Since my last column, I’m not going to pretend to you that the month has been diligently filled with hours of rigorous practice drills – children to raise, work to do, Line Of Duty to watch – but I have definitely been practicing guitar more often than I was. Just the fact I’m finding time to pick the instrument up several times a week, even at the very end of the day, has marked a clear improvement in my relationship with it. But what have I actually been doing, and does it constitute learning?
In part, definitely. I’ve already mentioned that I’m a paid up member of Fender Play, and this month it has been to this platform that I have consistently turned. For those of you familiar with it, I’m on the Rock Path there, somewhere in the early stages of Level 2, and recently there have been a lot of finger exercises that I know I need to do but that aren’t massive fun – no matter how many times the instructor tells you they are. They are exactly the sort of thing I’ve never had the patience for before, but which if I want to finally get to grips with this instrument, I now know I’m going to have to work my way through.
The nice people at Fender Play call these exercises ‘warm-ups’, but as someone who would most likely start a marathon with a couple of squats, a swing of the arms and a shout of ‘ready’, I am going to call them drills. For the most part, however, the result is that I have been successfully playing in time(ish) while stretching my hand over four frets at the bottom of the neck. That feels like a lot to me, though I know plenty of players will be able to stretch further.
My little finger – and I always thought this was a problem unique to me but it could well be something that everyone has had to deal with – has a tendency to curl back on itself as I move it in to fret a note. The quitter within me has always taken this to mean I can’t stretch for a note with it so why try? But with my thumb in the classic middle of the neck position that it never normally occupies, I’ve been extremely satisfied to cover four frets’ worth of ground with that finger. It’s going to take some training before it could ever feel natural, but it has entered the realms of the possible and I’m satisfied with that.
Some nights, however, it’s hard to find the motivation to ‘clock on’ to the app for the sole purpose of drilling my fingers to behave like a guitar player’s fingers. It isn’t easy, it hurts a bit, and it makes repetitive and tedious listening for anyone else that happens to be nearby. And it is these nights when what is effectively Fender Play’s sweet shop opens its doors. The people behind the app must know the distraction from the set ‘paths’ that the various collections of songs and riffs they have all lined up and ready to be learned represent, but I suspect they also know that if users are playing something – even something not strictly listed as a lesson or that falls into their path – then they are learning. Better to have the guitar in your hands beginning to strum your way through Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me (this example is based on real events, and I found it while virtually leafing through an ‘easy versions’ song collection) than to have gone to bed early without having ever picked it up.
And besides, just as small children learn best through play, there is some pretty obvious learning going on in my off-the-path sessions. Thanks to Ms Swift I’ve been practising transitions between four chords (D, A, Em & G, because I know you want to play along too), syncopated strumming and using a capo, all while producing a typically rough version of music I recognise and learning what I’m hearing when listening to the original.
So I think last month I signed off with the words, “here’s to stopping messing around”; now I can’t say that’s what has happened, but it does now seem to me that a certain amount of messing around is exactly what’s going to be needed if I’m going to successfully complete this journey. Especially if that messing around involves messing around with new songs, new chords, new transitions and new techniques. You see, it may very well be called ‘playing’ music, but for someone like me with no real talent there is going to be plenty of work in the months and years ahead. I think I’m ready for it, but I’ve also learned very early on something that I probably already knew: as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining suggested… all work and no play makes anything rather dull.
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