February’s challenge, and music of the month

January’s 30 day challenge was a great exercise in small, enduring habit changes. I committed to touching two guitar pieces every day for 30 days. I ended up playing about 6 out of 7 days overall, and am okay with that. It got me into the habit of practicing every single day, and that made practicing more of a joy than a chore. If I’m not playing frequently, every time I pick up the instrument there is a fairly unpleasant hump to be surmounted as my fingers remember how to work properly. Daily practice ensures I can essentially pick up where I left off. My sight reading has progressed noticeably, too, something that needs daily repetition for learning.

Now, what to do for February? I’m sorely tempted to set a physical activity goal, say 30 continuous minutes of activity – even walking – every day for February (okay, it’s a 28-day challenge). This goal is more on the “it’ll be good for me” end of the spectrum. I bicycle for pleasure and fitness, and there are days when it just doesn’t work to ride. Can I get a half hour walk or (shudder) gym workout in on those off days?  I guess I’ll find out.

Meanwhile, I’m going to set musical goals for each month, under the assumption that I’ll continue to practice every day. I pretty much learned the shorter of the two Back preludes that were January’s focus, and the longer of the two is pretty close to under my fingers.  I’m picking two more preludes for February, a relatively short one by Ponce and a longer piece by JS Bach (BWV 1006a – originally for harp). I’ve played through the Ponce before, but took a lot of shortcuts with the fingering – I want to relearn it properly and fix some of the mistakes I’ve memorized along the way.

The Bach is long – 139 bars. I’ve been wanting to pick up a joyous piece, though (I’ve been gravitating to the darker regions of the emotional spectrum) and this fits the bill. I’m essentially starting from scratch on this one, so it’ll be a good test of how far I can come in a month. (I’m only learning the prelude of the video below, not the rest of the movements).

In related news, I’m seriously considering picking up a guitar teacher to keep me on track. I’ve got a little too much on my plate currently, but if I keep playing consistently I’m going to start hitting a plateau pretty soon, and will need that nudge to break through.

I missed my wood shop time this weekend – family illness took precedence, so the necks are still in the same shape they were a week ago. I’m hopeful my work commitments will be slightly more relaxed this week and I’ll be able to take an evening or so at the bench.

That’s all for now – nothing deep or profound, just an update on activities. I do have some more ideas floating around (remembering some threads I started back in November for NaBloPoMo) that I’ll want to write about, but again need to find the time and space to do so.

PS. Dang, the video below is the 1st place winner of the Guitar Foundation of America International Youth Competition, Junior Division. I believe he’s 13 years old. This piece is on my bucket list.

Physical feedback

Saturday was neck carving day – I planned on spending some quality time at a workbench with a sturdy vice and sharp chisels, carving the heel of my guitar neck (that part where the back of the neck joins the body). I’ve actually got two necks built in parallel, but one has quite a bit of tear-out from some sloppy router work on the headstock, so that’s become my “practice” neck. Free-carving the curve of the heel will take some practice.

It was a bit frustrating at first. One book I’ve been following as a guide suggests using a very wide chisel for the broad shaping. Good idea in practice, but force = pressure x area. I have to use twice as much force on a 1″ chisel as I would on a 1/2″ chisel, and that means I’m more likely to slip (there’s a clean slice on the side of my index finger from both pushing too hard with the right hand and not remembering to keep the left hand out of the path of the tool). It’s also just bad form to “force” a tool – I just don’t have as much control. My chisels are reasonably sharp (although I could probably improve in the sharpening department, too), so I was surprised at how difficult this was.

I ended up eventually shifting to a narrower chisel, and life got a lot easier. There was still a lot of trial and error – the main shaping strokes are across the grain, which is an odd direction to pare wood. I eventually broke out my cabinet maker’s rasps (and boy, can I tell the difference between a high quality rasp and a cheap Big Box store tool) and learned how they work in this particular application. I got to the point of a rough shape with the practice neck, and then stopped to take a break.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Reading about the carving operation ahead of time was helpful – I knew roughly the order of operations I wanted to execute. But there was a lot I had to experience first hand – literally. The curve of the heel is concave looking from the headstock to the body, but convex looking up from the back of the instrument. Carving each of these with flat chisels took some thinking and experimenting. The wood also behaves very differently when carving across vs with the grain. In one of my first (too heavy) cuts I tore a good chunk out of the top of the fingerboard – had that been my “real” neck it would have been difficult to glue back into place without a cosmetic blemish.

