A Minor Change for A Major Reward

How playing guitar made my grad school life more enjoyable
MAY 2019
Yong-Chul
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

I should start a new hobby.

I came to this conclusion when my answer to the question, “research + sleep = 24 hours?” was “yes, but not always”. Although finding downtime can be difficult, especially when you are taking courses, it is a necessary part of staying sane and healthy in graduate school. To get the most out of my spare time, I decided to learn something new and relaxing at the same time.

Until I went to buy a guitar, I had not realized how much easier online shopping has become. I was looking for an instrument that was not too expensive so that I could afford it, but not too cheap because that usually means low quality. I scrolled through the many options on Amazon:

‘$599’ – nope. That is more than 20% of my monthly stipend.

‘$35’ – that sounds fishy. Also, there are more than 100 customer reviews, and it has less than three out of five stars.

‘$160’ – okay, now we are talking… I guess the customer reviews are fairly good? Let’s see other options.

I saw many in $100-$180 price range, so I considered their design, material, and other mini-gadgets that came with them. Then, after some consideration – that’s it! I found an instrument with the qualities I wanted and with great reviews.

When it arrived, I could immediately smell the scent of finely polished wood as I opened the package. I appreciated its smoothly curved, shiny body radiating deep black from the characteristic hole in the center. I held its neck with my left hand and pulled on the fattest string with my right thumb. Then came a sound wave vibrating at a slightly lower pitch than the expected 82.41 Hz. There were five other strings, and none of them were on the right pitch.

It was out of tune. I knew this thanks to an electronic device I had also purchased, which could be clamped onto the guitar’s neck. This device sensed the vibration of string on the neck and displayed a scale bar representing percent error from the expected vibration. The device is called “tuner” but I could not resist the urge to call it a mini-spectrum analyzer, a scientific instrument that displays input signal strength as a function of frequency. The device does not tune the instrument; it merely displays the pitch at which the vibration is greatest. In other words, I am the tuner and the device is an analyzer. After tuning, I plucked the strings, generating a pleasant harmony. Of course, I had no clue what I was doing. I simply was amazed at the intricate design and function of my purchase. In this manner, I appreciated every aspect of my first acoustic guitar.

As a person with an analytic mind, I decided to tackle music theory first. I had been playing the drums for ten years so I thought I could jump right into learning advanced music theory. What a mistake. I found out how undertrained I was in even the most basic theories. Trying to understand modes like Dorian and Ionian was like trying to decipher hieroglyphs. It was fun but consumed a lot of time. With other academic pressures on my shoulders, I brushed music theory aside saying sorry, but see you later.

Ultimately, I decided to focus on actually playing the guitar and brushing up my fingerstyle techniques. So, I Youtubed some videos of my favorite tunes like Canon in D, Bourree in E minor, and Minuet in G minor. I found a tutorial video for each piece and listened to an expert playing them. How beautiful! Then, I plucked along with great difficulty. For starters, my fingers did not know which string they were plucking, and the video played too fast. So, I turned on the ‘speed X 0.5’ setting. Now, the tune was not as beautiful and elegant as before, but at least I could manage to play along! Every measure I played successfully boosted my confidence. So, I became daring and closed my eyes to feel the groove like I usually do on the drums, and “BOINK, DUNG, CLICK” – clearly I was not ready. Still, the learning process was tremendously fun.  

During the academic semester, I blocked out one hour every day after dinner to practice guitar. Even though the term “practice” sounds dull and painful, I truly enjoyed the process. It helped that I was improving more rapidly every time – thank you, beginner’s syndrome. Playing guitar allowed me to escape from the competitive environment at MIT and just enjoy life. In fact, I was able to focus better after playing my favorite tunes. I am sure there is some neurological explanation as to why this happens, but that did not matter to me. The truth was, I was feeling more content and satisfied after I had started my new hobby. Seeing all the good fruit come out of consistent practice is such a great experience. In fact, I can now play all the pieces I mentioned earlier!

I know the pressure to overwork at MIT is real – I have felt it myself. Engaging in a new hobby helped me diffuse such pressure. It even increased my performance because my brain was more relaxed. What a happy realization that there is much more to graduate school than just research and taking courses.