April 26, 2013

Where is the Motivation?


Note: this post was written before we left on our RV trip. We return home today, Friday. I'll have some thoughts and a recap ready by Monday.
 



A few years ago I started to teach myself guitar after realizing I missed making music. I've been surrounded by music my whole life but had stopped playing an instrument when I was 17. With college around the corner and my radio career already beginning I just put that part of my life away. Except for listening to music, my satisfying retirement was lacking something.

After several false starts and stops with the guitar I started taking lessons about nine months ago. Teaching myself would only take me so far. Then, I'd reach a plateau or get to a point where I couldn't figure something out on my own (like finger picking) and stop. So I found a teacher I liked and showed up weekly for his guidance.

Not unlike my personal attempts, after the first two months I started inventing excuses to miss a lesson. I found I was getting very nervous and tense the day or two before each session. I understood that was silly. After all, I was paying him so he wasn't about to yell at me. I did practice 30-45 minutes six days a week but I seemed to be picking up the techniques more slowly than I thought I should. We seemed to be going over the same problem areas week after week.

Finally, I decided to stop the weekly lessons and go back to playing for myself. The last thing the teacher told me was to stop worrying so much about exactness and where my thumb was on the guitar neck and just have fun playing music.

That helped. I had picked up enough in those three months to be able to move forward in my ability. I could play both melody and the most common chords without much of a problem. I enjoyed hearing the songs coming from my efforts.

But, then for reasons I really don't understand I began playing less and less: from daily, to every other day, to twice a week, to finally once a week. Anyone who plays an instrument knows playing just once a week isn't going to work. That isn't enough practice for muscle memory or even to remember the chord progressions.

The part I don't understand is that when I finally do pick up the guitar I like making music. I enjoy hearing recognizable tunes coming from the instrument. But, the motivation to put in the work just isn't there. I look for every excuse in the world to put off playing.....but I like it when I do play.

That makes no sense to me. Something I enjoy I shy away from. Something I have invested time and energy in has become something to avoid in my mind. Yes, I have lots to keep me occupied. Sometimes I feel over-scheduled and look forward to the next RV trip because then I am away from the calendar. But, that still doesn't explain why I have this battle over the guitar.

Oh well, if this is my biggest problem, I guess my satisfying retirement is still playing the right notes.


30 comments:

  1. Could your resistance to playing regularly be that you have to do something "the best" to be able to enjoy it? If you were a perfectionist in your career, it may very well carry over to your playing? I tend to be that way. If I can't do it well..or "the best", I catch myself abandoning it. But I am trying to get past that. Too much fun is missed that way.
    On a side note, my brother plays the guitar and always takes it with him with them when they camp. He pulls it out and strums away in the evening around a campfire. It always draws in a crowd...makes new friends...other people that play will take a turn and he learns something new each time. He has told me about times when children are just enthralled and maybe he is fostering their interest.
    So, if possible, don't abandon something that seems to be something that could bring you pleasure. We can't all be "best" at everything, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy and savor it.

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    1. Yes, Linda, I am sure that is part of it. I just hate being a "beginner" at anything. Interestingly, I will occasionally listen to tapes of myself on the radio from 40+ years ago (they are still on the Internet!) and realize I wasn't very good at all and had a lot to learn.

      Who knows, maybe on our next RV trip I'll strum a few bars of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star around the campfire. That one I can play.

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  2. Hi, Bob. Long-time reader, first time poster. Enjoy your views on life as I, nearing age fifty, am about to make the plunge into the dark but warm abyss known as reti---. See, I can't even say it yet...my lips move but my mind seizes. Like your guitar teacher said, I'm overthinking it.

    Anyway, what I wanted to tell you is that I was just like you with the guitar. Starts and stops and fits of joy followed by frustration. But...I found the answer: ukulele!

    Four simple nylon strings, easier chording, easier fingering, and after a little over a year with youtube and ukulele underground forum as "teachers", I'm actually pretty darn good! Grab a mid-priced ($200) tenor sized uke and start watching a couple youtube videos. We may never be Jake Shimabakuro (see his vids on utube), but you'll see--it's so small and convenient to play, I practice during TV commercials! Try it, Bob.

    Thanks for your blog perspectives. Sincerely, Steve

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    1. Welcome to the comments! Thanks for being a reader, Steve. As a lover of all things Hawaiian I enjoy hearing a ukulele quite a bit. Great idea.

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  3. I think it is hard to let ourselves go through the frustration of being a beginner at our age especially with something that is difficult to master. Another possibility is that this is more of an aspirational goal than a a real interest. Perhaps a different instrument where you could have fun playing in a group while you learn would meet your interests better?

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    1. Thanks, Juhli. I think the guitar is the right instrument for me. It is just getting the "fire in the belly' to play it well enough to please me that needs work.

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  4. I think it's just human nature. Playing an instrument is one of those delayed satisfaction things.. we want to sit down and play like Billy Joel or Eric Clapton in a couple of weeks .. I've played the piano in the past and gone through the same thing..avoidance/ but LOVE IT when I actually sit down and play.I've been thinking of getting back to piano this coming year, but, as you note, (And Syd over at her blog)-- it takes so much time, commitment,practice, I want to be sure I am up for it before I get another piano.

