Confessions of a Stupid Guitarist part 2 (2005)

I wrote the original "Confessions of a Stupid Guitarist" in the summer of 1996 while I was doing a gig in Guam with a top 40 band. I had a lot of time to practice, and I also had a lot of time to think. I decided I wanted to take a lesson with Mick Goodrick to ask him all of the questions that had been floating around in my head for a long time concerning my frustrations with finding my own musical voice, getting over stage fright, and numerous other issues. So I just wrote everything down as it occurred to me and, when I'd finished, I realized the process of writing it all out had been pretty cathartic. The following year, when I finally did get to meet with Mick, I simply read him the essay rather than trying to remember all the topics I'd wanted to talk to him about. As I mentioned in the intro to part 1, he suggested I publish the essay, and in the ensuing years that I've had it up on my website, I've gotten numerous emails from guitarists and other musicians who have thanked me for posting the essay. Many people have said that reading the essay helped them realize that they weren't alone in their struggles. 

For the last few years, I've thought it was probably time to put up a "Confessions part 2" that discusses my more recent thoughts on the subjects. As of this writing (spring of 2005), I feel like I'm a long way from that guy in my distant memory who sat on the beach in Guam writing about his seemingly insurmountable frustrations with music and a music career, newly entering his third decade and beginning to wonder if the parade had passed him by before he'd had a chance to join. In one sense, I was a different person then, and yet I'm still the same confused guy I was at 30; the same frightened, wonder-filled kid I was at 18; the same depressed, angst-ridden adolescent I was at 13; and the same smart-aleck kid who thought he knew everything at 5. I read recently that Albert Einstein said, "This separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, if a stubborn one." I seem to realize as I get older (and more illusory time passes by) that everything is interrelated: people, music, the arts, the universe, and yes, time. I am a part of the universe, and that universe includes all the people I have been at earlier ages and all the people I will ever be. Somewhere, somehow, my intuition tells me that it all exists together. I'm still the guy who had all those hang ups, questions, and frustrations in the "Confessions" essay, but this version of that guy seems to have figured a few things out, and I'm a little farther down the same road. Here's what I've discovered along the way since then:

Technique

 Throughout my life, I've run into musicians who seem to fall into two camps: schooled and unschooled. Typically, many unschooled musicians tend to be distrustful of schooled musicians, thinking that they are overly academic in their approach and don't "play from the heart." Schooled musicians, on the other hand, seem to have a tendency to look down on unschooled musicians, finding them to be undisciplined and incomplete in their training. Personally, I believe both have their own advantages and disadvantages and that neither is better than the other. I definitely don't believe the academic approach is somehow inherently detrimental to playing with heart or soul. The joy of hearing and making music, and the feeling of connection to the rest of humanity that it gives me, are the reasons I wanted to play in the first place, and that's never taken a back seat to the analytical, intellectual approach. To me, music is and always has been about feeling. As a matter of fact, probably one big factor in my frustrations with technique has always been the fact that I was totally self-taught for the first five years I played guitar. I picked up too many bad habits through being self-taught and ignored later teachers' suggestions that I try to address those problems thinking, "No, man. Don't try to change me; that's my style." I was always frustrated with my lack of chops and, rather than working on playing more efficiently, I'd just practice harder with the crappy, tension-filled technique I'd developed on my own and force it. Then, when I was 30 or so, I started having all sorts of problems with tendonitis, and I finally realized the value of playing with good technique. Since I started playing primarily with my fingers several years ago, I've concentrated on trying to stay as relaxed and efficient in my movements as possible, and that's really paid off for me. I can't necessarily play faster now than I could with a pick, but I can practice at a quick tempo for hours without getting tired at all; when I was playing with all that extra tension, I could play fast tempos, but I'd be completely worn out after just a few minutes. The only trade-off has been that it seems to take me a while for my fingers to warm up, although the longer I play with them, the less that seems to be an issue. I'm not advocating that all guitar players should play finger-style but just that, in general, there is definitely value in approaching technique from a scientific viewpoint and paying attention to efficiency of motion. Improving my technique has had the effect of making my guitar-playing, and therefore my life, less tense. With less tension I have become more happy and less frustrated with my playing.

 Meditation

For many years, I've been interested in the practice of meditation—most particularly as it relates to playing music. I, and many other musicians, feel that there is a similarity of states between that of meditation and that of a musician performing "in the zone." This "zone" is a state of being completely in the moment, no longer beset by the petty, everyday concerns and distractions that go through our heads. It is only in this zone that the highest level of artistry is possible. I believe that, at that level, the illusion of separation begins to dissolve—separation between people and between every part of the universe. It is this state that allows the artist to tap into something larger than his or her limited concept of "self." I do not follow any particular religious tradition or practice, and I don't really have a specific belief in what I've heard described as a "personal God," but I do believe deeply that there is something bigger than me that I manage to tap into when I get to that zone. As a result, to me, performing music at it's highest level is what you might call a "religious experience." 

