Drawing and Observation

I used to believe that learning to draw generally made me a better observer.  I no longer believe this.

In a literal sense, learning to draw does improve visual observation, because it improves one’s ability to appreciate shape, style, value, intensity, hue, and other visual characteristics.  After sketching something in the field, especially from multiple angles, one gains an almost eidetic memory of it.  And learning to draw what is seen helps to break the tendency to stereotype.

However, I no longer believe (in my own case, at least) that this improvement transfers to anything other than visual observation.

I arrived at this conclusion about two weeks after starting guitar:  I was driving home from work one day when I realized that my musical taste had changed:  in the span of two weeks, I had gone from listening indiscriminately to whatever was on the local/satellite radio to listening almost exclusively to classical and bluegrass music on Pandora, which I previously couldn’t even tolerate!  Now, I can listen to almost anything and experience a much greater level of appreciation and understanding than before I started learning an instrument.

In hindsight, the reason is clear:  by attempting to play an instrument, by struggling to produce musical sounds, I began to appreciate what goes into creating music.  In some sense, I was going through the same struggles the musicians on the radio went through years or decades ago, and I suddenly understood.  Classical music, bluegrass, and other styles were no longer foreign but fascinating.  I finally had a useful frame of reference.

Learning to produce music is all about observing deeply, about paying attention, and about letting yourself experience its beauty.

The same experience is true of drawing, painting, medicine, mathematics, computer science, travel, parenthood (so my friends with kids say!), or other fields of endeavor.  It’s often impossible to genuinely appreciate something until you’ve thoughtfully “been there, done that.”  You begin to understand, and this improves your ability to observe.*

*Update 6/14/15: could this phenomenon be related to mirror neurons?


On the Three-Wattled Bellbird and Learning Guitar

I’ve finally reached the 77th piece of music, “All Through the Night,” in volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method. I’ve been practicing it for weeks now. It’s technically the last “required” piece in the book, as the remaining pieces are supplements.

Learning guitar–perhaps learning any instrument–is hard. For me, it has been much harder than learning to draw. I feel like a human songbird, carefully and clumsily developing my voice. 77 songs!

Speaking of songbirds, when we visited Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in 2013, we hoped to see the resplendent quetzal. Thanks to our guide, we saw many of them, both male and female. We were very lucky. Many travelers visit that same forest, in search of the same bird, and don’t see it.

Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.

However, there was another, more unusual bird we encountered in the high forest: the three-wattled bellbird. (The bellbird and the quetzal both feed on fruits of the unique wild avocado found only in Monteverde…it’s similar to other types of wild avocado but is larger.)  We heard the male bellbird during our entire time in the cloud forest and then eventually saw it atop a tall tree. The male bellbird produces a loud “bonk”–possibly the loudest bird call on Earth–as part of a complex three-part mating song that includes extremely high pitches. The only part that we heard during our hike, however, was the “bonk.” Somewhat uniquely, instead of being instinctive, the bellbird’s song is learned and refined over years. This long “incubation time” for the development of its song is one of the reasons (or so we were told) that it is not reproductively prolific. It’s a rare, endangered species that was once considered common until it was discovered that the same small population simply migrates regionally to different places at different times of the year!  We were told that it is protected in Costa Rica and Panama, but, unfortunately, not in Nicaragua, to which it also migrates but from which it sometimes doesn’t return.

Read more about the fascinating three-wattled bellbird here.

Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.
Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.

I can’t help but think about the three-wattled bellbird while I learn guitar. As with the male bellbird’s mating song, the guitar also has a long, difficult learning curve. The skillful player of guitar is atop a tall, hard-earned mountain of skill, even though she makes it look so easy. All guitarists climb that mountain when they practice.  The trick to staying with guitar or any other instrument is enjoying the sound of individual notes or note sequences, even enjoying the feel of the instrument.  The more skill you gain, the deeper the enjoyment becomes.

You can never be too good of a guitar player. As a guitarist (more generally, as a musician!), you’re constantly growing. Even simple pieces can offer lifelong growth, with different dynamics, different styles of play.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve grown since I started learning classical guitar in February, 2014:

Study 19

When I first start learning a piece, I cannot play it all the way through without stopping.  At some point (days or weeks later), I finally have the piece more-or-less figured out, even though it still has a long way to go before it sounds decent.  Here’s my performance of Study 19 from the Parkening Guitar Method on March 22, 2014, when I first started learning it:

Fourteen months later, here’s my performance of the same piece:


This next piece is Allegro, composed by Mauro Giuliani.  My first recorded performance of Allegro was on August 23, 2014:

Eight months later, it sounds like this:

I’ve come a long way since my first efforts.  My guitar instructor, however, who has played classical guitar for decades, sounds significantly better.  He plays with nicer dynamics, better control.  It’s heartening to know that the guitar–or probably any instrument–is anything but trivial and that it offers an open-ended, lifelong, immensely rewarding challenge.