The Dangers of Turning Off Your Brain

broken guitar string

I learned an important lesson yesterday. No matter what you are doing, it is never okay to completely turn off your brain. Let me explain: I am learning to play acoustic guitar this year and have found the process both extremely empowering and at the same time infuriatingly humbling. Because I am not only brand new to playing an instrument, but also brand new to learning about anything musical (My lowest grade in college was in a music history class, nope I’m not bitter…), I feel kind of overwhelmed with all that I don’t know. Within the domain of music, I mostly feel like I am stumbling through a foreign language in a foreign country.

This experience has helped me to empathize with people who just want to be told exactly what to eat to be healthy. Or, exactly what exercise regimen to follow. For me, those are silly requests because I find that there isn’t a way to distill down all of the food/nutrition/cooking knowledge or strength training/exercise/body mechanics knowledge into one plan that will be universally applicable. That being said, if you give me some personal information and about 30 minutes with a pen and paper, I’d feel pretty comfortable generating a nutrition and fitness plan for you. But, if this is not your domain, this has got to be incredibly overwhelming. I think I get it now.

By analogy, though, this is exactly the simple fix that I am asking for in the music domain. Here is my exact train of thought: “I don’t want to learn to tune, what scales mean, what off-key sounds like….just tell me how I can get my rendition of Wagon Wheel to sound super duper twangy and awesome!” I’m sure that all the people who have tried to help me with my guitar playing progress are rolling their eyes and nodding knowingly. I’m pretty frickin’ stubborn. Okay, so, back to my lesson-learning of yesterday. I was really excited about a few new songs that I want to learn on guitar and I was just sitting down for what was sure to be an epic practice session…

I strummed a few chords and noticed that my guitar was out of tune (at least I know when it sounds bad, that much is true). Unfortunately, my approach has been that I can’t be bothered to learn how to tune my guitar by ear. Not going to frickin’ do it! Well, I finally paid the price for being stubborn and refusing to learn about these things. So, there I was trying to tune my guitar (there was no-one around who could take my up on my “pay to tune” offer) and was using this little automatic tuner that you clip to your guitar to register the notes. I was super annoyed because I feel like every time I try to tune a guitar I’m doing it for the first time and whichever direction I turned the knobs I couldn’t get the letter on the tuner to say the letter that I knew the string was supposed to be tuned to. I had spent zero time trying to “hear” the notes and so all I heard was that this particular string sounded terrible. This just made me more impatient and I was turning the knob all sorts of ways right and left and I couldn’t even get the letter right and I can’t hear what note is what. I was cranking away and I had no idea what the string was tuned to or which direction I was going and so at some point I just started cranking away big cranks in one direction figuring it had to end up somewhere (stupid, I know, stupid…). When, all of a sudden, “Twang, snap!!!!!” and I had broken the string. I had cranked so hard on this one particular string that I had broken my string instead of getting it in tune. Well, needless to say, I felt like an idiot and then I just had to laugh at myself. That is what I get for being so stubborn and I guess now I am more motivated to learn how to tune my guitar.

My mom used to say, “not to decide is to decide.” In other words, you cannot just throw up your hands and give up responsibility for your choices. If you choose to ignore the fact that tuning and practicing rhythm and hearing notes are integral to learning to play a musical instrument, then you’re bound to break some strings. I guess what makes me think of this saying is the idea that it is okay to get some help along the way. You are bound to need some teachers and coaches when you are learning a new skill. But, they can’t do all of the work. You have to meet them half-way and choose to be present and engaged to the best of your ability. Even if you feel like you have no idea what is going on, that is better than spacing out and expecting someone else to do everything for you.

My new approach to tuning and hearing notes is that I will try to practice this just a little bit every time I play. I don’t have to get it all at once. It’s not really rocket science. Do some work and let yourself have some fun. But, whatever you do, don’t turn off your brain!

still broken string

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