10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
If I could list the number of times I”ve crashed and burned on the guitar—gotten in front of an audience or a judge or masterclass teacher, or a group of friends even, surprised to find that all my preparation came to naught….the number of times my hands were shaking with adrenaline, the number of times my mind went blank at a crucial junction, taking choice bits of the “memorized” music with it, the number of times I tried playing with my heartbeat exploding in my chest….and then proceeded to completely embarrass myself… the number of times I’ve had to live through the humiliation of not being considered as good as I want to be considered… .I could fill a blog, and a quite entertaining one. Of course, I’d rather forget all about all of these times, and, in fact, I kind of had forgotten, until writing this article dredged them back up. I think that most guitarists who’ve gotten somewhere with their playing could dredge these memories up, plenty of them.
It’d be nice if their students could know about them sometimes!
The teacher-student relationship is fraught with all kinds of unconscious assumptions. And not all of them are empowering, especially those that go something like the following:
Teacher plays: —Something blindingly awesome that sounds (and looks) amazing—
Student thinks: I can’t even imagine being able to play that….
Teacher says: “See, it’s really not that hard to do, know what I mean?”
Student thinks: No, I don’t know what he means at all.
Teacher, trying to offer encouragement, says: “Don’t worry, you can do it!”
Student concludes (to self): No, I can’t. Obviously. This supports what I already suspected: I’m inferior and untalented.
Self confidence is the root of this type of assumption, which doesn’t make sense logically…but often eats away at a a beginning guitarist. It’s also sometimes subconsciously supported by the insecurities of a teacher, who feels a need to prove that he or she has something to teach. But I think that mostly it’s because a teacher doesn’t have quite the visceral sense of how something that is easy for him can really be that much harder for a beginner.
This whole unfortunate dynamic strikes me as kind of natural, however.
Forgetting how difficult it once was to do something is basic to how we learn everything worth learning. In fact it’s only way we can learn it. It’s a natural process: something that is impossible at first, through focused repetition and struggle, becomes second nature, so that it can become the building block for the next “impossible thing”, so that too can become second nature….and so on, pretty much endlessly.
It was once impossible for you to walk. Heck, it was impossible for you to even stand. Now you can run. Now you can navigate your way through a streaming sidewalk of strangers moving in all different directions with varying speeds and intentions, and without even being conscious of what you’re doing, never bump into any of them. You might even be able to do this while texting.
But when you were a baby, you’d fall down at every step. How often do you have to even think about any of the complex issues of balance and coordination involved with walking? Your body has a natural intelligence that takes care of this, which is as it should be.
It’s the same way for all the skills that it’s possible to develop on the guitar.
The Queen from Through The Looking Glass was on to something, when she wanted Alice to practice believing impossible things for half hour a day: “Why sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”
Learning is the process of building on one impossible thing after another.
But a lot of people forget to believe in the impossible thing and get stuck believing the thing is impossible. They get stuck at some point where they are still falling down, and if they forget that this is part of the natural process of learning a skill, it’s easy to get frozen in time, and even quit out of frustration.
Can you imagine a baby just calling it quits?
“I’m just going to let people carry me all my life. They’re so good at walking anyways, and I just keep falling down with every step, so what’s the point?” Do babies ever do that? No, babies are independent thinkers, and self motivated: they just get up, over and over again, and before you know it, they’re exploring all over the place and driving their parents insane with worry.
So take command of your own learning process. It’s not that big of a deal: babies do it all the time. If the fear of failing (falling) starts to loom so large that it’s easier to play it safe, and never take any risks, then you are really selling yourself short.
Remember that your teacher, even if he’s a wonderful guitarist, is also a student—there are always new things that he is learning, places where he falls short and needs to learn and improve.
And remember, that you also a guitarist.