How I Learned to Barre Cleanly, Without Buzzes, Squeaks, or Muted Notes

Barre chords are notoriously difficult for the beginning guitarist.  Now that I can finally, and to my own amazement, barre cleanly, I can tell you that it’s because barre chords are taught poorly.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to barre perfectly from the very beginning, except that the critical information I needed was found in only a single source:  Frederic Hand’s Classical Guitar Technique and Musicianship.  Hand recommends two things that instantly fixed my barring technique:  hyperextend the barring finger and place it straight down on the strings, without flexing it and without rolling or curving the finger to either side.  This works every time for me.

Before this revelation months ago, I was subject to all manner of confusing recommendations.  The Parkening Guitar Method recommends pressing “somewhat on the side of the finger” and stresses “position” of the finger over “pressure.”  Numerous internet resources also recommend pressing on the “bony side” (physicians call this the “lateral” or “medial” side) of the finger instead of “with the flesh” (volar side).  Pumping Nylon, the classical guitarist’s technique handbook par excellence, mentions various useful things like using the whole weight of the arm to barre instead of just squeezing with your finger and thumb (your fingers tire quickly if you don’t use your arm!).  It also mentions releasing tension whenever possible, squeezing only the strings necessary for the notes you want to produce, curving your barring finger for certain chords.  Et cetera.  Some resources style the difficulty of the barre as a rite of passage:  when you figure it out, things will progress more quickly, they promise.  Others recommend a tincture of time:  you’re a beginner, after all.  It’s okay if you squeak or buzz when you barre!  With more experience, you’ll get it…

But I still buzzed, squeaked, or muted notes occasionally when I barred.  None of the sources I reviewed mention the straightforward method Hand recommends and which worked instantly for me.  It worked because it stopped me from flexing my finger ever so slightly, which is what produced the buzz, squeak, or muted note.  It was a discrete leap, a 0/1, on/off thing, fueled by correct knowledge alone (not by strength, not by experience) to a new, satisfying level of skill.

The best way to learn is to have a personal instructor or coach.  Even one-on-one instructors, though, can’t identify every problem that arises.  They are only human.  One must supplement with other sources of information.  The bar of quality for these other, depersonalized educational strategies, such as books, articles, lectures, and videos, is so effectively low that syntopical browsing, as I did for barre chords, is often necessary to fill critical gaps in knowledge!

How to Learn New Things in Adulthood

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1. Pick something you fear but secretly wish you knew or could do.

2. Be sure the activity you pick has an enjoyable process for you. Don’t think about end goals. Since you will fail many times on the way to mastery, the activity should have something fundamental about it that you enjoy regardless of success or failure. If you’re miserable all the time, you should find something else to do.

For me, the timbre of individual guitar notes and the unique sensation of holding and playing a guitar trump everything else about this instrument. This keeps me going when I’m not playing as well as I’d like, or when I think about how far I have yet to go before I can consider myself a guitar master.

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Likewise, drawing is satisfying on a deep, meditative level, while writing clarifies and organizes my thoughts.

3. Practice or learn every day. Stay focused on the process, not on end goals.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  Being goal- and comparison-oriented is one of the fastest ways to quit anything.

4. Find a good teacher or coach to guide your efforts. Constantly improve your practice/learning sessions by staying attuned to the process and by seeking out instructional material.  As you master your chosen activity, you’ll learn so much about yourself, and about learning, that can be applied to the rest of your life.

5. Find like-minded, nonjudgmental others to learn, practice, or share with.  They will surround your chosen activity with context; they will breathe meaning into it.  Without this, it can be difficult to keep going.

Learning Ruby with Codecademy

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I just finished the interactive Ruby course on Codecademy.  I highly recommend it!  It’s a free, interactive, engaging introduction to Ruby and is much more fun than reading a book.

I initially learned some Ruby (while learning Rails) back in fourth year of medical school and liked it a lot.  I then didn’t get to use it for years and sort of forgot it (but you don’t really forget…when you get back into it, it feels like reconstituting powdered milk or something: things come back to you pretty quickly).

