Guitar meditation #2 and autistic learning curves

I’ve been trying to teach myself various musical instruments since I was a kid. 

I think I tried to play guitar for the first time probably in primary school; as soon as my dad had one. There were always guitars in the house, in an era before youtube or even CD players, when my parents and their friends were making their own music at their parties by singing and there were always some people in the room who could play the guitar, taking turns. I think it was like a basic literacy skill. 

Some of my best memories are home-made music and song. 

Growing up in a Western country with electronic devices, I missed this. 

I think it’s a huge loss that people do this less and less.

Somehow, however, despite messing around with instruments since I was a kid, I’ve never really managed to learn “songs”. Perhaps a few intros, a few songs I could never properly play and forgot in a week after spending months learning them. 

This cycle of frustration went on and on, for both the guitar and the piano.

Earlier this year I decided (on a wave of general insights about life and perhaps also about the fact of me being far more neurodivergent than I’d thought when I started engaging with the #ActuallyAutistic community) to give up trying to learn things the way I’m “supposed” to learn them; in a neat step-by-step school-sequence; with lessons, textbooks, reading music, piece by piece, etc. 

I tried to listen in to my natural way of learning. 

I think my most natural way of learning, in many many areas, like music, art, languages, and probably even science and tech, is basically doing things and observing the outcome.

It’s very empirically based.

I pull a string, I observe the sound that comes. 

I make some more rhythmic of complex movements on the strings, I hear what happens, whether I like it or not.

If I like it, I repeat it and try to make it even better (feeling even more right).

If I don’t like it, I mess around and try other movements and combinations. 

I don’t necessarily have a goal. I don’t know what the thing is supposed to sound like, or look like (in the case of some paintings; my paintings skills are probably better than my music skills, so I can have a vague composition in mind when I start). I essentially am in a mood, and I see what this mood gives birth too via the interaction of fingers and ears. 

Sometimes, I’ve observed that the longer I do this, the more I’m able to play – to some degree – a little bit of what I have in mind; I can “visualise”/”imagine” the outline of the sound I want to have. Usually it’s vague; e.g. I know perhaps that I want an ascending and descending crescendo, or a repetitive, reverberating water flowing movement.

I can’t play specific melodies by ear, except very very simple ones with a lot of effort. My perception of sound is probably on the level of dynamics, movements, moods, colours and atmospheres. I can’t find (or hear?) precise notes.

Now that’s not how you conventionally learn music.

You learn by notes, naming, sequencing them, learning simple songs, then more complex ones. You don’t learn by starting to make random sounds that express your mood (or perhaps don’t even do that, at the beginning – they are just random initially) and then refining the randomness into more and more shape, structure, harmony, over endless repetitions of playing random chaotic stuff over years and years.

At least I haven’t heard of this in this culture and time. Have you? I tend to think that it probably still is the way some people do and have done things before formal teaching. 

Sometimes I’m even too tired to carry out that empirical process described above; of stirring a string, observing, refining. I don’t have the focus, or I don’t want to focus, I just want to relax and have fun and play. Then I just play and observe the harmonies and disharmonies, arrangements and disarrangements of sound that come – I don’t insist on a shape, I don’t insist on being more in harmony than disharmony or on whatever.

Recently (this summer) I’ve added the element of recording myself and listening back to such “random-generator” tracks. The idea was that by listening back to myself a lot, perhaps I’d unconsciously digest patterns – stuff I overdo, underdo, stuff that is disturbing to the sound, and stuff that is good – and it would slowly become digested by my bodymind and incorporated into the next random generation of sound.

I’m not sure yet whether that works – I guess I’ll know after I do it perhaps for a year and then listen back to tracks from the beginning and end of the year. Perhaps that’s a good project for 2019. 

The truth is that I love music, I love sound. 

(I also have intense and sometimes excruciating auditory sensitivities, e.g. sustained air and land traffic and ventilation noise has just driven me into a 4-day meltdown last week, and I’ve finally given in and am always keeping a pair of noise-cancelling headphones handy; something I was rejecting as a “crutch” I could become too dependent on until my partner bought me some and pushed me to try. However, the fact about the autism spectrum, as far as I can tell, is that enduring sensory discomfort doesn’t help one bit in getting less sensitive – worst case it may do the reverse, as a nervous system that’s stressed becomes even more sensitive and goes into a loop to hell, as mine did last week.) 

I was thinking about my perhaps also untypical learning curve with languages, and with art, and wondering whether there are commonalities. 

After having freed myself (somewhat) of perfectionism and pressure to paint realistically and “beautifully” (something that stopped me from painting for a decade), I started and what resulted was endless abstract “art” – geometrical patterns, shapes of lines, colour arrangements – perhaps quite an analogy to my “random generator” noise on string instruments. 

I’d just deliciously enjoy the physical interaction with the material – and I’d need a lot of time to explore it – the texture of the paint, the feeling of movement on the canvas, the contrasts or lack thereof that are created by placing various colours next to each other with various types of movement, brush, various amounts of solvent, etc.

Also here you could say – and empirical investigation?

A bottom-up approach, as my neuroscience whisper. Perhaps a sensory-based approach – working from feelings, sensations, observations of the tiniest sensory “atoms” (line dynamics, colour contours) up to something more conceptual (to painting recognisable objects, or playing recognisable structures / melodies).

The funny thing is that in the era when I liked to learn languages as a hobby, I think my approach was parallel to that, too. I wouldn’t start by learning the alphabet and simple everyday words, then building up complexity. The way it’s taught in school and courses (which I couldn’t stand, despite my unquestionable passion for languages and good aptitude I couldn’t sit through a single language course, just like I couldn’t stick to music lessons and have never even considered art classes). What I do first is to listen to the radio endlessly; or read random texts and try to detect structure. (Note: this really only works to some degree with European languages, in which I can guess familiar structures and elements.) I do that until I get stuck. Then I ask someone or read a tiny bit of a textbook / grammar manual. Then I go back to the “raw data” and see if I get more. And in cycles. At some point phrases pop up in my brain, and perhaps I try to communicate clumsily with someone in the language and perhaps repeat stuff after them. 

Essentially, supported pattern-recognition. 

But here again, it might look like I go backwards – starting with what a conventional approach would probably do at the end (ready, complex data and conversation) and going “down” as needed into basics, explanations, using them to fill in what can’t be figured out. 

When I was 4 years old and my parents dragged me across a border to a new country, supposedly (I don’t remember) I didn’t say anything in the new language for half a year. Not a word. Then I started speaking in full and correct sentences. 

From what I’ve read, that’s a bit of a typical autism spectrum learning curve. 

You need to endlessly observe, master each detail, until it is put together into a whole after a long time. My cousin, who emigrated at the same age, started speaking immediately, in simple words and partial sentences, and built up gradually from there. 

I wonder if that’s the equivalent of starting with playing simple songs, then gradually adding sophistication. Painting objects initially clumsily, gradually elaborating. While my approach is to analyse the data, elements, forever, and only after I’m intimately familiar with all colours, all lines, all sounds, all syllables and inflections, there is something that others would recognise as a painting, a song, or language. 

I’m not sure about this, just hypothesising. 

I’m just going into the direction of accepting that my learning curve is different; whether that’s an autism trait or just me. I can’t find people who teach me in that way – that sucks – but if I teach myself, I’ll work out and do the way that is effective for me. Not the way it’s supposed to work for the majority. 

That’s pretty much all I can do if I don’t want to keep forever dropping things in frustration.

This is also applicable to many other learning processes in life. It takes courage to decide to do it my way. Often piled up frustration encourages and fuels courage. 

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