Brain Candy

Suddenly I am over a ridge with the guitar, and can see into the fretboard. I am really impressed with how the unconscious approaches a new skill, by withholding one part until another part is developed enough to make it fit into the overall strategy. I recall Milton Erickson's writing that when he was a child he didn't "get" alphabetical order, and so would start at the front and go through the dictionary until he got to the word he was looking up. Only when he had built a tremendous vocabulary did the concept of alphabetical order come to him in a flash of dazzling light.

If Erickson had been a normal kid he would have been guided into believing the important thing was understanding the concept of alphabetical order as quickly as possible, to make things easy for him. But he wasn't normal. He was dyslexic, tone deaf, color blind, and crippled from polio. The teacher sort of left him alone and let him do his own thing.

That story always makes me wonder how much potential we destroy in children, and adults for that matter, by being so sure that we know how things are supposed to be. The intention of a book filled with words was to learn the words and develop a superior vocabulary, from an unconscious viewpoint. From a conscious viewpoint it was just a tool to be used in a proscribed manner. The idea of taking so long to find a word is silly, if one takes the obvious viewpoint.

The obvious viewpoint is, as they say, something any fool can see. The larger pattern is harder to discern, because what is smaller can't comprehend what is larger. That's the point of having faith in something bigger than oneself. But back to the guitar, or maybe to the larger issue of learning something entirely new after age fifty or so, my experience has been that my unconscious resisted my doing anything more than banging on the strings for the first six months or so. This was unkind to those who were around, and drew more than one snide remark. But in looking back I see that the part of me that wanted to play the guitar and sing was a child. This was totally undeveloped in me.

Before I left San Francisco I talked to Bianca, a northern Italian, thank you, who is about my age and who is making her debut as a Taiko drummer next month. She had the same experience of having been mortified to begin something completely outside her conscious ego's skill set when she was in her fifties. "This requires using the entire body and being always in rhythm," she said, "and I was never good at that." But things change.

With new information coming to the Baby Boomers on how the brain works, taking up something entirely new at the gateway to old age makes a lot of sense. What has already been learned is locked in and you can keep doing that well. But this doesn't develop new activity in the brain. To do that you have to do something new, which requires new activity. Learning to play a guitar requires connections that simply aren't there ordinarily. It is specific to stringed instruments. And what is even more interesting is that the new brain activity happens only if you want to develop the new skill. If somebody makes you do it the brain doesn't hang up any new Christmas lights.

What was interesting this past month was that I got a workbook and began studying the patterns on the fretboard. I went through all of these exercises and figured out the math, and when I was done, and only then, did I realize that I already knew the patterns. I had learned them as major and minor scales. But this was somehow hidden from me until I figured out how to construct the scales myself. That was fascinating. It was like Erickson going through the dictionary until he got to the word he was looking for, and not being too quick to find the easy way.

With some work, I've learned to construct scales from any root note on the fretboard, though now there's no point to all that math, as I can just relate which scale is derived from the root notes. It doesn't make me a better guitar player ... not yet. But it will. Clay was impressed, and told me I already know more than most guys who've been playing the guitar all their lives. "Most people get to the level of playing some songs and that makes them happy," he said. "Going beyond that is a lot of work."

So he showed me that I was still working too hard by figuring out the scale from the roots, and could just begin to visualize the chords being formed in the scales, and know which scale I'm in instantly. It isn't instant yet ... but it will be. There's a lot of satisfaction in that moment when something which was just tedious practice suddenly opens up and there is a jump in understanding, as with the flash of light which showed alphabetical order at the appropriate moment.

It also marks a welcome funeral for the ego which could not play the guitar nor sing, and yet thought it could do it without falling apart and coming together again. I was laughing when Bianca described how horrible it was from her when she started learning Taiko. Maybe there should be a support group for Baby Boomers learning entirely new skills to try and save their brains from early retirement.

Posted: Wed - August 13, 2008 at 02:23 PM