The Ego always gets in the way.
Nestled on the southeast corner of St. Thomas was a small seaside bar and restaurant called Latitude 18. A boat landing dock was right up next to the tables and the lights of St. John could be seen shining across the channel. A warm breeze always blowing through the palm frond decorations and the waves splashing into shore helped to secure the tropical ambiance.
I use the past tense because Latitude 18 is not there anymore. Bought and sold and developed I’m sure it’s a hotel resort now. Luckily it lives clearly in my memory. I had many memorable times at Latitude. It was where I played my first gig. I learned to jam and play music with other people at the weekly acoustic music jams held every Monday night. I heard some amazing musicians play everything from bluegrass to Led Zeppelin, all in this faraway corner of the world.
The most memorable performance I saw there was a Dutch flamenco guitarist. Perhaps a strange combination but this guy was the real deal. He had went and lived among the gypsies to study the music of the Flamenco. His beautiful partner danced the flamenco and was locked perfectly in rhythm with the guitar’s vibrations. They were an incredible team. They gave the music everything they had.
A musician on holiday in the Caribbean might expect to end up playing a few songs if word got around they were good. Instead this couple had slipped into some kind of trance and they performed with an intensity that revealed a commitment to their art that was something very deep and respectful. I imagined myself wanting that same commitment.
Their performance was stunning. I was only a few feet away from one the most amazing guitarists I had ever seen. His fingers flew across the strings with a speed and precision I still can’t imagine for myself. He was completely connected with his instrument. This was a master.
I happened to catch this performance while I was suffering the injury I had inflicted on my left hand from my overly ambitious and ill conceived practice regimen. It had been several weeks since I had played and witnessing this performance only heightened my anxiety and worry about getting back on track and getting good at music. I could feel myself drawn to this guitarist. I needed to connect with him and hopefully glean some advice from him.
After the show I wasted no time. Before the man even had a chance to put his guitar away, relax, and get a drink I swooped in, ready with questions. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “Hey there, I’m a guitarist too (ahem). I’ve been having trouble with my left hand. Do 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 coolly and directly stated, "It will be very difficult for you. The ego always gets in the way." This might have been one of the most terrifying things anyone had ever said to me.
He might as well have said there was something wrong with my DNA. How was my ego in the way? I had 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 because his touch was so light. He repeated it again. "It will be very difficult for you. The ego always gets in the way." I felt sort of crushed under the weight of the statement. Stunned I thanked him kindly and sat down feeling only more confused and maybe just a tiny bit insulted. This guy didn’t know me. How did he know if my ego was in the way? And in the way of what? It was all very mysterious.
Staring blankly into my beer I had no idea how to make sense of what had just happened. I went home that night feeling a bit dazed by the whole experience. I felt like I was climbing an enormous mountain before but now it seemed like I was staring up at Mount Everest. Of course I guess I had hoped this guitarist would be nice, encouraging, and give me some kind of positive feedback that would allow me to catch a glimpse of what it takes to play really well.
I see now that’s exactly what he did. As time has gone by I’ve realized those two sentences were the best music lesson I will ever have.