In September I wanted to focus on playing guitar to see if that could boost my sense of progress, but did it work? Sort of…
The good news is that I was able to commit about what I'd wanted to, and planned, to this exercise time wise; for all of September I managed to get almost an hours playing done each day. The downside of this was that I often had to rush through other tasks, or put them off to the next month where possible (which explains the delay to this post).
Some evenings were much easier than others to find the energy to practise than others. There were some occasions where I managed to 'trick' myself into a useful session by forcing myself to do at least twenty minutes, and then by the time the twenty minutes were complete I'd found more energy and interest to carry on. If I was only able to do a smaller amount of practise, then it usually wasn't transcription that I had time for. I'd practise position playing or chords, something with a more set routine that I could follow.
That means that I didn't actually transcribe many songs, between finishing one and starting others I managed about two in total, which is much less than I'd hoped, certainly in quantity.
While the number of transcriptions seems pitifully low, it still brought new insights. The main advantage was that I got beyond the 'ugh, this is hard' to a more conscious state of understanding why I found it hard, and what I'm bad at. It's not as satisfying a step as being better, but it hopefully means I know what things I can improve next that will have the greatest impact in improving my playing.
The first area that clearly needs improvement is my understanding and processing of rhythm; which I'm not sure is a good way of describing the problem. I can generally keep time fine, and playing along to a melody or copying a simple rhythm is also OK. It's when it's a bit more complicated that I can't break the rhythm down into parts, to really understand and practise it, that I get confused; which makes it impossible to have really understood a part and be sure you're doing it right.
I see writing music (in sheet music form) as a bit of a secondary skill, and not something that's essential to playing guitar; but writing down what you're playing, and commiting it to into a format where everything has to be accounted for, forces you to be crystal clear on what you're hearing and playing. Not having that clarity on the rhythm makes the transcribing harder, plus it reveals that I've not really understood that aspect and part of the song.
The second area of weakness that became very clear is my ability to remember musical phrases, somehow I find it hard to remember the whole phrase. Instead I'm focussing on each note, writing it down, and then working on the next one, without really having the whole expression. This also makes it harder to remember, harder to repeat slowly to myself and harder play along at different speeds to really understand what's happening. I think this is what is referred to as Audtiation, the ability to accurately repeat music in your head without a physical sound.
Edwin Gorden, who created the term, describes it as: "audiation is to music what thought is to language"1; which seems about right for the way I'm using it. This inability to hold the whole phrase is like remembering a sentence, but only being able to remember each letter; not the words, their meaning and sequence. Remembering and repeating a sentence isn't too hard as it's a series of (connected) words that generally form a coherent thought or idea, making it easy to remember. If you tried to remember the same sentence, but only as a series of semi-random appearing letters, without the ability to see the whole word, it becomes almost impossible, and I think that's currently my problem.
I need to get better at remembering, and really ingesting, the whole phrase or melody, and having it (even if only for a short period) stable in my head; perceiving music in sentences, not letters.. With this I'm then much faster to hear if what I'm playing on the guitar is correct, or not, and adjust it, without poking at each note one at a time. Perhaps this is linked with the lack of a clearer understanding of the rhythm. For the tones, and the melody, I find that a little easier and can often sing a few tones of the phrase, but without the rhythm part, it's incomplete, and the whole thing is therefore harder to remember.
So a month of dedicated focus on one spare-time activity has brought some progress, even if it's not as impressive as I'd hoped, and really provided just more to work on, but hopfully they're the right things to work on.
1: I first heard the expression in an Adam Neely video, which does a better, more practical job, of explaining the concept that Wikipedia.. ↩