Building The Habit

I just got back from a two-week family vacation in Japan, which was fantastic. I hadn’t been there in over a decade and it was great to go back to see what had changed, and what remained the same. It also resulted in a two-week layoff from playing any guitar, which was a bit of a system-shock. One the first things I did when I got home was pickup each guitar and play it a little.

While in Japan, I was reminded at how courteous and polite the culture is compared to my own. I suspect that this is a necessity for a culture in which so many live in such close proximity to each other. I don’t want to overreach in making any grand assumptions about another culture, but one incident got me thinking about habits and rituals.

Waiting for the bullet train in Tokyo

Waiting for the bullet train in Tokyo

While on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, the conductor came to check everyone’s tickets in our car. After politely asking for and checking each newcomer's ticket,the conductor walked to the front of the car, opened the door, turned back to face us and bowed before the door shut. No one in the car paid attention. No one thanked them back. It was just part of the protocol for how a train conductor behaves, without variation. This got me to thinking about how this could apply to your own life and, in particular, to music.

Taken at a personal level, this kind of behavior might be called a ritual. Twyla Tharp (the modern dance choreographer) wrote a great book about this very concept called The Creative Habit, in which she describes things she always does without fail to setup herself up for her best creative work.

One example that stuck with me is her gym routine. No matter how lousy she’s feeling on a particular day, she always drags herself to the gym at the same time each day. At first blush this sounds like a massive effort. But she describes a “point of no return” that helps her accomplish this. For her, once she gets her stuff together and walks out the door, the rest is easy. She’s already mentally committed to going to the gym, the rest just plays itself out. I think this is a truly profound idea. Once you identify these points-of-no-return, these routines don’t seem quite so difficult to maintain. Now the task isn’t “exercise at the gym”, it's “get out the door”. Once you’re that far, the rest just happens naturally.

So it begs the question: what are those points-of-no-return in your own routines? How does this apply to music and the guitar? Learning music and playing the guitar is a life-long pursuit. To get better, to keep discovering, to keep it fresh takes discipline. You won’t get to where you want to go without some focused effort. At first blush, the idea of “learning to play guitar” is simply overwhelming. You could spend every day learning to play the guitar until your last breath and still never learn it all. But, like any monumental task, it's a little easier to tackle once you start breaking it down into smaller “bite-sized” chunks.

A great way to do that is to build some habits into your playing and practicing routines. Which things you pick are, ultimately, up to you. There is so much to learn that it’s easy to overwhelm yourself with things to work on. But start with one or two things and slowly build up your list of inviolable practices. Think of it as your musical “protocol”, never to be violated, just like the courteous bow of the train conductor.

One thing to note, is that these are simply building blocks on the way to something more profound. A monk doesn’t light incense and chant for the sake of doing it, but as a ritual that prepares the body and mind for enlightenment. Ritual for the sake of ritual has little value beyond giving you a feeling of comfort. That’s fine, and there’s a place for that, but for music, you need to be looking down the road to something bigger. You should do these things because they prepare you to learn, to explore and to improve. Not because you “should”.

Here are a few suggestions for things you could start adding to your musical rituals:

  • play with a metronome or a click
  • tap your foot as you play
  • sing melodies as you play them or as you improvise
  • begin each practice session with the same warmup routine or song
  • tune your guitar before you play a single note
  • wipe down the neck and strings each time after you play
  • play with a pick with clean edges. If it gets to mangy, throw it away and get a new one
  • change your strings on a regular basis
  • run through your scale patterns in a key over the entire neck.
  • change the key each new session (use the cycle of fourths or cycle of fifths)
  • stretch your hands and wrists out before and after each time you play

This list could go on forever. That fact, itself, is rather daunting. So pick one or two of those (or a ritual of your own devising) and start adding them to your routine. Think about what each one’s “point of no return” is and find away to get yourself started. Be patient with yourself and, most importantly, have fun with it!