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8 Good Reasons to Be a Lousy Musician

8 Good Reasons to Be a Lousy Musician

8 Goo Reasons to Be a Crappy Musician

    I’m a crappy guitarist. In the 20 years that I’ve been playing, I can’t once remember playing scales, and I’ve never sat down to "practice". I still have trouble with F-chords, I have awful right-hand technique, and my tempo has been known to swing from too fast to too slow without ever hitting "just right".

    I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

    See, I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a Famous Rock Star, or even a semi-locally-famous folky. That dream I have where Ronnie’s down for the count and I have to fill in on-stage with the Rolling Stones — and we’re going on in 5 minutes! — would always be just a dream (thankfully).

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    That realization freed me to stop trying to be cool and to just enjoy playing, and to this day my guitar is the one thing I own that I would consider going into a burning building for. Playing guitar has stopped being something I do for everyone else (even if they weren’t listening) and has become one of the few things I do simply for the sheer enjoyment of it.

    You, too, should be a lousy musician

    Everyone should have at least one thing in their life that they do for no other reason than that they enjoy it. As it turns out, though, it’s harder to do things for their own sake than it would seem! Collectors dream about the Big Find that will make them rich, writers dream of the best selling novel that will get them on Oprah, crafters and handy types think about how much money they’re saving on gifts and household necessities — and musicians dream about their big break with the Rolling Stones.

    To be able to revel in an activity that you’re not all that good at and that you don’t care that you’re not all that good at, to strive for and embrace mediocrity in some area of our lives, that’s a hard thing for a lot of us to do.

    But it’s worth it. Here are eight things I get out of being a crappy guitarist:

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    C) There’s no pressure.

    If i never get even the tiniest bit better than I am right now, it won’t matter. Nobody’s life, freedom, or even happiness depends on how well (or poorly) I play "Rocky Raccoon". Whether I improve or don’t improve is totally irrelevant to anything or anyone but me.

    D) It creates a social bond between myself and others.

    I’ve met thousands of other crappy guitarists over the course of my life, and a few great ones. Being a guitarist myself creates a connection between us, gives us something to talk about. Guitarists are always giving each other little gifts — showing each other how to play a tricky part of a song, teaching each other new chords or new ways to make old chords, sharing licks and riffs with each other.

    And, of course, non-musicians are always interested in the fact that I play. It gives them something to talk to me about (apparently my knowledge of early Cold War government sponsorship of social scientific research doesn’t give them much to hold onto!) and, of course, it is mildly entertaining for them to hear me play.

    E) It creates a social bond between other people.

    I carried an acoustic guitar with me all over Europe for a year, keeping it under my bed in hostel after hostel, carting it in it’s heavy reinforced case from town to town on busses and trains, dragging it through the streets of Paris, Prague, Budapest, and Amsterdam. And I’m glad I did.

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    Not just because playing in hostels and on park benches helped me make friends, but because it helped the people around me make friends. Once a roomful of travelers have sung "American Pie" at the top of their lungs together (badly), the ice is pretty much broken. People start interacting, because nothing can make them feel any more self-conscious.

    F) I get immediate gratification.

    I pick up a guitar, finger a chord, and strum, and music comes out. What could be more rewarding? I play, music happens. Instantly.

    And if I try something tricky, I can hear on the spot whether it worked or not. If I’m trying to figure out a song, I’ll try all manner of different things, until suddenly I hit the strings a few times and the song I’m trying to learn starts coming out.

    G) I’ve developed a new appreciation of music. 

    Because I’m always listening to music with an ear towards learning how to play it, I’ve become adept at working out how the different pieces fit together, and what makes each of them work, apart and together.

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    Aside from the increased formal appreciation of usic, I’ve also become much more appreciative of the work that a musician has to do to make a song work. Songs I might have — heck, <em>did</em> — totally dismissed at one point I listen to quite seriously today, because I know how difficult it is to make even a bad song.

    A) Playing music creates mindfulness.

    Guitar playing is, for me, a kind of meditation. There have been too many time to count when, looking for a moment’s distraction, I’ve ended up playing for hours. When you’re playing, your attention is (usually) focused entirely on the here and now, the unfolding of notes and chords into melodies and, ultimately, songs. This kind of mindfulness means I’m living entirely in the present, even if  just for a few moments — a skill that most of us, with our crazy lives and hectic schedules, have a hard time cultivating.

    B) It’s relaxing.

    Just listening to music is often enough to help ease the stress of our day-to-day lives; making music is a thousand times more effective (as long as you’re not worrying about how you’ll deal with your groupies after you’ve broken big on MTV). The combination of mindfulness and almost willful mediocrity lets me ease up on myself and just be for a little while, clearing my head and soothing the tensions that build up over the course of the day.

    C) It’s just for me.

    Finally, playing music is something that I do solely because it makes me happy. While I can and do share my playing with others, in the end I play for entirely selfish reasons: because I feel like it.

    What are you lousy at?

    I think everyone should be lousy at something they love. What do you do that you simply don’t care if you ever get any better at it, that you do just because it pleases you to do it? Let us know!

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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