What being a Beginner actually means, and why you shouldn’t assume.

In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote a big, ranty post this morning that I’ve decided not to post on the blog. After my last post, I think you can all get the idea that things went down which left me very dissatisfied with a certain reddit group, which is unfortunate, because the vast majority of the comments I got were helpful and friendly. You know what they say: one rotten egg ruins the bunch. Well, one weirdo with a victim complex ruins the entire conversation.  In the end, I deleted my post just to make the entire situation go away, which I don’t feel I should have been brought to. And, while I don’t think anyone was intentionally picking a fight, a fight was picked, and the end result was very unwelcoming, which is the opposite of my experiences on the guitar reddits (the only happy place on reddit, really – virtually free of redditude). Redditude, for those of you who don’t know, at its core, describes people who are incapable of being both intelligent and polite at the same time.

Now, I only start out this post with a bit of reddit bashing because it’s a real experience I’ve had which left a sour taste in my mouth, and which presents an opportunity to open discussion on a very similar topic: Talking to Beginners Without Sounding Like an Asshole.

A hilarious song about a-holes, by Rob Paravonian:

It’s human nature to label things. It’s also human nature to make assumptions. And, those two things, put together in a pretty package, are a recipe for disaster. If you’re not careful, it is very easy to fall into the trap of making unflattering assumptions that may or may not be true, and talking down to a beginning player as if they have the mental capacity of the average 3 yr old.

Nobody likes being talked down to like they’re three. I don’t care if they don’t even know which side of their instrument is the top. If a person isn’t 3, don’t talk to them like they’re 3. It’s seriously that simple.

As I’ve said, ad infinitum, I’m a beginner. My ability to play is limited to very simple things, and even those I sometimes screw up. That has to do with my hands more than my brain, so when I read things that grossly oversimplify to the point of bordering on untrue, I’m going to admit it, it irks me.  Realistically, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be calling myself a beginner for many years to come. That’s how I feel, and I can’t really play very many full songs. I can’t sing and play at the same time hardly at all. I’m a beginner; there’s no getting around that.

However, I know my share of chords, I understand how instruments are put together, my ears can tell when something is right and when it’s wrong, and the difference between different builds and woods. I can understand complex concepts, though I don’t currently have any scales memorized, nor am I very good at reading music or tab. (I can do it, just not very quickly.)

I think this is a gray zone that gets overlooked. When you say the words “I’m a beginner”, it seems to fill more advanced players minds with this image of someone who barely knows how to hold the guitar, maybe knows two or three chords and can’t play them well, and is genuinely and utterly clueless about all things music, a person who doesn’t have an ear.  I hate to break it to those of you who don’t know, but some of us are born with “an ear”.  I’ve mentioned that a few times on my blog, and every time I do, I hate doing it, because I have this fear that people are going to read it like some kind of humble brag, or some such silly thing. It’s nothing of the sort; it’s just a fact. It also happens to be genetic.

A few years ago, my father bought me a fancy I-pod dock for no other reason than he could no longer tolerate the sound of my cheap one. (Sure, the speakers were crap, but I only pulled it out once a year to play Holiday songs, and I couldn’t afford a fancy one, so I’d decided I was willing to live with it. That dock has since moved to my desk at work and become my office radio after my other one broke. The speakers are still crap, but there’s so much background noise in the office, it’s actually not as noticeable there.)  It wasn’t a holiday. It wasn’t my birthday. He just showed up one day and dropped it off, basically telling me “because yours sucks”, if he maybe said it a bit more politely than that, the message was clear. He wasn’t wrong, and I thanked him. And, the dock he bought me does, in fact, blow my cheap little $20 dock out of the water.  My dad has always been like this. My uncle was like this, he could play any song he heard by ear and learn songs on instruments he’d never touched before within the first hour of picking it up. Clearly, I don’t have that kind of technical skill, but I also haven’t been playing since I was a teenager.  And, I refuse to believe we are the only family on the planet with this particular genetic predisposition. Seriously, I’m not that special.

So, I admit (and I am not proud of this, but full disclosure…) that whenever I say I’m a beginner and someone talks to me as if that means I can’t hear, I slightly lose my shit. My ears have nothing to do with what my hands are and are not currently capable of.  I feel pretty certain I’m going to be calling myself a beginner for many years to come; that’s just how I feel. But, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand how instruments work, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m deaf.

We need to get out of this mindset that beginner = stupid. I don’t want to call myself an ‘intermediate’ player; I’m not. I’m still fumbling through ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ for pete’s sake! I am definitely not an intermediate player yet!

My point is, there are so many articles out there that portray that attitude when written for beginners, this aura of ‘alright, insignificant worm, sit down and listen while I diatribe.’  I’m exaggerating, clearly, but I’m doing so to make a point.  We learn best through interaction and discourse – that’s how the human brain is wired to work best.  So, the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up’ attitude really isn’t productive to learning. When a beginner asks questions or makes statements that seem true (seriously, how often do I say “maybe I’m totally wrong about that”?), and a more advanced player acts as if they’re under attack…this is completely counterproductive. Defend your point, sure, but explain it thoroughly and clearly, be willing to say the same thing in a different way if it doesn’t click, and if they’re still unconvinced after that, back off. They will figure it out when they are ready to understand it.  And, for the love of everything that is good and right in the world, don’t push personal opinions like they’re facts.  Some people like Fender. Some prefer Gibson. Others feel compelled to remind people they are not the only two guitar brands that exist. But the fact you personally prefer Fender/Gibson/Insert brand here, does not mean that that is the final verdict and that all other brands should be banished from existence.

And, I didn’t mean that to turn into a diatribe. I’m going to cut off here to hopefully avoid letting the post become too pretentious.  My point is the same though: don’t assume.  There are beginners, there are intermediate players, there are pros, and there are innumerable gray areas within each of those categories.  If you really want to be helpful, take the time to listen and get a feel for what the person you’re dealing with actually knows.

And for fuck’s sake, stop telling me that my ears are wrong; it honestly doesn’t matter if they are or not – I hear what I hear. No amount of attitude is going to change that.

SO! On a completely different subject! I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is between my two soprano ukuleles that makes one play so much better than the other. I thought the strings on the Rubin felt thinner (they still do, to be fair), then I wondered if maybe the action was higher at the first fret, or the neck was wider – no, and no. I checked; a ruler was involved. Even the body size and shape is identical, though the Rubin is obviously marginally heavier because of the electronics, and glossier, which I don’t love. (I think it might, possibly, be that very shiny gloss that makes the sound not quite so for me. It’s not categorically bad, just not my preference, really.)

At the end of the day, I think the main difference is primarily the neck. The fretboard on the Rubin is lower quality, too, which plays some part, but when you look at these two ukes side by side, you see this:

Kala KA-15S left, Rubin RS-400L, right.
Kala KA-15S left, Rubin RS-400L, right.

I don’t know if you can see it in the picture I took as well, but the Kala neck is much rounder, where the rubin neck is thin and mostly flat.  Obviously, the Kala is a better instrument across the board. That’s pretty blatantly obvious even in this picture, but this difference in the neck, I suspect, is the main difference in how easy it is to play, because there is very little else between the two that I can notice any significant difference on. I can play the Rubin fine. But, the Kala is a pleasure to play, and that little bit of difference makes a lot of difference once it’s in your hands.

It’s funny, on guitars, I seem to do much better with a slimmer, flatter neck, but shrink that down to ukulele-size, and the rounder quality just feels more natural.  It’s something I never thought about much, but also something I think I’m going to be more aware of going forward.

Until Next Time, learning things, even if sometimes the thing I’m learning is that I can’t learn from rude people.

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