Breaking problems down

I was practicing guitar – a piece I’ve played thousands of times through over 4 years of near-daily practice, and have not yet mastered: Cliffs of Dover, by Eric Johnson.

I was going through it with the mindfulness of my mental laziness – tendency to avoid working the most on the things I know least about – and noticed a particular section that I’ve never broken down to its last detail.

To give context, I have played most of the tricky parts of the piece in isolation hundreds of times, from snail-level slow, to 32 times as fast, experimented with technique, every possible finger placement and transition, different ways of holding the pick, etc – I’m obsessed with perfecting this song.

But this, I’ve known for years, was my weakest part of the song, it came least naturally to me, and feels most tricky, though it has a very ancillary place in the song – it’s not the star, it’s not marvelously beautiful – more like a very impressive space-filler.

And I realized that it was also my least practiced part of the song. So one lesson for me was: always make sure to be very aware of what the weakest, least understood area of thought is, and focus most on decomposing it.

The awkwardness of it comes from the fact that it’s supposed to flow continuously and very quickly, but it has a very jagged, non-continuous shape on the guitar neck, and you need to jump around a lot. But the split-second stopping points of the melody are never during the finger jump.

And so I found that I always practiced the melodies between the jumps, as practicing it with the jump was very awkward.

And that was my biggest mistake. What I should have done instead – was isolate the jumps, and repeat them 1000 times.

So I started to isolate it, and repeat it – and there are 3-4 consecutive awkward jumps in a row, so I repeated those. And an hour later, I found that I had committed the same mistake as before – of not focusing on my weakest area the most.

I found that between 2 jumps, there’s a section without a jump, which I really suck at, and that is what actually makes the jump hard. And I was further able to isolate it to merely a 3 note chunk – that repeats a few times. Working at this 3-4 note level, I was able to really understand the mechanics of making all these jumps possible, and devise an optimal fingering.

I’ve played that part for years, and I don’t think I was ever aware of how poorly I understand how to make that section happen, while being painfully aware of every detail about every other part.

In hindsight, this lesson is too obvious: break down a problem to its smallest components to understand it in depth; isolate unknowns by trying to break the problem down further and further. Always ask “what’s still not known”, and strive to find the smallest knowable thing. Sometimes finding a bigger thing can fool you into thinking you’ve attained understanding, and never be satisfied.