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Built for Comfort, I Ain’t Built for Speed: Learning the Blues

by Mark Heinemann

© Copyright 2002 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.

Something that I have experienced time and time again when I am teaching or practicing myself is the need to slow down. Most of the kids are always in a hurry when learning music. I have a motto I tell them: Slow equals Fast.

There is a lot to learn if we are going to raise our level as musicians and the weight of all there is can feel overwhelming. I have tried to think of many ways to speed up the process, but it has always come back to the fact that if I can just slow down when I am trying to learn something new, I have a better chance of getting there sooner.

Rock me Baby, Rock me Slow
Rock me Baby, Rock me Slow
Rock me Baby, Till I want no more.


—B.B.King

Why is slowing down necessary? For one, practicing requires our undivided attention and that includes a willingness to be present with the process of learning. Learning music is a beautiful process and that requires some acceptance on our part that it is just going to require time. We have to be able to stay with it through times of doubt, difficulty, feeling lost and times where it seems like nothing is turning over and results don’t appear to be forthcoming.

Often change isn’t noticeable and in the middle of your efforts you will be unable to see anything happen. Each step you take can seem insignificant, as things move slowly into place. After a few years you will realize that you did make significant progress. If we are patient and work systematically and consciously then music will give back to us endlessly and we will be able to visit more exciting terrain. The important thing is to keep the love of the music alive and stay with it, stay with it and keep staying with it.

When I was first learning I thought that I could rush the process and I would have given anything to jump into the place I am now 28 years later. In order to practice more I would set the alarm clock to wake me up in the middle of the night. After about a month of this, strung out and irritable from lack of sleep, I hit a wall with my hand and was unable to play for 3 weeks. I was forced to take time out.

There is a technical side of playing which requires the fingers do certain moves. They have a better chance of making the proper connections and getting habituated into the right motions if you practice steadily, evenly and deliberately and not rush them as they get acquainted with the new passageways they have to travel. How many of us have tried to play the Stumble by Freddie King and had a hard time playing the descending lick in 6ths. You have to break that lick into manageable units so that the shifts from one fret to the next are easily reached.

A few years back I was studying rhythm with Ty Burhoe a local Tabla teacher. The Tabla is a set of two tuned drums indigenous to India and if you have ever heard classical Indian music you would be amazed at the lightning fast passages these players are able to achieve. At one point I asked him, how they develop speed and he said that when they are learning a new pattern they work on it slowly without variation for five minutes because it takes that long for the muscles in the hand to relax. After five minutes they are then able to push the practice up a notch in speed.

One of the best examples of speed being achieved through a slowing down process is one given to me by my friend Jeremy a musician who had a job at a hospital registering patients names as they were admitted. This was before the time of lap top computers. He had to use an ancient computer, and if he made one mistake it would take hours to redo. In order to avoid having to do the extra work he would spend 2 minutes typing in a single name. His fingers poised precisely above the keys until he was absolutely sure he would hit the letter he was trying to engage. After two years of working at that job, he found he was able to type seventy words a minute.

As musicians it is important to keep the big picture of your desire to learn music and the years it will take to achieve the vision as well as the practice that is required on a day to day level. How do you approach your practice so you get maximum results. You get the most mileage if you are fully present and take the time to understand the challenges you are being faced with. When you encounter a technical difficulty, isolate the problem area and then systematically turn it into an exercise and practice it slowly and evenly until you can play it with ease. This requires patience and mental focus.

Sometimes a small thing can become huge when it unlocks the mystery of what is difficult. If you are not attentive and in a rush, those diamonds in the rough can be easily overlooked. Recently a student of mine was having a hard time picking. His pick would often change direction and he would lose control. I was giving him instructions but when I took the time to really study how I held the pick, and showed him where I gripped it, that he was able to make a change. There was a different feel to his playing and the pick had stopped changing directions.

Tell me how long do I have to wait?
Can I get you now, or do I have to hesitate?


—Reverend Gary Davis

A good metaphor for practicing is looking at the agenda of each new day. Every day there are a million competing concerns, dreams, activities to be achieved. I wake up and feel the pressure rising; it’s 6 in the morning and I still haven’t conquered the world. But if I can get up and light a candle and sit quietly for an hour a lot of those concerns seem to sort them selves out and that hour of quiet helps to set up the rest of the day. I am able to achieve a lot more than if I had rushed into the day.

One friend of mine has said that the more he has to do the slower he gets inside. He deliberately slows down and is still able to accomplish a surprising amount.

I wish I had a magic wand that could remove all technical difficulties that people encounter when learning music. But that is part of the great joy of being a musician. You are daily faced with challenges. A certain chord dares you to finger it, this scale invites you to climb on its back and go for a ride. It is the challenge of learning that excites us as we can feel how achievable new music is although it may be just out of our finger tips reach. But we can get there by practicing with confidence, patience, perseverance, intelligence, heart and by being built for comfort and not for speed.

I ain’t go not diamonds, I ain’t go not boat,
But I do have love that’s gonna fire your soul,
Cause I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.
But I got everything, all you good women/men need.

—Willie Dixon

©Copyright 2002 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.