I haven’t programmed seriously for a decade and was surprised at how much came back to me while taking this course.  I even remembered some esoteric stuff from C++ (I used to program in C++, Java, Lisp, and several other languages before I left computer science for medicine).

When I was a computer science undergraduate student, the emphasis was on theory, not on practical stuff like web programming (which was, quite frankly, rather looked down upon).  If you knew how to create websites, it was usually because you taught yourself.

How I Fell in Love With Mathematics…and Only Then Became Good at It

A paper about the experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates was just published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.  It reminded me of how I fell in love with mathematics just before my senior year of high school.

Before that time, I found math a little frustrating.  I was decent at it and got good grades, but something critically important about math escaped me.  You could say that I had no trouble with math exercises, but I wasn’t skilled at solving math problems.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I lacked a sufficiently deep understanding of math and problem-solving in general.  All of this changed when I unexpectedly rekindled my childhood interest in logic puzzles.

Near the end of junior year of high school, I saw a curious little book on my English teacher’s bookshelf:  Fantastic Book of Logic Puzzles, by Muriel Mandell and Elise Chanowitz.  I pulled it off the shelf, started reading the back cover, and was immediately taken by such statements as the following:

“The puzzles you’ll meet inside this book are the world’s greatest and most baffling.” (This was not even nearly the case, of course.)

“To solve them, you need a plan of attack and logical reasoning…You’ll go on to solve tougher puzzles than you ever thought possible.” (True!)

It piqued my interest because it reminded me of how I used to enjoy solving logic grid puzzles as a seven- or eight-year-old.  My English teacher made a copy of it for me and I started working through it immediately.

Unlike the exercises I had encountered in math classes, which reinforced facts or blind techniques,  the logic puzzles in this book placed a heavy emphasis on deeply understanding the situations at hand.  You almost certainly wouldn’t solve most of them if you weren’t thinking carefully.

I finished the book, started studying for the SAT, and realized something very important:  I never learned geometry.  I mean, I took geometry in ninth grade (I was now about to start twelfth grade!), and I did “well”, but now that I knew how deep understanding felt, I realized I didn’t actually understand geometry on any significant level.

Nor did I know algebra.  Or trigonometry.  Or precalculus.

So, I sat down and gradually worked through all of these subjects from scratch while studying for the SAT.  I had learned, while solving logic puzzles, to constantly step back and question my assumptions.  I learned to hold only valid assumptions, and as few of them as possible.  I applied these habits of mind as I boldly attempted to prove theorems and other mathematical relationships by myself.  It was hard work, but enjoyable and addictive.

I became a mathematical explorer.  Math was no longer frustrating but fun.  I got into the habit of attempting to solve any test of ingenuity that came my way.  Paul Zeitz, in The Art and Craft of Problem Solving, asserts that this exploratory/investigative mindset is key to gaining skill at solving significant problems.  The problem-solver lays siege to the problem at hand, circling it until an opening is found–until the crux point of the problem is resolved–and then the problem surrenders its secrets to him, often in a trivial way, and is solved.

Gradually, I gained confidence and became skillful at math, doing very well in senior year calculus and in any other class (chemistry, physics) requiring accurate, logical thinking, as well as on standardized exams.  No longer intimidated by math, I switched from biochemistry to computer science after my freshman year of college and deliberately took the hardest math and science classes I could (much harder than entry-level “pre-med” classes), enjoying them greatly and doing very well in them, and, eventually, getting into one of the best computer science doctoral programs in the world.

They say the bumblebee doesn’t know it shouldn’t be able to fly.  I didn’t know I couldn’t become good at math, so I kept at it, and kept surprising myself, until I became pretty good.  I never did become great, but that’s okay.

(Who knows?  Maybe I would have become great if I had not switched careers and had continued to apply the principles of deliberate practice.  Maybe you could become great at some skill that currently escapes you, if you just drop the invisible script of “I don’t have the necessary talent” and get down to business!)