Back in high school I played guitar. That was my thing, my identity, I was the rock guitar guy. I had the long, greasy hair, the big baggy band tour shirts. I worshipped guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Petrucci. It’s how people viewed me and how I viewed myself. We all need a mold to fit to get us through high school and that was mine.
I was pretty good too. I practiced hours each day, knew all of the scales and runs, all of the techniques and tricks, could play fast and hard, slow and smooth, various styles of music, whatever. For a period of time I thought music was what I was going to do with my life. But then I went to music school and that dream quickly died.
What we choose to do with our time determines the lessons that inform our lives and values. For instance, if I had been a star high school quarterback, I’m sure I would have learned all sorts of interesting lessons about teamwork, enduring physical pain, trust in teammates, and blowjobs from semi-conscious cheerleaders.
But instead, I spent most of my time alone in my room, smoking pot and practicing harmonic minor scales. That taught me a different subset of life lessons, and those lessons help define who I am today.
1. There’s a fine line between passion and escapism.
What we’re passionate about is often directly correlated to our biggest emotional struggles in life have been. Are bodybuilders passionate about bodybuilding? Or do they have deep-seated self-image issues? Are sports fanatics really that crazy about their team, or do they latch onto it because it fills a need for loyalty and camaraderie in their lives? At times it can be difficult to know if our love for an activity is healthy or a form of neuroticism or escapism. Often, it’s both.
Music was my passion and guitar was my escape. It took me many years to realize that. While I enjoy guitar, I’m not in love with it. Music, on the other hand, you’d have to stab me in the ears to ever get me to give it up.
I was new at my high school. I had no friends and felt out of place my first year-and-a-half there. It also happened to be the first time in my life that I was forced to confront my social anxiety (or perhaps where my social anxiety began, it’s hard to say). It didn’t help that I was overweight, poorly dressed and terrible at sports (in Texas, being bad at sports is practically offensive to people). I struggled to make friends and be accepted. Guitar helped me do that. It was the first thing I found that I was good at and that was also cool. Therefore I adopted it as my identity.
2. Quantifiable improvement is useful as a tool but not as a value.
I approached the guitar the way a nerdy kid approaches a Rubik’s Cube: it was something to be solved logically, then perfected. My perception of what made a guitarist “good” was entirely measurable — how fast could one play, was his technique clean, had he mastered various scales and harmony? — and I soon placed my self-worth on my ability to do this.
Approaching music in this way is a great way to build technical skill and impress people here or there, but it makes for a really shitty musical experience. For instance, the video below. Watch it to at least the 30-second mark, and you’ll see what I mean:
This video is from the 2009 Guitar Idol competition — and yes, Guitar Idol is what it sounds like: an international talent show. This guy is one of the finalists and he reminds me a lot of myself: treating music as a physical and mental exercise rather than an emotional one. He has his goofy melody in an obscure scale, his augmented runs, his tapping, his great technique… and he’s boring as shit to watch. I dare you to listen to all of it. I bet you can’t.
Quantified improvement is a great tool for us to utilize in various areas of life. Even in music, quantifying your improvement in areas such as speed or rhythm is great. But it must be used in support of a greater goal; it cannot be the goal itself.
This is true in life as well — being bigger, faster, stronger, richer, more attractive — these are all nice things and great tools for enhancing our lives. But if they are, themselves, your life goals, then you will eventually become miserable.
3. You only stick to a habit you enjoy.
The biggest epiphany of music school for me — other than realizing girls actually paid attention to me when I cut my hair short — was that willpower is no match for emotional investment.
Many people try to adopt a new diet or start going to the gym or learn a new skill or study a language, only to quickly fail. Unless you are being emotionally rewarded for something, you are eventually not going to continue to do it, no matter how much willpower you have. You have to find a way to make exercise fun. You have to find a way to reward yourself for successful dieting. You have to feel the benefits of the meditation practice. This is why doing these things in groups is so useful, the rewarding social aspect creates strong incentive to continue.
For me, the emotional rewards of playing guitar were far more social than I realized at the time. When I got to music school, I had to study music that I wasn’t good at and didn’t really love (jazz and classical). And instead of being the rock guitar guy, I was now one of like 20 rock guitar guys, a significant portion of whom were better than me (they could play faster, and more scales!).
It sucked. And I lasted about six months before I decided to quit and transfer.
4. No matter how great you are, you still have to depend on other people.
An unfortunate truth for many of us with delusions of grandeur. In my years playing, I never did find a band that either a) all of the musicians were good or b) all of the musicians wanted to play the same kind of music. It was frustrating. Playing with yourself all day, every day, eventually gets, err… boring. Yeah.
The irony of my musical experience came to a head when I discovered in music school that I was terrified of playing with a lot of the other people there (i.e., people as good or better than me). Playing guitar had been a strategy that allowed me to get my validation needs met while circumventing my social anxiety in the process. But in music school, confronting my social anxiety became necessary to continue excelling at guitar.
As you would expect, the guitar went out the window.
5. Ultimately, your emotional connections determine your success.
Just as any quantifiable advantage in life is useless unless applied to qualitative well-being, so in music, any quantitative ability on an instrument is useless unless applied to developing an emotional connection with the music and with your audience.
It’s interesting, for some reason guitarists fall into the “bigger dick” syndrome of playing music more than any other instrumentalist. I don’t know why.
Recall the atrocious Guitar Idol video above. It’s funny, because most guitarists like that are trying to be like the guitarist below, John Petrucci. For the past ten years, Petrucci has been seen as one of the gold standards of virtuosic guitar playing.
Now, even if you’re not really into the style of music, anyone will admit that this is an actual song. What he’s playing is difficult, but it has a melodic hook, interesting harmony, a build up, a breakdown, a solo. The drums and bass complement the guitar and vice-versa and none of them are playing over the top of one another. Ultimately, the song is making some sort of emotional statement that many people are able to relate to. And that’s why Petrucci sells out arenas around the world, and nerds like Guitar Idol guys and me don’t and never will. Simple as that.
Why? Because we watched guys like him and imitated his surface movements — the scales, the speed, the string-skipping, the harmonic ideas — spending hours developing the necessary skills to play like him and totally missing what actually makes him good: his heart. Yeah, totally cliché but come on, it’s true — something guitarists like me had all along but never used.