The other night was rough. Sleeping on my D-chord struggles made many of the problems so obvious, but as a beginner I wasn’t prepared for them; I didn’t expect them or know to expect them, and at the time of my last post – immediately after a frustrating hour – my tired hands had affected my brain’s ability to process information. I’m sure that’s going to happen from time to time. Okay, I’m sure that’s going to happen a LOT.
Even today, I can say since my last post I’ve only properly executed the D chord about 3 times. I’ve attempted it probably more than fifty, and that might be a low estimate. My fingers are all crowded up on each other and messing with strings they’re supposed to be staying off of, and the palm of my hand keeps crowding up on the first string and muffling it…
I don’t know yet how to properly play a chord with any consistency, and while I’ve identified some of the things that are going wrong, I haven’t figured out how to correct them. I’m sure my hand position is wrong, but I don’t know yet HOW it’s wrong, so I have to sort just…keep wiggling it around until I have some kind of guitar epiphany, I guess. It’s basically dumb luck at this point when I get something right, but being able to identify that something is going wrong is the first step in figuring out how to fix it.
Today, I’d like to talk about not the things that I expected, but the things I didn’t. Reading about beginning to play guitar hadn’t told me some important stuff (not in so many words), really basic, obvious stuff, that became obvious only after it drove me a little crazy.
1. I can’t always tell the difference between clumsy hands, and tired hands.
I knew from the start that I was going to suck. I knew that I was going to have to accept making a lot of senseless noise before I could make anything that sounded even remotely like music. I knew I could expect my fingers to hurt; the internet told me so.
What I didn’t know was that it was not always going to be obvious to me when my hands were clumsy because I suck, and when they were extra-clumsy from exhaustion.
Extended practice tires the hands, so trying to learn something new at the end of a practice session is a little counter-productive. The fingers – which are awkward and unfamiliar with the form to begin with – become clumsier and even less able to execute the maneuver when they’ve been overworked, which was probably about half the cause of my D-chord rant earlier in the week. It should be obvious when the hand is so tired that it’s affecting the ability to maneuver, but it’s not. The fingertips – not yet callused – feel a bit numb and maybe a bit stiff, and the forearm feels a bit tired, but that slight numbness seems to mask when my fingers are actually tired and need a break. Because I accepted this dull, numb sort of ache as part of the process, I honestly didn’t notice how tired my fretting hand was until, on trying the D chord again the next day at the beginning of my practice instead of the end, I was able to execute it properly a few times, if not many of them, when the previous practice session I felt as though I hadn’t achieved anything. Don’t get me wrong, I still haven’t achieved much, but getting it right a few times is proof that I CAN get it right. It doesn’t help me much with HOW to get it right, but the fact I did, even if only once or twice, at least gives a little hope that it’s possible.
Well, that’s clearly wrong.
And that looks even worse. Maybe my arm position is as much of an issue as my hand. I have no idea….and I’m not sure if the guitar is actually pointed down, or if it just looks screwed up because I messed up the camera angle. Will have to check that when I try next.
2. My brain learns faster than my hands.
This is so sensible and so obvious, that it honestly didn’t dawn on me. I got frustrated because my head understood very easily what needed to happen, but I couldn’t make my hands do it.
My head wants to run races, while my hands are still learning to walk. I’m performing all of these complex maneuvers that my hands have never done before. They’re trying to find their footing and learn how to move. They don’t care yet about chords or scales or frets; they’re just aiming for a general sense of forward momentum and trying to stay out of each other’s way, which is not always successful.
At the same time, my brain is doing what it’s always done: thinking. The brain is an expert at thinking – so much so, in fact, that it does it even when we’re not trying, or when we’re trying not to. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia can tell you stories about being kept up nights thinking ABOUT not thinking, or thinking about thinking TOO MUCH. The head knows what’s going on; it’s doing what it’s always done. Simple. So simple that, at first, it doesn’t understand why the hands are having such problems.
This isn’t that hard, right? But, it IS that hard. The mind needs a minute to wrap around the fact that the hands are, in fact, NOT doing what they’ve always done. The hands, unlike the head, are doing something completely new and different, so its obvious that they’re going to need more time to process information that the brain already understands.
To prevent the sense of intellectual boredom that results from this, it’s important at this stage, I think, to begin some study that doesn’t necessarily have a practical application yet. Memorize notes, study the anatomy of the guitar and learn to define its parts, learn how to read this mysterious enigma known as tab, maybe read some guitar blogs or magazines, pick up a book on music theory… The key to avoiding the avoidable frustration (there will be unavoidable frustration, I’m sure) is going to be finding a way to strike a balance. My brain needs some extra homework to do until my hands catch up.
