Taking my own guitar-learning advice

If you’d been in the Prahran area of Melbourne around the start of January this year you may have heard the sound of madly flailing arms and legs and desperate gasps for air emanating from the Prahran Aquatic Centre.

That sound, ladies and gentlemen, would have been the sound of me attempting something which I’d not really done since my school days (which were some time ago now) – swimming front crawl/ freestyle (I’ll say freestyle from here on, but you know what I mean).

Swimming breaststroke I’m all good with. Love it. Could swim for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers if you’re metric). All day long. Very efficient at that one. I wanted to give freestyle a bit of a bash though.

Why? If you’ve even been swimming in an Australian swimming pool you’ll quickly realise that around 90% of the folks swimming are doing freestyle (or Australian crawl as I’ve also heard it referred to). Well, I’m all for individual style, but I felt kind of left out just doing my breaststroke. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

But what the heck has this got to do with playing guitar? A perfectly legitimate question and one I have an answer for.

Well, first up swimming is a great form of exercise for guitarists – it works the whole body and is particularly good for building strength and conditioning through the arms, shoulders and back. Very important bits of kit for any guitarist.

Secondly, I was interested in learning or re-learning how to swim freestyle properly as a little experiment to:

(1) Test out some of my own pieces of advice and approaches to learning and development of a skill;

(2) Put myself in the position of students (perhaps someone like yourself) coming back to the guitar after a very long time away or for the first time. I wanted to test out feeling like them a little, like being thrown quite literally into the deep end!

I could have applied it to my (sadly lacking these days) piano playing or picking up the liquorice stick again (clarinet), or even starting anew with an instrument I’ve always fancied giving a bash – violin. But I thought I may as well kill two birds with one stone and get the benefit of the physical exercise into the bargain of the experiment.

As I mentioned above, I’m finding that swimming is very beneficial to the guitar playing actually. It’s great cardiovascular exercise with very limited potential to either(a) get myself killed or (b) break a collarbone, hand or wrist which was always a very real possibility in my former sport of choice, road cycling and racing! It also makes for great resistance training and exercise for the back, shoulder and arm muscles – very important for maintaining good posture when playing – and helps stretch you out (again very important if you spend time sitting practicing, plus couch time plus computer time, seated work time etc).

So, yes, testing out the acquisition of a new or very dusty old technique. I’ve been working on this experiment now for around 10 weeks and I can report that it felt VERY alien initially. I must have looked like I was drowning. Seriously.

But first piece of self-advice: don’t give up just because it feels weird and feels uncomfortable. Of course it’s going to. Whether it’s swimming freestyle for the first time in years or playing guitar for the first time, if your brain and your body haven’t been doing it as a matter of daily life then it will feel strange. And the only way for it to not feel strange, and for you to improve, is to just dive in (quite literally in my case) and do it.

Second piece of self-advice: you’re not going to be a maestro (i.e. a Michael Phelps or a Julian Bream) from the get go. In fact a loooong way off it. But that’s ok. Acquiring a new skill is as much, if not more, about the journey, about the “getting out there and doing it”. Again, just do it, do it consistently and cut yourself some slack. It will take as long as it needs to take for you to learn.

Third piece of self-advice: each time you practice/ swim/ do whatever it is you’re doing aim to do something a little better. Observe yourself critically, but not judgmentally. Think. Understand what needs to change. Tweak things up just a little bit at a time. I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer drowning and in fact I’m going quite well with a total immersion-type technique, finding no difficulty in now doing 750-800m of freestyle non-stop (I’m quietly pleased with myself having nearly drowned at the 25m mark around 9 or 10 weeks ago!) and now attempting alternate side breathing. This has been through an exercise of not giving up at the discomfort of trying something new, not concerning myself with what other people might think about my learning and importantly of “practicing critically” – asking myself questions like “what do I need to do differently to do x, y or z?” , “is this the best way to use my arms/ legs? What would happen if I did something else? What might that something else be?” and “ow that hurts. What do I need to change up to make sure that doesn’t hurt anymore?”

Now I’ve had a little help in this little experiment of mine  – Mr Classical Guitar n Stuff is a bit of a whizz in the swimming pool, practically being able to swim before he could walk, and swimming elite times in the pool at the drop of a hat – Fourth piece of self-advice: get a good mentor or at least someone to watch and point out where you can improve.

So far this little experiment has made me really realise and appreciate all the more the fact that most of us are not born with natural abilities to do certain things (we may have a propensity for them), but skills can be acquired through:

  • consistent and regular practice
  • critical (but not judgmental) observation of how you’re doing something;
  • making changes to how you’re doing something one small step at a time

All this combined then leads to incremental improvements over time and the start of a rock solid technique to build on and do you thing with.

Dive in!

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One thought on “Taking my own guitar-learning advice

  1. I couldn’t agree more – especially with the part in #3 about being critical. That’s the only way you can really learn – by learning what is wrong and what you need to change.

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