Finding forums and getting Happy

I’ve been doing a little self-directed learning lately. And it came about because someone told me about Larrivée guitars. Although I hadn’t heard of them till a couple of months ago, I can assure you they’re out of this world–one has been on the international space station for years.

I play guitar, not very well. Mostly I strum chords, because I like to sing. But in that conversation I mentioned, my friend encouraged me to think about getting a quality instrument. That suggestion came at a good time; although I’m not quite ready to spring even for a used Larrivée, I did start picking up the somewhat battered classical guitar I bought when I was in college.

For much of that time I’ve kept a couple of books on fingerpicking. Every so often I’ll work through one or the other, and when I sense some improvement, I feel pretty good. In addition, because I’ve been on a Zachary Richard kick lately, I’ve been trying to learn a couple of his songs, like Travailler, c’est trop dur (link to a video and an English translation on my French-language blog).

larrivee forumThat was one track: doing more with my own guitar. A second track was to find out more about Larrivée guitars, and there seem to be few better places than the Larrivée online forum.

When I enter a new community like this, I wander around for a bit and don’t say too much too soon, unless I can contribute something positive, if only to my experience with a guitar-tuning app for Android phones.

I saw that someone on the forum was selling some DVDs–tutorials for fingerpicking. Turns out they feature Happy Traum, a prolific and popular guitarist and instructor. In fact, one of those instruction books I’ve hung onto for so long is his.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can get a sense of Happy’s relaxed, encouraging approach:

That sealed it for me, and the DVDs arrived last weekend. As Bill Deterline said, “Things take longer than they do,” so I’m not fooling myself about how quickly I’ll pick up the techniques in the DVDs.

I can’t help but notice the interplay between what’s essentially a lecture–Happy Traum on DVD, explaining and demonstrating–and the invitation to not simply practice, but to actively modify your practice in order to expand you abilities.

Fundamentally, this is a tightly focused relationship. In effect, Happy’s done instructional design around a specific topic: not just “fingerpicking styles” (content alone) but “how to help a beginner learn to fingerpick.”

He can’t see you or hear you, and he probably doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to work with every student one-to-one. Instead, he starts by slowly and carefully demonstrating and explaining fundamentals.  It’s show-and-tell so you can hear-and-do (or at least hear-and-try).

The first thing we should work on is your steady thumb… Keep a bass going relentlessly, so that you always have that pulse underneath your picking… The ability to keep that thumb going while you’re doing whatever else… You have to develop the facility for doing that. It’s kind of like reprogramming your brain…

First thing we’ll do, just do it on one string… Do this with me…

Within a few minutes of that, he adds:

  • “The most basic melody note” — add a treble note by plucking the first string on just the first beat
  • Switch the treble note to the second string, still on the first beat
  • The second string on the first and the third beat
  • “Now let’s try putting a note on the first and second beat, but leave the third and fourth alone.”
  • Same thing, but with the second string.
  • Alternating between the first and second string (first string on the first beat, second string on the third beat).

I don’t want to keep quoting from the DVD, but I do think that attendees at more than one learning conference could profit from seeing how deftly Happy  introduces complexity at a rate that challenges but (mostly likely) doesn’t frustrate the beginner.

(As for badges–when you’re able to get through “Skip to My Lou” at a normal pace, with the steady thumb-beat and the melody in the upper strings, you’ll have all the badge you need for attaining that particular level.)

Probably some people could figure this out on their own, but I suspect that as with so many other fields, beginning guitar players can feel overwhelmed, not knowing what to pay attention to or what’s an optimal way to proceed. Brownie McGhee certainly didn’t learn guitar from a DVD — but Happy Traum learned from McGhee, and depending on your access to an in-person teacher and your interest in guitar, you can learn from Happy’s DVD.

To emphasize the variety of things that people mean when they say “learning,” I often talk about learning a language. Does learning mean mastering basic grammar? Reading literature in that language? Watching movies without subtitles?  It depends on context.

And that’s true with “learning the guitar.” There are some areas that most people would agree on–you probably need to know what standard tuning is, and probably need to know the basic fingering for chords. So there’s explicit knowledge as a foundation for tacit knowledge (it’s one thing to know what the tuning is, it’s another to actually tune). Beyond such fundamentals, there’s the melody or song you want to play, and there’s the integration of all this into a performance.

I’m not performing much yet. One of my mid-term goals is to improve enough that I could try a Larrivée in a store without completely embarrassing myself. We’ll see how that works out.

4 thoughts on “Finding forums and getting Happy

  1. Dave; I dont play but have always wanted to. I have a nice Quebec made Art and Lutherie in the corner of my home office mocking me for not getting to it right now. If you’re not aware of Gary Marcus’s book already you should be. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. He’s a brain science prod at NYU that decided to learn how to play guitar and study his learning process.

  2. Tom, thanks for that — definitely sounds like my kind of book.

    My parents got me a Peter, Paul & Mary album for Christmas one year, and by the next December I was asking for a guitar. They got me a Silvertone (the house brand at Sears), and combined with Earl Robinson’s Folk Guitar in Ten Sessions, another instruction book that suited me, I was all set.

    I hadn’t heard of Art and Lutherie, but I’m discovering an entire universe of guitar makers.

    As I said, I’m not much of a guitarist. Part of me is ready to say that I have no business considering a guitar like a Larrivée (hence the comment about embarrassing myself by trying one out in a store)… but I think of the potential return in terms of satisfaction, and that’s becoming an incentive to practice because I want to.

    Maybe that guitar of yours is inviting you to explore some self-directed learning.

  3. Dave
    You might find this collection of photographs from my Larrivee factory visit in 2009 interesting.
    I posted it in the Larrivee forum a while ago.
    I’ve been doing extensive, expensive, research into the pedagogy of guitar teachers for a long time now, so far with little success.
    I’m a recent convert to Happy Traum’s videos, partly because of their ease of use on an ipad.
    I’m currently sat next to an empty desk at BCPC.

  4. Chris, thanks for the link to the pictures. When I finally get a Larrivee, it will be as an incentive to myself rather than as a recognition of my guitar talent. ;-)

    A week or two ago, I was recalling the first guitar book I had, Folk Guitar in Ten Sessions by Earl Robinson. As a high-schooler, I didn’t have an actual teacher to learn from, but I’d picked up this book and my parents had gotten me a guitar from Sears. After some time spent on self-paced learning with a pitch pipe–followed by a hiatus while I bought strings to replace the ones I broke–I worked through a couple of the lessons and the sneaky “intervals” (ten more lessons, disguised as by-the-way stuff). And I got to where I could play simplified versions of songs I wanted to play.

    Obviously I’m not promoting learn-from-a-book as the only way, or even the best way, to learn an instrument. It’s easy to hard-wire a bad habit, which is why (so far) I haven’t tried to learn bagpipes from a DVD. It’s clear, though, that among the many definitions of “learning” is “attain a previously unavailable level of skill,” and both Earl Robinson and Happy Traum offer paths to help you get there.

    My understanding is the empty desk will be less so soon.

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