3. There are physical limitations that can not be overcome by willpower alone.
No matter how much I might want to force my fingers into position, willpower can’t make them stronger and more flexible without any help. My fingers need to become more flexible, stronger, and more independent. No amount of telling myself ‘I can do this!’ is going to make that happen overnight. Practice will make that happen, eventually. It’s okay to say ‘I can do this…just not quite yet’. I didn’t teach my hands to draw in a day, and drawing is still hard. I won’t be able to learn this in a day, either. I have to remind myself that some things just take time and patience, and that it’s okay to take them slowly when necessary. And, I have to learn when they are, in fact, necessary, before I mentally beat myself up about things that are happening at a perfectly natural pace.
In hands that lack the strength and coordination, there ARE certain things that are going to be impossible, but impossible is temporary. Impossible, with time and effort, will become improbable, and then hit-or-miss, and eventually I’ll likely forget just how impossible they used to be.
For now, I’m reminded of just how very important it is to keep practicing those scales at this stage. They are slowly increasing strength, flexibility, and finger independence, which are the things I am going to need if my fingers are ever going to run the marathons that my brain demands.
Really, how did I actually convince myself that I wouldn’t struggle with chords when I’m still struggling with the four fingers to four frets rule on the lower frets? If I can’t do the latter (yet!) then it stands to reason, that the prior will also be problematic for the time being.
I’ve decided to restructure my practice a bit to deal with this, and start on the higher frets with scales to warm up and work on strength – but time myself better, so I don’t exhaust my hands before working chords, then practice some chords, slowly, and dwell on one for as long as I need to until I have it right the majority of the times I do it… And, then I’ll cool down with the scales again before I start fumbling so much with the chords that I get mad at my fingers.
I’ve started thinking of scales as being really similar to warming up and cooling down after a workout. Starting with them should loosen my fingers up enough to make those stretches a little easier, and finishing with them should loosen up those tired muscles so they don’t get stiff or cramp up. We’ll just have to see if that theory hold true.
4. When they said ‘it’s going to hurt until you form calluses’, I expected it to hurt more.
I read these horrific descriptions of fingers so sore that it hurts to touch things, that can ache long after practice is done, and I expected to experience this extreme sort of discomfort. I haven’t, which made me think I had to be doing something very wrong. I kept thinking ‘when is the pain going to start?’
Sure, there’s a sort of ache, a kind of dull numbness when I’m practicing, and a sense of general tenderness that makes shake my hand out every few minutes, just a bit to get the blood moving, but so far, whether I practice for 10 minutes or an hour, that tenderness goes away pretty quickly once I’m done. After practice, I can type just fine, and my fingers don’t seem to retain the lines on the tips for too terribly long (though, I admit I haven’t timed it!).
I’ve yet to experience any moments when practice caused actual ‘ow!’ sort of pain. In fact, I’m noticing the muscles in my forearm getting tired more than any significant discomfort in the fingers themselves. I took karate for 10 years; I know what pain feels like, and this isn’t it.
I don’t have calluses yet, but they’re starting, and they’re not building evenly. I have one developing on my pinky, and my ring finger seem to be just barely starting, but there’s no sign of any calluses on my middle or pointer fingers just yet, and I think that makes sense, because if you look at your fingertips, the smallest one is more likely to be hitting the string the same way every time since it has less surface area, whereas the larger fingers have more surface area, so more potential to not be hitting the same string the same way every time. Should they be? Probably, but it’s understandable that at this stage that I’m clumsy enough that that’s not quite happening.
For now, I’ve decided to just take it for what it is. I don’t think a lack of life-altering pain means I’m necessarily doing it wrong. If I don’t hurt, then I don’t hurt. I don’t think there’s really any reason to read into it too deeply. I don’t need to play until my fingers bleed. That’s silly, really. It just means I might, potentially, not be able to practice for a bit while my fingers heal, and – maybe I’m crazy – but that sounds counterproductive. …and I have a feeling that blood is probably not all that great for the strings.
I kind of have the impression that all of these articles about how much it’s going to hurt are probably a little exaggerated to prepare beginners for the worst. When the worst didn’t happen right away, I thought the fault had to be with me, like I wasn’t working hard enough, or that something was way, WAY off and I didn’t know what it was. But, ultimately, I’m learning guitar for me. So, I’m the only one who knows – or can figure out – how much practice is too much practice, how much is not enough, and how long I have to spend on one thing before I’m ready to move onto the next one. And, if something is way off, well, eventually, I’ll figure it out.
I’m 34 next month; if I’ve waited this long to learn, I’m kind of okay with taking my time to do it right, whatever that ends up meaning. And, I’m kind of okay, with not knowing what that’s going to end up meaning…just yet.
So today, I’m giving myself permission to hurt or not hurt, to learn or not learn, to make progress in my own way, at my my own speed, and without weird preconceptions that my experience has to be just the same as an experience I read on a blog, somewhere on the internet, written by someone that I have not met, and probably never will.
Until next time, I’m still moving forward, and trying not to get in my own way.