28 April 2013

Life lessons in tenacity

I began playing guitar when I was 17. Well... there was a two-year stint when I was nine, but it's safe to say I lost most of what I had learned in the years between (spent as a drummer, incidentally). When I started, I was practically the world's biggest Dave Matthews Band fan. Coming from a drum background, I like Matthews' percussive playing style. Quite randomly, I dabbled in some classical and fingerstyle guitar as well, including a year-long stint under the tutelage of a local classical virtuoso.

During college though, I lost interest in progressing at guitar. I'd jam fairly regularly, but I didn't really practice. Nothing really stood out to me that I wanted to learn, and my ability was to the point that I could learn most rock and pop pretty easily by ear. But there wasn't really much of anything that lit a fire in me and drove me to be a better player. That all changed around 2006, when I got deeper into the metal scene. I'd been listening to heavier music for a while, but when I started hearing bands like Children of Bodom, Trivium and Nevermore with their blazing, virtuosic guitar solos, it hit me – that's what I want to play!

I don't think it really hit me though just how much more difficult metal is than most other genres. It's really, really difficult. It wasn't enough for me to just look at some notation, learn the notes and practice for 30 minutes until I got it. I had to start doing exercises to develop speed and accuracy in my left hand, and precision speed-picking in my right hand. While those Dave Matthews Band songs usually meandered along at 120 beats per minute (bpm), metal songs regularly hit 200bpm and beyond. It's not unusual for a metal solo to cram in a whopping 14 notes per second. That's fast. Really fast. And very, very difficult to achieve.

It wasn't until 2010 that I really honed my practice time. Whereas I used to spend my nights playing video games or going to bars with friends, I started spending them practicing. I shot for a minimum of three hours a day, which is still what I aim for. It takes some discipline and time management, but I rarely fail to hit it. Still, the virtuosic skill of my idols has seemed impossibly distant. It seemed like every bit of progress served equally as a reminder of how hard I'd worked and how far I still had to go. Worse, it seems like every time I hop onto Youtube I can find videos of other guitarists – some of them just teenagers – who have already achieved or surpassed many of my goals. Why can they do it, and I still can't after all this hard work? Are they just gifted? Maybe I'll never be that good. What's the point of investing all this time if I just need some genetic 'gift' to be as good as I want to be?

As a personal trainer, I encounter this attitude a great deal in my clients. Many people seem so overwhelmed by the seemingly vast distance between themselves and their goals that instead of really putting in the hard work, they just get by with as little effort as they can. They find excuses to miss workouts, to eat poorly, or to avoid activity on their off-gym days. Perhaps if you don't try that hard, you can save yourself the frustration of failure.


Some time back, I had the goal of playing 10 notes per second. It seemed absolutely insurmountable. I practiced for years and still could not do it. And then, one day, I turned on the metronome and tested my progress. I did it. In fact, I surpassed it. Not by much, but I surpassed it. But the celebration was short lived, as I could only play a couple of exercises at that speed, and the goal just moved higher. Recently, I played a section of music that requires six notes per beat at 132bpm. That's just over 13 notes per second, and it was a section of a song that had long seemed to require superhuman talent. And yet, I did it. Again I find myself only able to play a few things at such speed and for relatively short bursts, but I did it. The goal moves higher again and I keep at it. 

The lesson is one that goes back to a famous quote from Michael Jordan: I can't accept not trying. The truth is, I have no idea whether I'll ever be remotely as good as my guitar heroes. But I know that the surest way to guarantee I fail is to quit trying altogether. If there is a chance I can achieve that level of skill, I will do it.

Along the way I'm destined to be frustrated at times and optimistic at others, but I don't let my feelings dictate my actions. Remember that three hours of practice a day I shoot for? I do it regardless of whether I'm in the mood or not. That's not to say I don't give myself a break occasionally, but if I let my whims decide my actions I'll never make progress. Besides, I find that even if I'm not really in the mood, once I get playing the time flies by. I put in the work and let the chips fall where they may.

I think many people view failure as something to be feared, and they tend to focus too much on the destination rather than the journey. Even if I don't achieve guitar virtuosity, I'll still be a great player and I'll still love playing. But no matter how far I go or how much I fall short of my admittedly lofty goals, you're never going to hear me making excuses for my lack of progress.

And that's how I went from noodling on Dave Matthews Band riffs to playing 13 notes per second: old-fashioned tenacity. I don't quit when it's hard, and if I'm frustrated I don't let my emotions get the best of me. In all of life's endeavors, most people protect themselves from failure. They make excuses for not putting in the work in the first place, or give up when frustration hits because that's easier than sucking it up and moving on. Everybody wants success in what they do – I mean really, what guitarist wouldn't love to have virtuosic ability? – but few are prepared to put in the work at all, much less for getting past the inevitable bumps along the way. We live in an instant-gratification culture, so when things don't come as easily as we expected we can just tell ourselves that those who have succeeded must possess some gift that we lack. Maybe it's just easier for them.

And ya know, maybe it is. But even those who have a gift will fail if they don't put in the work. For those of us who aren't so gifted – that is, the vast majority of people on life's giant bell curve – all we can do is take it one day at a time. Do the work. Because as soon as we accept that failure is the best we can do, that will be the reality. Maybe we'll achieve our goals, maybe not. None of us know. I sure don't, but I can't accept not trying.


I leave you with a demonstration of the virtuosic guitar playing to which I aspire, courtesy of the mighty Andy James from England:


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