    I think we just need to decide to ENJOY IT, practice as much as we want to, and we will progress at a pace that's just right.With less pressure on y ourselves.. there will be times we do more..and times we play less....

    Do YOU TUBES help as far as lessons go? I know with piano,I need a real live teacher, an expense to be sure..am still thinking about it.. Keep us up to date,Bob!

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    1. I think your second paragraph sums it up best for me....enjoy it at whatever level I am. No pressure, just fun.

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  5. I don't play the guitar, but I am familiar with this phenomenon of wanting to do something/ learn something/ accomplish something, but then shying away from it. I wish someone could explain it. Maybe Juhli is on to something.

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    1. I have given up some things in the past, ballroom dancing most notably, that I just felt stupid trying to accomplish. Of course, everyone else in the beginners class was pretty awkward too, but that didn't help my feeling that everyone else was looking at me, even though I know they weren't.

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  6. Tama Kieves wrote one of the best essays on this topic that I've ever read. With her permission, I put it on my blog, http://www.retirewow.com/the-only-road-to-everything-you-want/ I get stuck with my painting. I love painting, so why don't I do it? I've spent my life trying to understand human motivation and am still baffled by parts of it. Tama doesn't solve problem, but eloquently expresses the angst we feel when we do what we want to do.

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    1. I will certainly click over to Tama's post. Thanks, Cathy.

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  7. Don't fret! By even TRYING to learn to play, you have gained a deeper ability to appreciate and understand music and the great musicians this modern world gives us access to on radio, CDs, etc. ALSO....I started taking lessons in my 30s, and made decent progress for years. Eventually I hit a wall..BUT... I realized that playing alone is like shooting basketballs in your driveway....OK for a while! Then I joined a band...we weren't very goood, but we all enjoyed banging out classic rock and blues. Now it was like playing full court basketball....an entirely additional set of skills had to be learned...but so much fun!!! My bandmates are high up on my list of good buddies and we even record our little messes and write our own songs, then give away the CDs to our friends, who politely say: "Interesting!" or "You guys sure sound like you're having fun!"
    My advice is to take your axe with you in your RV. Go and find the people sitting around playing theirs...tell them you are a beginner and would just strum along with afew basic chords. YOU WILL HAVE FUN and meet some amazing people.
    Last month I had the thrill of a lifetime at a small cafe...the local guy playing for the lunch crowd handed me his guitar ( I had talked to him about it) and said....play a few while I take a break. Well I did, and even got some applause from the crowd of a dozen. It sounds like a small thing, but I will remember it forever.
    So....use your music and your guitar as an ice breaker and a conversational tool and your enthusiasm will bloom. OK....now I feel like practicing!!!
    Dr Keith

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    1. Great Stuff! Now that we are getting a better handle on what we do and do not need to take on long RV trips there will probably be room for it on the next jaunt.

      I bet playing in the café was a real thrill. Maybe someday I will feel comfortable enough to jam in public.

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  8. I completely understand your on/off attraction to playing the guitar. I have been thinking lately about my days of piano playing and renewing my practice. Maybe it is motivation. I am wondering if it would help to think about the goal. Is it to play for yourself alone? Do you have a desire to perform (even for family and friends)? Or maybe perform with others - are there duets for guitar? Or a rock n roll duo...with vocal or not. Or would you like to progress through Conservatory grades and achieve a level of competence? I think that you need to decide your motivation first. Then, see yourself there. And when you really envision yourself playing for that purpose, does it set your heart a-fluttering? If so, get yourself organized to live your guitar dream. Commit to practice daily and find a good teacher who can help you get to where you want to go. If not, enjoy your casual pressure-free love for the instrument.

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    1. My motivation is purely for myself and family. My grandson shows interest in what I am doing and I'd love to influence his musical development.

      Focusing on my specific goal is a good suggestion. After we unpack, do 20 loads of laundry, and scrub the RV I'll pick up the guitar again and see what happens.

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  9. I know just what you mean. I bet most people do. The activity I spend the most time with is martial arts. Many days, I have a hard time getting myself to class, and feel a little anxiety before I go. But afterwards, I'm always glad I went. So far, I've stuck with it.

    But other activities have fallen by the wayside. I want to do them, I'm glad when I do, but I'm not motivated enough to sustain them. Sometimes I tell myself I just don't have enough time to do them, but I'm retired, for goodness sake--my time is my own!

    So, like you, I'm sort of puzzled about why I don't persevere. Isn't it wonderful that these are the issues we ponder?!

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    1. "Sometimes I tell myself I just don't have enough time to do them." Ha...I use the same excuse. Silly, isn't it. It is odd but I will think about practicing, get sidetracked by something, and by the time it rises back up to my attention, I then tell myself it is too late and I'm tired.

      We humans are very odd creatures.

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  10. You should see me learning to line dance! I figure I will never be the best, but everyone is a beginner sometime. That would be me.

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    1. Did you line dance in Tucson? I think it is actually a law in Pima County.

