For those of you who haven’t been following my progress on my other blog, I’ve now gone through all the songs in Rock Band 3 on hard pro guitar. Which has been a wonderful experience: as I’d expected, hard pro guitar is where you transition from a stripped down simulacrum of playing guitar to really making music. In medium pro guitar, you rarely play more than two notes at once, and quite a lot of notes are missing; in hard, however, you’re playing full chords pretty much all the time, and while they’re still leaving out notes (quite a few of them in the case of the complex solos), enough notes are present that you can hear the song quite clearly in what remains (at least outside of those complex solos). Or, to put it another way: if you plug your guitar into an amp and remove the string mute, you can enjoy listening to yourself, and you really are playing the song along with the game!
Of course, with that richness comes challenges: hard difficulty asks you to learn much much more on a technical level than previous difficulty settings. Looking back, I started playing pro guitar around March 12th; I started medium on April 3rd, so easy took three weeks to complete. I started hard on June 19th, so medium took two and a half months to complete. Which is longer than anything else I’d tried to do in Rock Band other than my attempt to ascend the pro keys leaderboards, but I didn’t make it to expert until December 4th, meaning that I spent five and a half months on hard, learning quite a lot along the way.
The first thing that I learned was the very existence of power chords: not having any real knowledge of rock guitar in advance, I didn’t realize that, in a lot of rock guitar, you’re playing three note chords that are open fifths instead of major or minor triads. In retrospect, I’m a bit embarrassed that I’d gone so long without being aware of that fact: clearly my ears need a lot more training! But now that I’m aware of them, I’m finding power chords rather fascinating: open fifths are, indeed, powerful to listen to (a fact that is getting reinforced by the current piece I’m learning on the piano, the 6-Part Ricercar from the Musical Offering, in which the entries of the second, fourth, and (amazingly) sixth voices all have open fifths that are simply glorious), and on a physical level power chords give my fingers something interesting to do (and in particular force me to be comfortable moving up and down the fretboard) without requiring too much in the way of precision.
I was aware of the existence of barre chords, and expected them to be a bit challenging at first; they proved to be a pain, both metaphorically and literally. The game’s training mode has a set of barre chord exercises, and the first time I tried them, it hurt too much for me to make it past the halfway point of the set. I made it further the second week, but even then I couldn’t finish the last of the exercises, which asked me to shift between barred E major and minor and barred A major and minor chords, on at least two different frets. Also adding to the difficulty was my uncertainty as to how to play barred A major chords: the game tells me to use my top three fingers to hold down the non-barred notes, but I had a hard time getting that to work. (My guitar consultants on twitter said that playing all three notes with your ring finger was more common, and that worked better for me.)
I confronted that difficulty head-on, practicing barre chords every night unmuted for a few weeks. And, sure enough, they became less of a disaster: the next week, I managed to make it through that problematic lesson, and fairly soon after that I managed to make it through barre chords in actual songs without too much trouble. Though, in retrospect, I stopped practicing barre chords outside of game too quickly, and should get back to them: they’re a core technique, they needs to be rock solid, and when I tried those lessons today, I made it through them all acceptably but not flawlessly and my hand hurt. So clearly there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.
The other technique that I’ve been practicing outside of game is alternating strumming. I haven’t been doing anything fancy there, just spending two or three minutes strumming as quickly as possible on each of the strings. And it’s made a big difference, though there’s still room for improvement: I’m not as fast or as regular as I’d like, and I suspect my muscles are way too tense. Definitely glad I’ve been doing that.
And there are other techniques that I’ve been exposed to, all of which have quite a lot of room for improvement. I’m better at non-barred chords than barre chords, but not wonderful, and there are many more chord variants out there for me to learn. I enjoy scales when I run into them, but I’ve only barely begun to memorize them. I’m still a lot worse than I should be at playing arpeggiated chords. I don’t get the point of dropped-D tuning: it never feels easier to me. (It probably doesn’t help that it’s most heavily used in metal, which I don’t enjoy listening to and wouldn’t enjoy playing even if it used a standard tuning.) I need to experiment more with how hammer-on/pull-offs sound when plugged in.
But at least I have been playing songs plugged in. Not all the time, and rarely for very long, but if a song is in a standard tuning and isn’t solo heavy, I’d generally give it a try unmuted and plugged into the amp. (After practicing it a couple of times in the standard game mode, of course.) Sometimes, it sounds okay; sometimes it sounds dreadful. I haven’t been diving into playing unplugged, but that’s going to change with Expert.
