This is me putting on a circus show for my parents. I spent weeks (or maybe really just a week) learning how to juggle, teaching my cat tricks, and mastering the magic of the disappearing thumb. Then I dressed up and made my parents watch me and applaud my endeavours. My dad sent me this photo this morning, and it made me chuckle and think about how much I’ve changed. He replied: “Actually, you haven’t changed at all.”
It’s true. I still get a kick out of people watching me perform. I would probably still rock a synthetic purple glitter blouse. It made me think of other ways I’ve stayed the same. A couple days ago, I showed a friend a video of the first song I’d learnt on guitar. My mum diligently videoed all my performances until I moved away from Belgium. After that one video, I started scrolling down and looking at the rest: me at twelve, at thirteen, at fifteen… But what struck me was how small the difference was between me at fifteen and me now.
“You’ve definitely learnt how to strum better,” my friend said. Which, by the way, I don’t think is true. He just hasn’t heard me strum yet. But everything else was pretty much the same. I was always slightly embarrassed about my fingerpicking style (I learnt one pattern when I was fifteen and decided that was enough) and spent years justifying my laziness by finding examples of successful musicians who weren’t great guitarists. What I didn’t realise was that by doing that, I was standing still.
I have always been proud of having started performing early – my first gig was when I was twelve and I’ve gigged regularly since. But I haven’t spent much time over these ten years practising – most of it was spent writing songs, singing songs I could play already, and doing everything other than playing the guitar. A while ago, though, I read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth, where she wrote that hours spent doing something didn’t always translate to mastering a skill better. And then she wrote this:
Without effort, your skill is nothing more but what you could have done but didn’t.‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, Angela Duckworth
I realised that if I didn’t put the effort in, becoming a musician would also be something I could have done but didn’t. That effort was called deliberate practice.
Two months ago, I started practising every day for two hours. I want to say without fail, but of course the holidays became a two-week Netflix binge. I’m back on track now, though. I started playing scales, learnt Travis picking (fucking finally), learnt one or two covers a week (and this time, didn’t skip the solos and the intros), started reading more about music theory, and doing ear training exercises. For the first time in ten years, I also started doing vocal warmups.
I’m still getting the hang of deliberate practice, but I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s not always fun. It’s supposed to be hard and make you sweat just enough so you still have the courage to come back the day after. And it’s worth it – I’ve grown more as a musician in these last two months than I had in all the years of gigging combined.
Of course, when I wanted to show off my great new skills to my friend who had encouraged me to practice more in the first place, I choked and fucked up. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not getting better. It just means I have to keep practising.
Here are some resources I use in my deliberate practice sessions and some talks that have inspired me to keep going:
The famous TED talk by Angela Duckworth about work ethic, effort, and consistency.
Rick Beato talking about how to structure your practice routine.
Again, Rick Beato, bragging about how much he used to practice in his twenties. Whatever.
The ten essential scales you need to know. This website is generally good for guitarists who want to improve and includes tips on practice, books to read, exercises, etc.
LicknRiff is a Youtube channel with guitar lessons for intermediate and advanced lessons on fingerpicking. It’s geared towards those who play a nylon string. The guy who teaches it offers tabs for free as well, and his videos always feature his two dogs, which is almost an unnecessary bonus, really.
I’ve been going on about these for ages. But it’s Laura Marling. Herself. Teaching her own songs.
Ear Training and Music Theory
Some general explanations on how to improve and a series of seven ear training exercises you can do daily. Rick Beato’s channel in general is great for music theory explanations, so have a look around. I’m kind of obsessed, but maybe that’s also because I have a minor crush on the man.
A great website on music theory with ear training and theory exercises you can do. You can also select how advanced you want to go.