"So what did you use computers for?"

Andrew, fourteen, did an amazing job learning the guitar solo to "Let it Be". Armed with a fairly accurate tab acquired on the web, he went home and practiced effectively and thoroughly. He told me he broke the 'back' button on his iPod remote from scrubbing backward so much to listen to small sections of the solo repeatedly.

"Good job," I said. "You did it right, then!"

We explored some other solos he could learn, since he's on a roll. "'Maybe I'm Amazed' would be good."

"Ok, should I get the tab online?"

"Well, it's better than nothing. If it's wrong, we can fix it. God knows I've had enough practice doing that."

"So what did you do to learn a song when you were a kid? Did you just download the tabs?"

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "It pains me greatly to say this," I said. "But you see, we did not have the Internet when I was a kid."

Andrew stared, amused and flabbergasted. "That sucks. So...what did you use computers for?"

"You know, word processing, spreadsheets, accounting..."

"So did you have Word?"

"I think by the early nineties. But I remember a time before Windows. We had," I paused. "DOS."

His eyes widened.

"Black screen, C-prompt, blinking cursor," I went on. "You had to talk to the computer in its own language. No photos, no movies, no music..."

"That sucks!"

"No mouse."

"No mouse?!"

"Well, it wasn't all bad. We also had ATARI 2600 - joystick, single orange button..."

"Wait - are you talking about a GAME CONSOLE?"

I had to laugh. I'm not so old, it's just that things have changed so fast.

"So anyway, there was no online tab. And if you wanted the lyrics, you had to figure them out by listening." And pausing your cassette to write them down.

"That sucks!"

Maybe. But kind of special to be among the very last generation of American teenagers who had to do things the hard way. Of course, even that is relative since I am also among the first generation who can't remember life before computers.

Ironically, Andrew's learning the same songs now that I did back then. The good news is, the songs haven't aged a bit.

On Practice

There’s something about playing music every day.  Showing up every single day to see what you can do.  Why is it so hard? 

Discipline is hard.  We eat every day and sleep every day, but even these biological drives are difficult to regulate.  How much should we eat or sleep?  When?  For something like exercise, or practicing an instrument, or even flossing, there is an internal struggle – sometimes even an external one.  The child who shows up merrily to her piano lesson each week is the same one who was rolling around on the living room floor crying and declaring the piano her mortal enemy.  For me, as a professional, the practice issue gets confused with others.  Irrational fears come out: “What if I practice every day and still suck?”  Priorities and goals seem to bait-and-switch on me: “Why am I playing classical piano when I really need to practice original songs for my gig next week?  Maybe I should just play drums instead.  Or wash the dishes in the sink.” 

After years of struggle, I have come back to what worked for me when I was fifteen: playing songs.  Playing songs, every day.  There’s not much more to it than that (you can keep your scales and arpeggios, Mister). 

Yesterday I had a sick day.  I can’t be still when I’m home sick, so I played.  And played is really the word.  I tweaked a Maybelle Carter-style guitar solo I’d come up with for “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea.”  I worked out an intro for one of my original songs that I forgot about and didn’t play on Sunday.  What a great feeling, to rediscover a song of mine that I lost!  I knew I was working, and working hard, and practicing these parts over and over, but it felt like play because there was no deadline, no other agenda for the day, and no pressure.  It was like being a kid (one with a runny nose, very adept at rhythmic transcription). 

Today I was back at work to infect a number of children and adolescents with my summer cold virus and enthusiasm for music.  There were some nice moments at the K. house, working with a family of five kids who have an honest-to-goodness band.  Brandon had written a melody to which his brothers added a bassline, a drum groove, and a B-section featuring Shaun on alto sax.  It was really exciting to hear it come together – it is the first of many original compositions, I think. 

I wish some of my afternoon students could have seen what the K. family accomplished this morning.  Practice doesn’t seem like practice when you can enjoy the fruits so regularly and so immediately. 

Mia did really well today – I was so proud of her.  She’s been my student for nearly four years, which is almost half of her life since she just turned eight!  I always enjoy spending time with her.  She is working on a version of Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” which is way above her level, but she keeps blowing my mind with her willingness to read the music carefully, count out loud, break things down into small sections, and, most importantly, keep going, always with a positive attitude.  Unfortunately, she has no motivation to play the piano when she’s at home.  She’d rather be, well, playing. 

I guess until “practicing” means “playing” in the same way that one says, “playing outside” or “playing baseball”, there’s no point in forcing the issue.  I suppose it’s my job to help them all get to that place of devotion and love, and I have a hunch that it’s by example.