Raised in a way that engendered my curious temperament, I’ve felt compelled to tear things apart since I was old enough to hold my dad’s tools and get my hands dirty. Occasionally, I find myself in the shop with something on the bench to dismantle, sorting the parts into bins, trays, and plastic shoeboxes. I keep telling myself that someday I’ll build something from all those parts and call it art. A dead color laser printer was the last thing that I took my tools of controlled deconstruction to, and that was three years ago and most of the printer parts have since been tossed out with the garbage and recyclables to reclaim the bins, trays, plastic shoeboxes, and time for storing plectrums, strings, patch cables, pedals, tuners, and miscellaneous guitar parts and accessories.
I regard the guitar as a tool of personal and spiritual development, perhaps likened to the sword beheld by the Samurai of feudal Japan. I sporadically attempt to dismantle the process, to collate the pieces that make up the parts of the big picture so that I can feel adequately prepared for the next leg of an arduous musical journey. The more I learn about guitar and making music on it, the more I realize how little I know. I seize up a bit, reminding myself that this is just another plateau to traverse, that the journey will require more inspiration and discipline from this point onward to make it to the next milestone. I reflectively recall what my music sensei told me last year, that I’m making good improvements, but there will come a time when those improvements will seem fewer and longer to obtain.
In these situations, it becomes evident that you must trust the knowledge base of your music teacher. During some lessons, I never pluck a string. Instead, I sit and absorb what my music sensei has to say, both philosophically and musically. Often, I embellish his persona with an imaginary Zen Master who presents his disciples with a koan, a paradoxical riddle that may have no answer yet provides a catalyst for enlightenment. What is it that I want to accomplish, I would frequently ask of myself. The more I would entertain an ultimate destination, the more I would experience a sense of disarray. I quickly acknowledged that being too preoccupied with the destination is a distraction to effecting incremental growth from level to level.
Advancing to the next level, transversing a plateau, or moving forward doesn’t necessarily equate to more practice time. You can practice with deliberate intent all you want and be smarter in your approach to practice, but seven ways to Sunday it’s going to translate into more practice time for us mere mortals. Those of us with average ability or slightly better chops, smart deliberate practice will continue to increase relative to our musical aspirations. I can read standard music notation and play from lead sheets. Yes, it takes me six months or more to hone a piece of Bach to where it sounds decent to the untrained ear. I could quit music lessons now and forge ahead on my own, but there’s so much more to music than the ability to read and play music. I don’t feel content where I’m at musically, playing on a plateau in clear sight of the next level, knowing the challenge to advance will be formidable, consuming more time and energy, and requiring more inspiration and discipline to get there.
I constantly seek inspiration because it doesn’t magically appear in my mind, generously bequeathed to me by my friendly muse. I have to make a conscious effort to survey sources of inspiration that have potential to motivate me in the right direction and rejuvenate my will power. When the well is dry you need to dig deeper, making it very clear to yourself that an unwavering commitment is the only way to secure headway.
More inspiration plus more discipline equates to more practice time. That’s a quantifiable fact I need to accept, if I intend to respond to the demands of musical aspirations that lie beyond my present level of musicianship. My musical journey is one of discipline, and I’ve chosen the guitar to reflect that discipline. No matter what the discipline or profession is to master, there is life-long growth ahead—forged through valleys, plateaus and peaks—and the studies and practice time will only come to an end when you decide it’s time to quit.