Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - January 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reality and Expectation

I've noticed a recent phenomenon: students comparing themselves to other people playing on YouTube.

I hear (paraphrased) "I'm not as good as this guy playing this online", or "this guy can play this online so well, why can't I?".

I think I know the root cause of this, and I'd like to diagram why it's flawed, and an unhealthy attitude.

There was a time when "art", as a concept, was universally known as something that was inherently "limitless". Which is to say that, while one could practice the craftsmanship of it, the result was beyond the scope of human comprehension: what came out contained so many variables that it had to be the combination of so many factors it couldn't be readily quantized into a purely formulaic approach.

There is the concept of theory, which merely explains the components and their interactions. The theory itself does not create the result. The result is a purely human thing. Likewise, the mechanics and technique in pursuing a result doesn't automatically create the result, either.

YouTube does not show those two aspects: what went into attaining the knowledge of what created the result, and what effort went into acquiring the technical/mechanical skill that occurred before it went on YouTube.

That process (which is a part of taking guitar lessons) is something that there is no clearly defined analogy for. It's kind of like studying to be a doctor. It's kind of like learning the craft of sculpting, or painting. It requires "anthropological" study, like history - one has to know what came before. In other ways it's nothing like those things at all.

The modern day thought that a process to do something can't be tidily broken down into defined, component parts with a defined, predictable outcome, is non-existent. In the 21st Century, one can take a class to learn to do anything, and in a given amount of time, and with a clearly defined outcome. It's how everything works today: you do not do anything without formal training of some sort, and that training always, automatically imparts exactly what you need to know.

Playing a musical instrument doesn't work that way. Thankfully, it doesn't - or else it would be quite boring. You shouldn't take guitar lessons expecting to be able to do exactly what you see someone on YouTube doing. You probably don't have the exact same motivation, the exact same background, the exact same experiences. Which isn't to say one shouldn't try; because the pursuit of it will create it's own unique outcome. The problem occurs when one sets preconceived ideas into motion about how long it should take, and how much effort is involved.

One should have an appreciation for the variety of results that comes from different musicians, and know that time invested is the only common factor. That time investment can be spread over a week in 1 hour increments, 5 hour increments - or 30 minutes per week over years. As a field of study, there are countless avenues; you can't devote yourself to everything at once.

There was a time when, if a person could make a musical instrument do anything resembling "music", it was looked upon as an accomplishment. There are billions of people on the planet; that on YouTube there are thousands demonstrating different things on musical instruments in varying degrees should not deter someone from pursuing their own musical interests. Once you start playing an instrument, on whatever simple level, you are playing an instrument. You are now different than you were before, and different from the Other People on the Planet that Can't Play an Instrument. That should be a worthy accomplishment in itself; being concerned that there's a 10 year old kid in Taiwan playing a VanHalen guitar solo double speed should not enter into the equation.