The Learning Curve

I haven’t talked about lesson progress on here in a long time. There are some really simple reasons for that. Firstly, that I’ve been consumed for a bit with creative energy, which I don’t think is ever a bad thing, and that’s been swallowing most of my practice time. Secondly, I’ve also been consumed with household projects and comic books (organizing my space has meant going through my things. Going through my things means deciding what I no longer want, and which series in my collection I can realistically complete. Completing those series means sitting down to read them again – you can see where this would swallow a lot of time on something that isn’t ultimately productive except insomuch as it brings me joy). And, in those instances I’ve sat down with a book or lesson, it’s mostly been review, so there hasn’t really been a lot of new information to add on the subject for a while.

Today probably isn’t really going to add much light on any subjects I haven’t talked about at some point, but there’s enough batting around in my head that I suppose I can waste a post just taking convoluted thoughts out of my head and making sense of them as I type.

That brings me to the subject of Coursera. I have a jaded sort of history with courser courses.  Ultimately, that has nothing to do with the courses themselves, and everything to do with my attention span (well, except the songwriting course, which was a huge effing waste of time) – but I’ve signed up to audit about half a dozen courses now, they’re all typically only 6-7 weeks long, and I haven’t finished one yet. Mercifully, the lessons stay up for a while even after that period of time, so I can view the videos even after the end of the course session.

So, I’ve signed up for another intro to Music Theory course that I haven’t started. I’ve watched the introduction of a fundamentals of audio engineering course. I’m on about week 4 of an introduction to guitar course.

Mostly, what I’ve learned so far is that music life must be so much easier for visual learners. Everywhere I turn there are pie charts and stupid little graphs. While this is helpful for some people, for me it mostly just makes me feel like I’m going blind. 

I keep running into the same brick wall. The difference is, this time through the intro to guitar course, I can see it for what it is. The first three weeks of lessons in the course is really geared toward people who have never touched a guitar. That’s not hugely useful to me at this stage, but I think it’s great for an ‘Introduction to…’ course to really start you from the ground up, with how to select your first guitar. And, okay, I already know both the Am and E chords, but I also think they’re the right ones to teach right out of the gate, unlike certain lesson plans that I’ve seen jump straight to G and C. (Don’t get me wrong, G and C are important and not complex chords overall, but Am and E are the physically easiest for beginning hands, so a better jumping off point, imho.) 

So, there’s really not a lot for me to say about the first several lessons, because it’s really just review for me, and I basically watched through them while mostly doing finger exercises – which I ought to spend more time on than I do, but they’re kind of boring, you know.

Things start to pick up for me around finger picking, which I’m absolutely terrible at. It’s the ring finger. My brain seems to lag sending signals to it. It’s also the D string. The finger picking taught in the lesson is thus:

Thumb handles the three low strings, low E, A, and D.

Pointer finger handles G.

Middle Finger handles B.

Ring Finger handles high E.

 That goes…slowly, but…mostly passably okay  when the pattern is just E, G, B, E , B, G, E or A, G, B, E, B, G, A.  Once I get to the D though, I’m a hot mess. Something about my thumb and pointer finger being closer together in that position somehow screws up my mojo big time, and my ring finger decides to sit this one out, then my middle finger tries handling both E and B, but can’t remember where it started, and, well, basically, things degenerate to incompetence pretty quickly at that point.

So, I need to practice that, I guess, focusing my attention on getting my brain to tell my ring finger to move independently of my other fingers. Once I manage that much, I should be able to iron out the kinks. So, goodie, another exercise to tell myself to do that I might not actually do. I’ll try though, I really will. I just have a serious gnat-like attention span when it comes to anything I find at all boring, even if I can see the inherent value.  Either way, troubleshooting a shoddy attention span is no easy task.

And, from my struggles with finger picking where do we go? Right into the theory stuff, which is BAM, a CHART. Another fricking chart. And yes, I can read that chart, but it’s cumbersome. Counting notes on the neck is accessible and feels like a practical use of time, like ‘look, here’s how you find a note on the neck.’ Okay, cool.  But, I still don’t understand why I have to call the same note something different depending on whether I’m moving forward or backward through the alphabet, or who came up with this stupid idea and why enough people have found it useful for us to be stuck with it forever. To me, this sounds like the musical equivalent of me saying “My name is Suzie when you approach me from my right, but if you approach me from the left, I’m not Suzie anymore, then I’m Jane, even though I’m still the same exact person.”

To be fair, I can, to a small extent, understand the usefulness of the terms sharp and flat, but only relative to a note you are currently playing. If you’re going ‘flat’ of a note,  you’re going in one direction on the fretboard. If you’re going ‘sharp’ of it, you’re going in the other.  But I only see the use of it as a direction marker, not as a grammatical convention.  I don’t see why it’s practical to give the same note multiple different names based on conditions that, ultimately, don’t change the nature of that note.  Because, I’m not Suzie when I’m talking to Jeff, but Jane when I’m talking to Fred. I may behave differently when I am in different social groups, but I’m not ACTUALLY a different person. Just like A# and Bb are the same note regardless of what notes they happen to be hanging out with, so calling them different names based on different situations seems silly. But, it’s not up to me, so I’m stuck with this ultimately arcane, pointless rule to learn to navigate. It’s dumb, I’m telling you! D-U-M-B.

I’m also not really convinced, from a strictly guitar perspective, that the idea of half-steps versus whole steps even makes sense. On a piano it makes sense, because tiny black keys. And every other instrument just adopted that. I guess on the one hand, I get it – I mean, music needs a universal language for musicians who play different instruments to understand one another, but from the point of view of someone who has literally zero interest in the piano, this just places the piano in the position of being sort of the evil dictator of music, or at the very least, a very stodgy and strict grammar teacher who hates everyone, doesn’t allow gum chewing, and has forty cats.

So, I look at music theory and I get trapped in this loop between ‘fucking pie charts’ and ‘fucking pianos’… It’s like you need either one or the other as a point of reference or you can’t wrap your head around it, and the charts are clearly not working. Frankly, the circle of looks like a tattoo that’s secretly a map from some epic fantasy story, and you expect me to gain useable information from that without referencing it CONSTANTLY? Not fucking likely.

That leaves me pretty much back at square one on theory and learning to read music, though. I have to make it a more engaging experience-get my hands and ears more involved in the experience so I don’t space out, and right now, I think the only way for me to do that is probably going to be to buy a cheap keyboard to use as a point of reference.

So, that’s more or less where things stand on my utterly haphazard learning curve. I still have a bunch of totally practical things to learn – like fancier chords and finger picking, but I’m floating in whatever direction the wind and random courses I sign up to audit on the internet take me for the moment. I have a bunch of books, but forcing myself to sit with them is proving more challenging than it ought to be, so every time I pick one up, I end up doing more review than actually moving forward. And that’s more or less how I’ve gotten myself trapped in this vicious cycle of repetition and understanding why the lessons aren’t working for me, but not finding an alternative that DOES work for me so that I can move forward in any meaningful way.

For the immediate future, what does that mean for my lesson progress? Well, it means I just have to accept that I’m not going to get a heck of a lot out of the theory lesson in the current course, and hope to absorb as much of it as I can. Rather than beating my head against it until I get frustrated and reach a dead stop again, I’ll watch through it once, absorb what little I can, which very realistically may be nothing of any practical use (s o far it’s just to realize the whole notes follow a pattern of 1-2-1-2-1/A – BC – D –EF – G…which I’m not sure is information that I’ll ever be able to actually use for anything), and move on in the hopes that eventually, the important things that will make actually playing my instruments a bit more evolved than blind guesswork.

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