I could from when I was 10 but at 12 my hands were large enough to play most things. Then it became fun again.

After we moved away I actually missed playing piano for my own purposes, and so I'm lucky that I have a chocolate shop that has a grand piano as well. Now I get to practice whatever I want, mostly because the owner is patient enough to listen to my many mistakes and because, in her opinion, I'm the one person who actually knows how to play the piano (it's a 105 year old piano that has seen some years of neglect before). I've also learned that showing you know how to play the piano is fun at times, because you get to play in locales impromptu (libraries, restaurants, the Pan Pacific Hotel lobby, Holt Renfrew) and brighten up your day and hopefully someone else's, and just vanish soon thereafter. With a totable instrument, it's a little tougher because they just don't randomly appear in places, but I'm sure that guitar skills come in better to impress.

That being said, when your son gets older, make sure he learns Clair de Lune. It seems to be quite reliable at charming people, particularly women. :)
synodalhajsynodalhaj on November 23rd, 2011 07:13 pm (UTC)
I actually have some interest in piano as well again, but the theory will apply no matter which instrument I pick, I suppose. I do enjoy the fact that I can transpose into any key effortlessly on guitar (well, at least for anything easy enough that I can play it) and that it would be annoying in some ways to have to learn 13 scales per type of scale to play it on piano. Obviously piano is a wonderful instrument and I'm really enjoying hearing my son play.

The other difference between your music experience and mine, I suppose, is that you're a frickin' genius :)

BTW, I'm quite behind on GSL; just watching the October final between Nestea and MVP. I watched the Ro16 Nestea v Virus and loved the 3rd game. You should go watch it again.

synodalhajsynodalhaj on November 23rd, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
er, round of 8 b/w Nestea and MVP. No spoilers on this round or next round please!
arbretristenagekinoki on November 23rd, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
Wow! I watched 3 of the rounds of the Code S finals with Jesse when I visited SF, haha.

In thinking about it, when I get SC2 and a desktop, I might go Protoss. It's all because of this. http://www.youtube.com/user/gomtvnet#p/u/1/UsXdjSj7jbc

That and MC has now shown the secrets of a delayed 4-gate, how to FF against zerg and other things I won't be able to do for about half a year.
arbretristenagekinoki on November 23rd, 2011 07:58 pm (UTC)
Theory was something I only have a small footing in. It is actually 12 keys and I believe 3 standard kinds of scale (major, harmonic minor and melodic minor) with some variations (formula pattern, octaves, etc... 4-octave formula pattern melodic minor makes my head hurt, probably because it doesn't sound very good).

And you're just as much a genius as I am. :P I only play music that Gabe says he teaches in the summer because it's too technically simple.

Re SC2 - Wow, that is behind! I should go watch Nestea-Virus again but Nestea-SC from a few months ago holds that spot in my heart of #1 match. The new season has yielded quite a few surprises so far, though. Some are just great to see, others not so much. GSL's new code promotion/demotion format is so active! I look forward to seeing it in action (though I am going to miss having no code A finals).

MLG Providence was a blast to watch too. The championship finals wasn't so great, but the loser's bracket finals and SF were.
spheruliticspherulitic on November 23rd, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC)
I loved 20th century theory. There were zero keys and many, many kinds of scales.
chaithedogchaithedog on November 23rd, 2011 11:51 pm (UTC)
My professors taught me very little about theory; I learned pretty much everything I know through trial and error, listening to songs I liked, and figuring out how they worked. Wikipedia actually has a pretty decent selection of common riffs and chord progression. I also recommend you purchase a "Fake Book"-- a compilation of lead sheets in your genre of choice. That might help you get started until you develop an ear strong enough to figure out the chords on your own.

I hope it works out for you. Learning an instrument can be a lot of fun, and you can never stop improving at it.

By the way, your chord progression is Pachelbel's Canon! :-D Do I win anything?
synodalhajsynodalhaj on November 24th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)
Yes! You win the privilege of checking out this youtube video!