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  11. I understand what you're saying. I love to paint, make collage, anything artsy just relaxes me and I get in a zone. But, I can't tell you the last time I actually did a creative project. No idea why. If you figure it out, please let me know.
    b

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    1. I'll alert you to my epiphany, Barb! Just don't hold your breath.

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  12. I took piano as a kid... now have spurts of playing and long periods of not playing so I don't play nearly as well as I did at 13 years old. I am not a natural in that I can play nothing by ear. I strictly site read the music. But I fake the parts that are too difficult for me and just keep going. I never labor over learning a piece. I just skip through the books of songs playing each once or twice .. sometimes only part of the piece if it gets too hard. If I am playing regularly, I do get better, but then I slack off again. However when I play I sort of pretend that I am great. I seem not to hear the bad stuff. And I really enjoy it. By the way, I play the Uke also...and of course sing along with it. I don't do either of those very well either! But what fun.

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    1. You have described my approach very well. I follow the same pattern, tackling a new song, playing it enough so I feel somewhat comfortable, and then moving on. I'll try anything with up to two sharps or two flats. More than than that...no!

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  13. This bit about not nearly practicing enough is a familiar tune to me, even at my intermediate level of banjo. I strongly recommend finding someone around your level to practice with. Even if it's a different instrument. I still meet semi-regularly with a long-time colleague who plays guitar to my banjo. Different style for me, but it motivates me to practice on my own before practicing with him. Deadlines are sure effective.

    I also am trying to discipline myself to practice in the morning, even if only for five or ten minutes. Still trying to make it a habit - but not there yet.

    Lastly, listen to guitar music that you hope to be able to do. It can be a good motivator - as long as you don't beat yourself up for not being as good as the pros. Enjoy.

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    1. With a name like Banjo Steve you must have a certain level of confidence and ability. At this point I am no-guitar Bob. But, the comments so far have encouraged me to pull it out again.

      The guitar has been sitting in the corner for the last 3 weeks while we have been gone. It will be interesting to see how sore my fingers will be when I start strumming those steel strings again.

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  14. Hi, my name is Sydney and I'm addicted to piano. That's why I'm so late to the discussion here, I've been playing piano instead of reading or writing blog posts! So here are my observations:

    First, I have talked to several people about this and it seems we ALL get "white coat syndrome" in front of our teachers. I can play something beautifully at home after I practice it over and over again. I get relaxed and it gets better and better. Then I go to my lesson and am so nervous I mess up all over the place. And it's so frustrating because I played it so well at home. Last week I told my teacher this and he said "Ok, I'm not even here," and he turned away from me and rolled his chair to the other side of the room. It worked, I was still nervous, but not nearly as bad.

    Second, because I hate that feeling of being nervous, I practiced my piece hundreds of times last week. Really. It almost became natural to play with hardly even looking at the music. That fear was a great motivator and I learned that really, it's all about the practice, not innate talent. Which brings me to my point here--lessons are so important, not just because of what you are being taught, but for the discipline it can add to your practice. I recommend getting back to lessons.

    And finally, I will say that it takes faith. This is why I finally got back into it--my dad started taking trumpet lessons last year after not playing for 60 years (he's 75). He is frustrated at the slow pace of improvement, but I can see so much improvement in his playing over the year. So now I know, if you just stay at it, a year, two years, 10 years down the road you will be so much better. You just have to have that faith. If he can improve that much in just one year, just imagine how good I'll be when I'm 75!

    Ok, one more thing (sorry, I should have just written a blog post, huh?) I recommend listening to a lot of music of the type you yearn to play. I'm listening to jazz radio on Pandora now all the time. I focus in on the piano and it motivates me to practice so I can play like that someday! (Again with the faith).

    I think if you push past the resistance you will be richly rewarded--good luck!

    Syd

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    1. You practiced a piano piece hundreds of time last week? That is impressive. Persistence, faith, and the positive fear of a teacher checking your progress. I can't disagree with any of that. A you say, I must push past the resistance.

      Maybe what I can do is begin to post some YouTube videos of my playing. That will force me to "perform" in public and be able to track my progress.

      Great to hear from you, Syd.

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  15. This is great, letting you experience the RV thing for me. It's a lot cheaper and I'm learning from you all the ins and outs,ha. Still haven't talked the wife into it yet but I keep telling her I'm learning from you so our learning curve won't be so great once we take the plunge. (if that ever happens) Hey, make room for that guitar in your RV!!!! What better time to practice than on the road!! I'm still learning but have actually played at church a couple of times with my wife playing the recorder and having a great time. Not perfect but fun!! My sister lives in Huntington Beach CA and when we visit we always go out to the HB Pier. There's an older gentleman that plays on the pier on weekends, that's on my bucket list, to get good enough to play on the pier, you have to have a goal. Get back to the guitar and get a goal to work for, keeps the mind young(er). Good Luck.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement. It makes all the sense in the world to practice while traveling. Now that we've determined what we really do and do not have to take in the RV there will be some extra room for things like a guitar.

      Our next trip is a short, one week jaunt to the Arizona White Mountains in June. I will set a goal of taking the guitar with me and playing outside while enjoying the cool weather.

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