I'm re-reading Glenn Kurtz's book, Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music. Re-reading it, I say, because when I picked it up in the bookstore, it didn't ring any bells, but once I got it home and got into, I realized I'd read it -- or at least part of it -- before. Or maybe I heard about him on NPR, where he's been featured, or in one of the guitar zines. Whichever, it sounds familiar enough so that I'm able to predict what happens next, and some of the stories I know I've heard.
Kurtz was something of a child prodigy on the guitar -- went from folk to rock to jazz to classical, and got good enough to make it into the New England Conservatory in Boston. He worked hard, but looked up one day and realized he wasn't going to be as good as he wanted to be. He quit playing, got a degree and a job teaching -- German and comparative literature --and came back to the guitar years later with a new purpose. He wasn't going to be a professional player, but he could play for love. The book is about how he got there.
It's a long road he took to realize what a lot of us figure out along the way: Being as good at something -- anything -- as you want to be isn't easy. One's reach often exceeds one's grasp -- what are you gonna do?
My attitude is as my splash panel says above, If you do the best you can, nothing else matters worth a damn.
In music, there are many different pedagogies -- i.e., methods of teaching. In classical guitar, a lot of these start with finger exercises and scales -- you sit down, run through these, often with a metronome. Start slow, speed up, seek a machine-like precision -- no buzzes, no squeaks on the chord changes or glissando, varied tone, volume. Once you are warmed up -- and this might take an hour or more -- then you move into playing pieces.
On the other end of the spectrum are the teachers who say repertoire is king. Once you know some basics, then you jump right into playing songs or instrumentals, learn how to make those sound good, and use that for a basis to learn the next piece. That is how most non-classical guitarists seem to learn. Here's a guitar. Here's a chord chart. Here is "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore ..."
Both methods have their pluses and minuses. Both require learning about tone and timbre and sustain; what the instrument sounds like with your picking hand above the sound hole (sul tasto) versus near the bridge (metallico.) Hammer-ons, pull-offs, glissandos, bends, rubato, attack ...
Kurtz's focus on coming back to the instrument moves from technique to tale -- What, he asks, is your story? What do you want to do? Figure that out, and you can determine your methodology. Want to sit solo on a concert stage playing Bach or Barrios? That's going to take you down a different road than if you want to play heavy metal rock or down and dirty delta blues. (Old joke: Know how to stop a classical guitarist from playing? Take away his sheet music. Know how to stop a rock guitarist from playing? Put sheet music in front of him.)
For me, woodshedding is fine. I want to learn how to play the guitar well enough so that I keep getting better. Maybe someday, sit down with somebody else and be able to jam well enough to keep up, but no aspirations to make any kind of living at it. I have an hour, hour-and-a-half a day right now to give it. I'm not very good and won't live long enough to get very good. But I can manage "better." I'm not a musician.
With martial arts, I train because I want to master as much of it as I can, knowing that with any good luck at all, I won't ever have to use the stuff for real. I'm not stepping into a competitive ring for a trophy or cash; no plans to try and clean out the bad-ass biker bar; no desire to open a school and teach. It's a personal journey, and my biggest critic is me.
As a writer, I want to sharpen my edge and keep it honed well enough to continue to sell books. Maybe the odd script now and then. Rich and famous? Be nice, and I wouldn't kick it out of bed, but that's not what I'm focused on.
The blog? I see this not so much scales and finger exercises, (though it makes a nice warm-up,) but as repertoire. It's mostly non-fiction, but I'm still telling a story with most posts. Beginning, middle, and end, an arc, albeit a short one, that starts somewhere, travels a bit, and ends somewhere else, having made -- I hope -- a point.
And the point of this post? It's easier to get what you want once you figure out what it is that you want ...