In fact, a lot is going to change with Expert. You’ll notice in the above that there’s a lot of talking about techniques that I need to get better at, and very little talk about actual music. Which, in its own way, is actually a sign of how rich the game is: it asks me to do enough that I have to concentrate on the details of what my hands are doing, even performing abstract exercises outside of game, instead of going with the flow of the art of the music. And I’m willing to do that exactly because I can now see the art of the music in front of me, and I’m learning quite concretely what I’ll have to do to be able to bring out that art.
And, when I get to Expert, I’ll be asked to play the full guitar parts for pieces. At that point, it will (I suspect) no longer feel satisfying to me to treat the game as a game, to play each piece well enough to get three or four stars and then to move on to the next piece. So what I’m planning to do is pick a subset of the available songs (whether on-disc or DLC, I’m looking for suggestions for the latter) and really dive into them. Play them until I can get the notes right; play them unplugged until they sound good; play them unplugged until they actually sound like they sound in the recording. (I know essentially nothing about how to produce the range of available sounds from an electric guitar.)
If I can get to something I’m happy with after playing a song after an hour, that’s fine, but I’m imagining, even hoping, that there are songs that will reward me practicing them for weeks, that I’ll occasionally return to for months on end. And songs that suggest specific techniques that I should practice outside of game; my next-door neighbor is a guitar teacher, maybe I’ll sign up for lessons with her?
Actually, I’ve already dipped my toe into playing songs on Expert, trying out the first two songs on the disc, and the experience has been wonderful. They’ve already suggested more techniques that I need to master, and brought home just how little I know about producing sound on an electric guitar. They threw extra power chord variants at me, and it made a huge difference being able to hear what those variants sounded like; I ended up playing through each song several times experimenting with different strumming variants, trying (and failing, but learning!) to mimic what I was hearing coming out of the speakers. (And the one time I went back to a song muted after playing it unmuted was a bizarre experience indeed.)
Also: I was pleased how quickly I was able to learn the songs I was playing. Don’t get me wrong: they were both simple songs, each made out of perhaps three basic building blocks. But each building block had its variants, and I had to recognize what harmonic cues meant that I should switch building blocks and memorize what variants appeared when. A very rewarding experience, much more so than the simple effort of trying to get a not-embarrassing score on a song in game before moving on.
So: that’s Rock Band. What about the rewiring, though? For one thing, my taste in what I do in the game has changed. In past entries in the series, I’d mostly concentrated on (non-pro) guitar: I went through songs on the other instruments, but only once per song/instrument combo, and generally stuck exclusively to guitar for DLC.
And I still play non-pro guitar at times—it’s how Liesl and I go through new DLC, there’s been a ton of good songs showing up recently, and I fully support non-pro guitar as a way to listen to new music. But, in general, there are three other ways that I prefer to play the game: on pro guitar, on pro keys, or, to my surprise, on vocals. (Both solo and harmonies.)
There’s a lot going on with that latter choice. Part of it is that vocal harmonies are something that I can share with Liesl, and they’re rather more intimate than playing non-pro guitar/bass together. And part of it comes from psychological triggers. But what all three of those modes have in common is that they’re a lot more musically richer: and I’m finding that I really appreciate that. I want a deeper experience, I’m seeing musical forms that I’m not familiar with as a way to experiment and grow, and, well, I’m breaking down my sense of shame more broadly (those psychological triggers again!), and it turns out that singing is an area of my life where I’m happy enough to perform badly in public. (Or in private, I’m not actively seeking out exhibitionism.) It’s definitely an area where I have a lot to learn: I’m not taking singing as seriously as I am guitar, but I start to actually feel antsy if a couple of weeks go by without me singing at all.
These increased desires to make music have spread beyond the game as well. We bought a piano a couple of months after moving into this house, and it hasn’t been rare for me to sit down at it and play something (usually show tunes, but sometimes Flanders and Swann, sometimes Studio Ghibli music, sometimes classical music) on it. But it also hasn’t been uncommon for me to go for months without touching the piano, and I certainly haven’t put in concerted effort to work on pieces.
More and more over the last few months, however, I found myself sitting down at the piano; and, at some point, I decided: I’m enjoying this, I used to be a not-completely-incompetent harpsichordist, let’s get my fingers working again. So I decided to work on a piece that I used to actually be rather good at, namely the 3-Part Ricercar from the Musical Offering: I haven’t practiced it every day, but I’ve done so often enough to make steady progress.
