After our guitar ensemble and recital on May 28, my instructor moved me into Bridges Guitar Repertoire and Studies 4–a shiny new blue book in the series. Apparently, I graduated from book 3. In total, Bridges 4 is my 5th guitar book since October 2014 in addition to individual pieces on sheet music.
This is a big accomplishment, because finding adequate practice time and “brain space” has been such a struggle that I was tempted many times to quit. However, I persevered at holding onto this part of myself.
Guitar is historically my “weakest” instrument. I “think” in keyboard/piano and have done very well with wind instruments and violin/viola. However, the classical guitar has been in our family for a long time. I used to fall asleep to my father’s guitar playing in the other room, sat around campfires and dozed in tents at night listening to him, and was entrusted with his guitar in the interior of Algonquin Park, Ontario, on a lake in a canoe!
When I was a child, my father wanted me to play the guitar and took it upon himself to teach me some techniques (which was a good thing). Years later, my younger brother took up the instrument and played it far better than I did. I never stopped wanting a piano.
The guitar shown in the 2017 Recital photo below was a gift from my father in 1992, when I was already living in Edmonton. Life happened, and I took a long hiatus, returning to music more than 20 years later. The 2015 Guitar Recital was my first public music performance since 1982. If you do the math, that’s 33 years later! I was pretty stressed out at that first recital, but I’ve since relaxed quite a bit. It’s a lot like Taekwondo Testing: you gain more confidence in your abilities with each testing and new form you learn, and you come to realize that the sky won’t fall if something isn’t perfect.
Back to the present
When I took up the guitar again in fall 2014, I had to start at the beginning, this time reading guitar notes. Luckily, I knew most notes on the treble and bass clefs, but the grand task was to transfer their locations to the many frets, multiple hand positions, and six strings on the guitar.
Playing Music: A Full Workout for Your Brain (Includes video: How playing an instrument benefits your brain by Anita Collins, length 4:44)
My instructor is exceptionally skilled but, above all, is patient. I was up for the challenge to advance on an instrument that requires the simultaneous coordination of two hands, seven fingers, a thumb, and six strings while reading music with multiple notes per beat, in addition to noting time signature, sharps and flats, volume, and various Italian terminology for how the piece should be presented.
My strength is my internal sense of timing. I feel bars, hence I can intuitively figure out the lengths of notes. So much of playing is feeling the music anyway–feeling muscle memory build in the fingers, feeling the timing, feeling the flow. I don’t just match notes to frets and fingerings, I have to sense the music on some other level.
Ernst Birss: classical guitarist and guitar teacher
Guitar lessons, the brain, and teaching
Working with my instructor has given me terrific feedback on what my own students experience. Overall, I’m conscientious about getting into the heads of my students in order to understand the unique processes by which they learn, but feeling myself learning complicated material–and how long 45 minutes or an hour of intense concentration can seem–validated my theories. During lessons, I take mental notes of my performance and the errors I make. How do you stare at something, know what it is, yet physically perform something entirely different? It happens. The brain gets its wires crossed when there is too much new information to focus on at the same time. That’s what reading and writing is like for my dyslexia/dysgraphia students. Their brains “loop” through all the strategies they’ve been taught, which takes time, and sometimes errors are made. It’s not an automatic process for them.
They think: “Wait, that’s a t and an h together, so that’s a th sound. It ends in ck, so the vowel will be short. What’s the vowel? Oh, it’s i, so it says /i/. The word is thick.”
I think: “Wait, that’s low A, not C, so remove third finger and play open string. And that’s C-natural but it’s on third string fifth fret, not second string first fret. High A is marked fourth finger (pinky), and this is now third position. Got the three notes of the first beat of the bar–and it’s A minor chord.”
All teachers should practise being students, preferably in something that’s difficult for them.
Music Education: The Advantages of Math (by SongSmith)
“My Brain Never Turns Off of Songwriting” (reblogged from SongSmith): Authors and songwriters, we are alike.