The Ides of March
and my guitar resumption anniversary. I started playing guitar (again) 8 years ago today after about a 15 year lapse since my early twenties. I've posted on the topic several times in previous blog entries. Suffice to say, it was one of the most important decisions I've ever made in my life. Probably only outranked by marrying Aeyong, joining the Army, and pursing college/PA school. Becoming a musician again (I've always remained a fan) filled a void in my life that I wasn't aware existed. Aeyong would say it created a void in our bank account, but ahem, that's another bag of picks.
It's strange how certain things can validate you internally moreso than other events that have more significance for the world at large. Of all my accomplishments in life, finally getting close to playing songs like Eruption or any number of Tommy Emmanuel pieces means more to me than just about anything. Maybe it's easy to say when I'm on the inside looking out, at least as far as my military and academic achievements. I don't know. But I feel like it wouldn't matter. I had such an early connection with music and I still vividly remember many musical events through my life. It's probably pathetic in the eyes of others (not that I care) that I'm still pursuing musical goals that were born 30+ years ago. But this is what charges my batteries and makes me happy.
In retrospect of the last 8 years, I've made significant progress and also gone through a large volume of gear changes. When I resumed playing, I could still play basic chords and I sort of remembered the blues/major scales. It seemed like I progressed very rapidly at first, and after a few months I started playing primarily acoustic. I made an important decision at the time to start learning songs that were several years of practice beyond my current ability. What I have learned over the years is that progress on guitar, or any instrument, is based on plateaus. Or at least it seems that way. Regular, focused practice of the correct things (usually that means your weaker points) will be rewarded with improvement, although it may not be apparent for a long time.
Before I started playing guitar again, I spent my leisure time playing golf, video games, watching tv, reading books. I still have those hobbies (not so much golf) but they have decreased in relation to the amount of time I spend playing. What I discovered with guitar, and later all the instruments I play (keys, bass) is that you get back what you put into it. If you work hard at improving, you will. It may be hard to measure progress at times, but if you're spending regular time with your instrument (in an effort to improve) you will get better. That's not really the case with video games, tv, movies, books. Yes, you can learn and grow from these types of media, but I mostly read and watch to escape, not to grow. I do read non fiction and classics fairly often, but I mostly just want to be entertained.
For me, the big picture improvements (learning to play Eruption, being able to improvise over chord changes effectively, writing, etc) are the more long term goals you have for playing, but I have discovered that the incremental improvements are a big part of ongoing satisfaction as well. In the course of learning more difficult songs, little sequences within the songs are often points of challenge. It can be a fast run, or a difficult chord stretch, etc. When you finally get to the point where you can just play a sequence like that smoothly without having to stop (even if it's not up to tempo yet) it's an amazing feeling.
I've discovered that after about 3000 hours of practice (that's my highly accurate scientific estimate) I actually enjoy the busy work of being a musician. I stole that phrase from Brandon Sanderson's description of why he chose writing over chemistry. He's a popular fantasy writer with several best sellers but he went to college as a chemistry major. He said he enjoyed the big picture concepts of chemistry, but he really got bogged down with the tedium of lab work. However, he never minded the busy work of writing which can be hours and hours of daily writing and rewriting for months or years before a publishable novel is finished.
I feel the same way about music and being a musician. The real payoff is when you learn a song the whole way through and can just play it from an emotional standpoint without focusing on the physical task. This is quickly possible for simple songs (3 chord Dylan tunes for example), but takes years of work for others. However, along the way you see incremental improvements in the parts that make up the whole, and I derive pleasure and fulfillment from that as well. If I didn't, I would have given up long ago.
I think the only important quality that separates an accomplished musician from a "failed" musician, is that they wanted it more so they never quit working at it. Obviously that probably applies to any hard task that takes a long time to complete. There are several books and other published works out there about innate talent in relation to hard work. I'm firmly in the hard work camp. The generally accepted amount of time required for one to become a virtuoso musician is about 10,000 hours. This was based on various longitudinal studies of professional musicians and the common separation between the university musicians who would go on to become renowned and/or highly successful musicians was that they practiced more often for a longer period of time than their peers.
The simplest way for me to describe the long lasting appeal of music and being a musician is that it's like a never ending well for me. I always find something new to enjoy, whether it's totally new or just a new realization or discovery about something I already was playing. I also have discovered that I kind of like that music is so hard at times. I think that's one of the reasons why it's so much more satisfying to accomplish things in music. For me to be able to play Eruption represents 30+ years of wishing I could play it, combined with several years of practice (not consistently and consecutively for Eruption in particular) to get to the point where it's achievable. Even if I never played it for anyone, it's still a very significant milestone for me as a player and fan. And there's no other way to get that feeling. I've gone to hundreds of concerts over the years, and we still go (we have 6 upcoming between April-August 2012) on a regular basis because we (mostly me) still experience a high at concerts that nothing else can replicate. But the feeling I get at a concert is different than the feeling of being able to play a song by my idols or one I've written myself. Not necessarily a superior feeling, but a different one that can't be replicated by any other means.