And wow, am I glad that I’ve been doing that. It feels so good to get a somewhat thorny piece back into my fingers, to be able to play another page or two a week without tripping up multiple times a line. Then there’s thinking about phrasing while I’m doing that, playing around with different conceptions of what the music should be.
But then something quite unexpected happened: just when I got to where I was making an acceptably small number of mistakes and was thinking it might be time to move on, the way I was listening to the piece completely changed. All of a sudden, I became much more able to pick out the voices aurally and conceptually, and a lot more possibilities appeared than I’d been aware of before.
Which, honestly, scared me a bit, and I’m still poking at the piece somewhat gingerly. And, in the meantime, I’m working on learning the 6-Part Ricercar, so I have the more straightforward challenge of getting that piece into my fingers while dealing with the musicality of the 3-Part Ricercar. Though “straightforward” is the wrong word for getting the 6-Part Ricercar into my fingers—there’s way too much going on at once in that piece for that to be an accurate description of what’s going on there! And, for that matter, it’s not like I’m not paying attention to the musicality of the 6-Part Ricercar: as I mentioned in the power chords paragraph above, I’m fascinated by places where open fifths show up in that piece. Still, it’s different, and I’m glad I have both sorts of challenges right now. (And I should go to Paris this spring to visit my harpsichord teacher!)
So I’m making a lot more music than I had been. Which is part of a broader manifestation that I want to be surrounded by music. Every once in a while over the last few years, I’d read an article talking about how multitasking is impossible; those articles would frequently bring up listening to something while working, I’d note that I have a lot harder time listening to music while working than I once did, and I’d idly wonder whether that had always been the case or whether my brain had better reconciled those back when I was in school. (I listened to music all the time when working when in college.)
And now, I will say: my brain had changed away from being able to listen to music while working, and it has recently changed back. Not that I never find music distracting: lyric-heavy music poses problems, and it’s certainly the case that I’m not getting as much out of the music as I would if I weren’t working. (And we really should get symphony tickets, or tickets to some other local concert series. Both in general and for Miranda’s sake: she’s getting a good exposure to show tunes and to opera, but I think she’d enjoy chamber and orchestral music if given the opportunity.) But in general I’m finding that, these days, I prefer my life to have a soundtrack, and I’m very much enjoying both diving into the hundreds of albums I have lying around and discovering new artists. (And I’d love recommendations on the latter front, please leave some in the comments!)
Except that sometimes I am finding music distracting in startling and unexpected ways, to the extent that there are several albums that I quite like that I’m finding are quite unsafe for me to listen to work. The first albums that I recognized as such are Mika’s albums; they make me want to break into song (break into falsetto!), which my coworkers would rightfully be dubious about. But, rather worse, listening to them also makes me want to kiss somebody. And that’s something my coworkers would be more than just dubious about, and (given that she’s not one of my coworkers) “dubious” would not be the word that Liesl would choose to describe such actions even were they interested!
I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with that latter effect. It’s not the thematic content of the songs themselves: last week proved that Brasta Ghibli (a fabulous fabulous brass rendition of Studio Ghibli themes) has the same effect on me, and there aren’t any lyrics there. It’s more that listening to that music fills me with joy, and an overabundance of affection (?) is one way that my brain decides to interpret that emotion.
Three months ago, I went through a manic phase; there were plusses and minuses to that experience, but I’m very glad it happened and, on balance, I miss it. I’m still not at all sure what caused that to happen or why it went away, but, in retrospect, it’s almost certainly not a coincidence that I was writing about Rock Band in the blog post where I first mentioned it. (And also not a coincidence that I was blogging about sex; I’ve got one or two more of those posts queued up too.) So if music can help me turn that switch back on when I want it, that’s great: it would make me very happy to have access to that mental state in a more controlled fashion.
Phew. And I’m only done with hard pro guitar: just imagine how I’ll be feeling when I’m in the throes of expert! Maybe I’ll get inspired by Taeyang and start dancing (I’m quite glad that ash-panic’s tumblr has been turning me on to K-pop), maybe I’ll stop blogging here and spend more and more time singing or at the piano. (Actually, I hope I won’t stop blogging, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I dialed down my video game playing soon, about which more in a bit.) Hopefully I’ll manage to stay productive enough at work to be happily employed; we’re a musical bunch, fortunately, and programming is also a creative outlet, so I’m not particularly worried on that score.
This post has not been revised since publication.