I know this is glaringly obvious, but this sort of knowledge and skill can only be acquired through practice. Reading is helpful to a point, but what I found surprising is that after trying this for a few hours, I could re-read the texts and better understand the logic of certain operations. The book was quite clear, for example, about never carving along the curve all the way through to the end of the workpiece – that guarantees some tearing out (which I proved). Now I see why that advice was given, and through making the gut-clenching error myself the lesson has stuck.

This week looks to be a bit busy, but I’m going to try to carve out (no pun intended) one evening to return to the wood shop this week.

Meanwhile, the 30 day challenge continues along. I’m managing to average about 6 days out of 7 of solid guitar practice, and I’ll call that a win. I’m finding it’s a lot easier to keep up when I have a basic expectation of daily practice, and allow myself an occasional “miss.”  If I’d set a goal of every other day, on the other hand, I think it would have been a lot harder to keep up as a habit.  In an ideal world I’d probably adopt the same “every day unless there’s a good reason” approach to exercise, too. Maybe that will be Feb’s challenge…

Wow, only a week in? (30 day challenge 2015.01)

In my last post I started a 30 day challenge – to get two Bach preludes under my fingers within 30 days. The basic idea is that New Year’s resolutions are really hard to keep, but shorter-term goals are much more tractable.

During tonight’s practice I played both preludes through around 70% tempo. There were lots of glitches still, but I was pleasantly surprised that only a week of sustained effort made such a difference! Yes, I’ve read that advice from countless musicians: practice every day, even if you’re not in the mood.  This is probably the first week I’ve practiced every single day since… college? It shows.  My sight reading is getting sharper, too, as I revisit other pieces I haven’t touched in a very long time.

That’s all for now!

Mini-resolutions: 30 day challenges

Around the New Year I came across this Ted Talk suggesting that instead of grandiose New Year’s resolutions (which tend not to last more than a month or so anyway), perhaps we could think of smaller experimental episodes in our lives: 30 day commitments. (It turns out, there was a reality TV show based on this same concept about ten years ago: 30 Days. No good idea is ever completely original, right?) Back in November I tried the National Blog Posting Month challenge, and I think I wrote something here on all but 2 days of the month. Clearly my writing has dropped off since then, but I have a distinct memory of what it was like to plan on writing ever single day, and know what I’m getting into if I want to keep that commitment longer.

I’m exited thinking about 12 distinct possible challenges in 2015 – and I don’t have to think them all up on January 1!  I’ve often found that if I’m not growing or learning something new or pushing myself in some way, I feel stagnant. I’m curious to see what ends up “sticking” as a lifestyle change, and what is simply an interesting experiment that doesn’t need repeating.

So what shall I do for my first challenge? I’ve been a bit frustrated with my music lately – I seem to have a lot of pieces that are about 80% learned, but I’m not putting in consistent enough practice to actually get any to the point of polished performance. So for January I’m going to try a dual commitment: 1) practice the guitar every single day, even if only for 10 minutes, and 2) learn and polish two Bach preludes (BWV 998 and 999). The first prelude is part 1 of a 3 part suite (followed by a  fugue and allegro). The fugue is just not my cup of tea (it’s feels like an interesting composition exercise, but goes on for far too long), but I’d like to eventually tackle the allegro to play as well. First things first.  BWV 999 is a popular stand-alone prelude that’s also good right hand appregio practice.

Maybe this is all the 30 day challenges will entail: clean up a piece of two to the point where it’s memorized or approaching performance-ready, and by the end of the year I’ll actually have a set list for an open mic. 🙂