I’m a crappy guitarist. In the 20 years that I’ve been playing, I can’t once remember playing scales, and I’ve never sat down to "practice". I still have trouble with F-chords, I have awful right-hand technique, and my tempo has been known to swing from too fast to too slow without ever hitting "just right".
I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
See, I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a Famous Rock Star, or even a semi-locally-famous folky. That dream I have where Ronnie’s down for the count and I have to fill in on-stage with the Rolling Stones — and we’re going on in 5 minutes! — would always be just a dream (thankfully).
That realization freed me to stop trying to be cool and to just enjoy playing, and to this day my guitar is the one thing I own that I would consider going into a burning building for. Playing guitar has stopped being something I do for everyone else (even if they weren’t listening) and has become one of the few things I do simply for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Everyone should have at least one thing in their life that they do for no other reason than that they enjoy it. As it turns out, though, it’s harder to do things for their own sake than it would seem! Collectors dream about the Big Find that will make them rich, writers dream of the best selling novel that will get them on Oprah
To be able to revel in an activity that you’re not all that good at and that you don’t care that you’re not all that good at, to strive for and embrace mediocrity in some area of our lives, that’s a hard thing for a lot of us to do.
But it’s worth it. Here are eight things I get out of being a crappy guitarist:
If i never get even the tiniest bit better than I am right now, it won’t matter. Nobody’s life, freedom, or even happiness depends on how well (or poorly) I play "Rocky Raccoon". Whether I improve or don’t improve is totally irrelevant to anything or anyone but me.
I’ve met thousands of other crappy guitarists over the course of my life, and a few great ones. Being a guitarist myself creates a connection between us, gives us something to talk about. Guitarists are always giving each other little gifts — showing each other how to play a tricky part of a song, teaching each other new chords or new ways to make old chords, sharing licks and riffs with each other.
And, of course, non-musicians are always interested in the fact that I play. It gives them something to talk to me about (apparently my knowledge of early Cold War government sponsorship of social scientific research doesn’t give them much to hold onto!) and, of course, it is mildly entertaining for them to hear me play.
I carried an acoustic guitar with me all over Europe for a year, keeping it under my bed in hostel after hostel, carting it in it’s heavy reinforced case from town to town on busses and trains, dragging it through the streets of Paris, Prague, Budapest, and Amsterdam. And I’m glad I did.
Not just because playing in hostels and on park benches helped me make friends, but because it helped the people around me make friends. Once a roomful of travelers have sung "American Pie" at the top of their lungs together (badly), the ice is pretty much broken. People start interacting, because nothing can make them feel any more self-conscious.
I pick up a guitar, finger a chord, and strum, and music comes out. What could be more rewarding? I play, music happens. Instantly.
And if I try something tricky, I can hear on the spot whether it worked or not. If I’m trying to figure out a song, I’ll try all manner of different things, until suddenly I hit the strings a few times and the song I’m trying to learn starts coming out.
Because I’m always listening to music with an ear towards learning how to play it, I’ve become adept at working out how the different pieces fit together, and what makes each of them work, apart and together.
Aside from the increased formal appreciation of usic, I’ve also become much more appreciative of the work that a musician has to do to make a song work. Songs I might have — heck, <em>did</em> — totally dismissed at one point I listen to quite seriously today, because I know how difficult it is to make even a bad song.
Guitar playing is, for me, a kind of meditation. There have been too many time to count when, looking for a moment’s distraction, I’ve ended up playing for hours. When you’re playing, your attention is (usually) focused entirely on the here and now, the unfolding of notes and chords into melodies and, ultimately, songs. This kind of mindfulness means I’m living entirely in the present, even if just for a few moments — a skill that most of us, with our crazy lives and hectic schedules, have a hard time cultivating.
Just listening to music is often enough to help ease the stress of our day-to-day lives; making music is a thousand times more effective (as long as you’re not worrying about how you’ll deal with your groupies after you’ve broken big on MTV). The combination of mindfulness and almost willful mediocrity lets me ease up on myself and just be for a little while, clearing my head and soothing the tensions that build up over the course of the day.
Finally, playing music is something that I do solely because it makes me happy. While I can and do share my playing with others, in the end I play for entirely selfish reasons: because I feel like it.
I think everyone should be lousy at something they love. What do you do that you simply don’t care if you ever get any better at it, that you do just because it pleases you to do it? Let us know!
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