Toothbrushing and guitar playing

I got my teeth cleaned the other day. And the hygienist praised me for taking such good care of my teeth between cleanings — except for one thing: she noticed a little bit of plaque on the right side of my mouth, where I hadn’t done quite as good a job of brushing as I had on the left.
“You must be right-handed,” she observed. I am. She explained that it is easier to brush the opposite side — i.e., right-handers do a better job on the left side of their mouth, while left-handers brush better on the right. (This probably only applies to us Luddites who still use manual toothbrushes, not to electric toothbrushing.)
I said I would start switching hands, and using my left hand to brush my right teeth. The hygienist laughed and said that other patients try that, but quickly give up, and come back saying the brush just “goes all over the place” or that it “feels funny.” I laughed and said that if people can learn to play musical instruments, of course they could learn to brush their teeth with the unfamiliar hand, and predicted that it would take me a week to master it.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it could help your teeth. But mainly I want to make a point about practicing, and how unfamiliar motions always “feel funny” and don’t work (the two reasons the patients cited for giving up) at first. But with just a few minutes a day of practice they quickly become second nature. I have been doing the left-hand-to-right-side toothbrushing for just two days now and I’m already pretty good at it.
So when you are presented with a new chord, or a new fingering for an old chord, or, God forbid, a new right-hand technique — of course it won’t work at first, and of course it feels funny. So what? Try it again, and again, and before you know it you have learned something new, you have added to your repertoire of techniques, you have improved as a musician. And probably added some new pathways to your brain that will stave off Alzheimer’s, too.
Another lesson here is that practicing music can help you understand practicing in other areas of life. Unless you play professionally, practicing that new lick doesn’t bring any obvious tangible benefits. And even if you are a pro, you don’t get paid extra for each new lick you learn (although one can hope that all those licks add up and make people more eager to hear you and pay you, but on the other hand listening to some super-popular acts does not bear out that theory). It mainly brings the joy of listening for yourself and anyone who happens to hear you, and the satisfaction of mastering a new little skill.
But I think it is because I practice music, and understand it is possible and fairly easy to learn new manual skills, that I knew right away that I could learn to opposite-hand brush. So keep that practicing concept in mind in everything you do, and who knows, you might learn some new techniques that will help you at work, in love, maybe even save your teeth.

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2 Comments on "Toothbrushing and guitar playing"

  1. jo
    18/12/2010 at 4:42 pm Permalink

    Great tip!
    I’ve used both hands for toothbrushing for much of my life. It really doesn’t take any more practice than learning a new tune.
    Just for fun try wiping your butt with your non dominant hand. Now THAT’S hard.

  2. Bryan
    19/12/2010 at 12:24 am Permalink

    Great tip. I’m going to cut with my left hand Monday.

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