Wednesday, June 23, 2010

pick up a real guitar: musica practica 2.0?

This summer I've agreed to write the occasional blog post for Arcade -- I'll be cross-posting here. My first post follows.

"Okay! As we continue our guitar journey, we need to talk about how you're going to be attacking the strings. And I'm going to recommend that you use a pick." David's tone is upbeat and encouraging, as always, and he seems to be looking right at me -- his ability to make eye contact with the camera is uncanny. Propped on his right thigh, his acoustic guitar looks like a natural extension of his body.

I have my (borrowed) guitar on my lap as well, and have set out a few picks on my desk. Though I've watched hundreds of guitarists perform over the years -- and I have David's example right in front of me on the computer screen -- I'm having a hard time figuring out how to even hold the instrument. In the previous lesson, "How to hold the guitar," David emphasized that I should hold it close to my body so it doesn't "dance around", and also that I shouldn't hunch or lean over the guitar. But these instructions seem somehow incompatible with my (female) anatomy. Nevertheless, I've moved on to "How to hold the pick."

I began to explore online guitar lessons as an extension of my research on Guitar Hero and Rock Band. As anyone who's paid attention to media coverage of these games already knows, Guitar Hero players are constantly being exhorted to "lrn2reeltar", so I thought I'd take up the challenge. A YouTube search led me to David Taub; he posts some lessons there as teasers for the extensive guitar curriculum at I can't embed David's NLG lessons here because the ones I'm discussing are only available by subscription; as with traditional private instrumental lessons, my virtual guitar lessons cost money (although they are much, much cheaper than private lessons; I'm paying $75 for three months of unlimited access to the video curriculum). "How to hold the pick" is Lesson 11, and it's almost 11 minutes long.

Why would it take someone 11 minutes to explain how to hold a guitar pick? Here are my initial fieldnotes from Lesson 11:
Early on he really focused on the tactile nature of the pick -- especially the fact that it might be slippery, and therefore picks with raised letters might be an advantage at first. He asked the cameraman to zoom in on the pick and demonstrated subtle differences in the angle of the tip. He showed that you should hold the pick tight enough that you can't pull it out with your other hand, but not super-tight because it's important to stay "natural". This reminded me of two things -- how jewelry sales clerks explain how a ring should fit (you shouldn't be able to pull it right off), and those exercises where you close your eyes and feel/describe all the sensory qualities of a raisin (except there's no eating the pick at the end). By zooming in on the pick and talking about texture, slipperiness, tension of the grip, etc. David really encouraged a lot of physical awareness and sensitivity to subtle differences in picks or pick-related technique. I wonder if a face-to-face teacher would just physically correct the student instead, or hold his/her hand up to the student's hand.

My previous guitar-playing knowledge was derived entirely from Guitar Hero. Laugh if you will, but as I've been exploring in my research blog and a recent article, there really are some technical basics that cross over. (For instance, the distinct roles played by fretting hand and strumming hand -- when I first started playing Guitar Hero, positioning the fretting hand in advance of hitting the strum bar felt quite counterintuitive to this pianist/clarinetist.) However, since a Guitar Hero controller has no strings and the strum bar isn't detachable, the game didn't give me any advance training on holding a pick. As I followed David's directions and (in subsequent lessons) tried some vigorous strumming, it was surprisingly difficult to hang onto the thing. Paying attention to texture really did make a difference: the raised letters on one pick gave me crucial tactile feedback, both for judging the right amount of tension between my fingertips and for feeling when the pick was sliding around in my hand.

I can't say how or whether David's Lesson 11 was different from the way an in-person lesson might unfold, but I suspect that a typical private instructor wouldn't spend 11 minutes encouraging me to just explore what the pick felt like in my hand -- and if I were paying by the hour, I might feel cheated if s/he did. I'd certainly feel more anxious about having my pick go flying across the room, too. Having taken more online lessons now, I know that the total absence of performance anxiety is one major difference between this learning experience and the private piano and voice lessons of my teenage years: after all, I'm alone in my living room. Except that I'm also not alone, because at any moment I can click over to the NextLevelGuitar forum and seek advice and encouragement from other students, or send David a question, or do a YouTube search to see how other guitarists hold the instrument or the pick. And if I want an audience, I can post a video of my playing to the NextLevelGuitar "Audio/Video Showcase" -- "If you just started to learn to strum 2 weeks ago or applied something you learned from David's Intermediate advanced or a video song lesson we would love to see it. Any haters will be banned immediately in this section..."

1,894 posts in that section so far, and a wealth of crowd-sourced feedback. I could get to like this "real guitar" thing.