Friday, February 6, 2009

The Ego always gets in the way...

The best music lesson I've had in my whole life was a 5 minute conversation with a Dutch Flamenco Guitarist I met in the Caribbean.  That's a long story there so I'll try to get to the point. During a 6 month stay on on St. Thomas I was lucky enough to play with and listen to some amazing musicians.  I was constantly checking out live music and was surprised by the levels of musicianship I heard down there.  One of the most incredible performances I caught was this Flamenco Guitar player.  

It was an engaging performance complete with a beautiful dark haired dancer.  I sat there awestruck listening to such a virtuoso performance at a cozy little oceanside bar.  This man was certainly the best, most accomplished guitarist I'd ever seen.  His fingers flew with incredible speed, accuracy, and passion.  

At the time I was just beginning my study of the guitar and banjo and I was practicing and playing obsessively.  Hours and hours a day with no guidance or real understanding of how to practice.  Better than nothing but far from effective.  In fact I was developing an intense pain in my left wrist.  The road to hell paved with good intentions.

I decided during the show to ask this guy for advice about the pain in my wrist.  I was thrilled/terrified to meet and talk to such a master.  After the show I approached him and sheepishly inquired, "Hi, I'm a guitarist too (yeah right) and I've got this pain in my left wrist.  I was wondering if you have any advice."

Without a word he immediately snapped up my wrist and grabbed my fingers with his other hand.  He shook my hand for a few seconds and then threw my arm back to me.  He then cooly and directly stated, "It will be very difficult for you.  The ego always gets in the way."

Huhhh.  Terror.  What did he mean?  I've been working so hard and wanted to play so bad.  He then proceeded to show me how lightly he pressed down the strings and how you could slip a piece of paper under the strings and between the fretboard as he played.  He reapeated it again.  "It will be very difficult for you.  The ego always gets in the way."  Crushed.

That was it.  That was the best music lesson I ever had.  Why?  Well, he was exactly right of course.  I was playing well beyond my means.  I wasn't ready to practice hours a day.  I wasn't practicing with the correct attention to muscle memory and muscle tension.  I was going about it all wrong.  In short, my ego was in the way.  He hit the nail on the head after one simple question.  In fact, it was years before I recovered from those practice habits I was developing some of which I'm still fighting against (like unwanted muscle tension.)  

I don't think I fully grasped the importance of his words until years later.  I had to undo all the bad habits I had developed and accept my level of playing and accept that it would take years to get to where I wanted to be.  Ego, I had to control my ego.  As a teacher I can immediately tell the students that have control over their ego when comes to practice and its no surprise that these students progress faster.  They are not any more physically gifted than any other student, but they've got a good handle on the more difficult piece to master.  The ego.  

The ego always gets in the way.  But we can work with it.

  • Go slow!  Muscle memory can only be learned slowly
  • Practice things in small chunks, don't bite off to much to soon
  • Be diligent, avoid obsession,  15 minutes of solid practice is better than hours of bad practice
  • It take time, lots of time, be patient
  • Master one thing at a time and don't get bogged down and end up playing several things poorly, Play one thing REALLY well.  
Hope it helps.

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