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Knocking One’s Head Against The Wall (Or, How To Get Better At Music)

Music is a tough thing for many people to get a hang of, if they are not already musicians. Because it’s such an integral part of our culture and nature as human beings, everyone knows about it, and there’s a great deal of expectation that it can just be ‘done’ by anybody at all in society. Which of course up to a certain point is true – you’d have to search very hard to find someone who is genuinely ‘tone deaf’ (as in, cannot hear/produce/distinguish pitch at all) as well as rhythm incompetent.

However, there’s this extension of this principle that bothers me – and that’s the assumption by some people that any form of music-making by any person should be ‘good’ by virtue of it being music. Anyone speaking against the individual’s music-making attempts is thought of as a pariah, because they’re just ‘expressing their individuality’. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling some people that what they’re doing could be made better. For example, those people (often sadly young men from 15-25) who pick up a guitar, learn 3 chords, and proceed to ‘write songs’ with nothing but those 3 chords and a badly tuned singing voice.

It’s not that making music is bad. It’s not – I believe music is one of the key things that makes humans tick. It’s that I hate to see potential go to waste – and there is almost nothing more symbolic of musical waste than a guitar (an instrument of extreme dexterity and expressive elements) being used to play 3-5 chords in the same key all the time with no rhythmic/harmonic complexity and used to accompany an off-key singer.

I also see this sometimes with young students of music, for example, those who decide at age 14 to join the school band after their friends have already been doing it for 3 years. When the going gets tough (as any professional will tell you it inevitably does), there is this expression of incomprehension when you are told that it requires triple the work to get up to the current group level simply because you started later.

The more experience I get with music, the more I compare it to sports for beginning musicians. Just as in sports, getting ‘good’ at music requires a lot of effort on your part. You can’t just get up one day, decide to lace up the skates, and go play defense for the Toronto Maple Leafs (sadly, another life dream dashed by the cruel nature of the human body). It takes years of punishing physical and mental effort to train the whole apparatus of the body towards accomplishing those particular goals.

The common platitude is that it takes 10 000 hours to be an ‘expert’ at something. Well, the first chunk of those 10 000 hours is going to feel a lot to the beginner like unnecessarily bashing one’s head against a wall – mindless repetition of tasks that leave you feeling sore and probably not fulfilled. However, the end result can be anything from “Rumour Has It” to “Piano Concerto No. 5 in C Minor”.

Moral of the story for any musicians/prospective musicians: go practice. Right now. You know you want to.

Moral of the story for any laymen: just because some people have lucked out with their garage band does not mean that you can always ‘do music’ without any previous knowledge. It does take work, and you need to appreciate that those who inspire you to ‘do music’ probably did LOTS of it.

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