I have been concerned for a long time with trying to find ways to tap into that "zone" more consistently and efficiently. One of the things that's helped me is the practice of meditation. Most people brought up in the western world tend to think of meditation as something foreign, or at worst, something scary that weird cult members do, but this is an inaccurate perception. Since my teenage years, I've been interested in eastern philosophy and in particular, meditation, but it seemed like, whenever I read a book about meditation, it would be written in very flowery, mystical language that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But, that summer of 1996 in Guam, I'd brought a book that a friend had given me years earlier called simply How to Meditate. The author of this straightforward text, Lawrence LeShan, approaches the subject of meditation from a scientific perspective that made immediate sense to me. He discussed the various types of meditation, and I was surprised to learn that he considered prayer to be a form of meditation. The type of meditation that appealed to me the most was breath-counting, which is from the Zen tradition. As LeShan describes the practice, the meditator sits quietly in a comfortable position and counts breaths (a cycle of inhaling and exhaling is considered a "breath"), from one to four. After the fourth breath, just start over at one and repeat. The idea is to clear the mind of all else besides simply counting breaths and being aware of the breaths and the numbers. If you've never done it before, it's a lot more difficult than you might imagine. LeShan suggests starting with 15 minutes, eventually expanding to a half hour or more. For a more in-depth discussion, I highly recommend the LeShan book. 

I have also taken a simple, repetitive guitar exercise and used it as a sort of "mantra"—a repeated word or phrase used by a meditator as an object of focus. I play the exercise over and over for a set amount of time (say 15 minutes or a half hour). I set a timer or alarm to tell me when to stop. I close my eyes and try to empty my mind, in effect "becoming" the exercise that I'm playing. This practice has two benefits aside from the meditation aspect. One is that you start to train yourself to enter the meditative state while playing, and two is that repeating the exercise so many times in a row will really cement the actions into your muscle memory. 

I found that the discipline I learned from practicing the breath-counting meditation allowed me, over time, to enter the "zone" more readily. However, there are also a lot of potential distractions in a performance setting that aren't there in the privacy of my living room. Based on my experiences, I'd say it's pretty unrealistic to expect to be able to enter into some sort of trance-like state when you're playing until you have gotten to a certain point in your playing where you don't have to think about every little thing you're doing consciously anymore. In other words, the meditative zone is probably only going to happen after you already have all the fundamentals down cold. However, I think it can still be beneficial to do whatever you can to promote that state when you play even if you're still having trouble negotiating II V Is. It may be beneficial to practice playing something that you are really comfortable with, even if that means just playing over one chord using one note, and work on achieving the meditative state while doing this. 

Also, I always figure the comfort level I have at home alone in my practice room or living room is several layers removed from all but the most optimum playing situations. If I'm playing somewhere with horrible acoustics and a loud drummer or in a high-pressure situation (Joshua Redman walks in, heh), it's going to be almost impossible for me to rely on the level of comfort I'm used to in the practice room. I just accept it for what it is. Sometimes, I'll get lucky and everything will come together, and maybe I'll even have a transcendent experience that's better than the practice room, but I can't count on that or expect it. What I can do is over-prepare so that even if I'm playing several levels below what I feel like is my best, it's still going to be at a certain minimum level. For example, if I am going to try to perform "Donna Lee" at 200 bpm, I work on it at home until I can play it consistently and cleanly at 250. Also, Bill Evans talked about a figurative "switch" that the jazz musician learns to flip when it's time to perform. After you've disciplined yourself over time to enter that meditative state when performing, the idea is that the above-mentioned distractions won't have any effect. I've gotten closer to this ideal in the last few years, but I've still got a long way to go. 

I should also mention a more physical form of meditation that has helped me—yoga. These days, many people are starting to do yoga as a way to get in shape, but the basic concept of the practice is for it to be a form of meditation. Any repetitive activity can be used as a vehicle for meditation. Yoga tends to lend itself to this use well because of its relatively calm nature of holding poses, but I've also used running as a form of meditation. Of course, physical activities that promote fitness tend to lead to an overall more healthy state anyway. I've found a definite connection between physical health, mental health, even spiritual health, and keeping tension in my playing to a minimum.

Dealing with Getting Nervous 

One of my biggest Achilles heels has always been getting nervous when I have to perform in high-pressure situations. I discussed my frustrations with stage fright at length in the original "Confessions" essay. Since the time of that writing, I have slowly but surely managed to have less trouble with stage fright. However, even though my performance anxiety kept improving (and eventually, if I was in a comfortable, low pressure situation, I felt as relaxed as I could have felt), I'd still get really nervous in situations playing with and/or in front of great players or at least people whose musical opinions I really respected. But, recently, I've started getting less nervous even in those situations to the point where I'd call the feeling more "uncomfortable" than "nervous." I still sometimes (or even most of the time) feel like I'm not at my best in high-pressure situations, but the distance between that and the totally comfortable feeling is becoming smaller all the time.  

Here are a few practical observations for someone who is having trouble with this issue:  

1) Probably the most important thing is to get more experience. The more you play in front of others, the quicker you'll get used to it, and it won't seem like such a big deal. Aside from the pressure of performing in front of an audience and the other band members, you're also probably dealing with other factors you're not accustomed to, like an unfamiliar room, playing over people talking, and possibly the blend with other instruments if you've mostly played by yourself while you practice. These things all change your perception of your sound, and this can be very disconcerting, especially when combined with the pressure of performing. Keep in mind, though, that at typical background music gigs, no one is listening anyway except maybe the occasional jazz fan in the audience who might come up and offer compliments or the common "You may think no one is listening, but I'm enjoying the music quite a bit." Probably a big part of why the masters are so confident and "un-nervous" when they play in front of huge crowds with world class players is that they do it all the time. In the case of someone who doesn't get the chance to get "thrown into the fire" all that often, it just takes a lot longer to make that growth happen. I'm pretty convinced that, if I had a steady 4-night-a-week-gig with Larry Grenadier and Jim Black in New York (one where I'd never get fired no matter how badly I played), and all my heroes came in regularly, I'd get over my anxiety once and for all pretty quickly. Until virtual reality is perfected, we'll have to find other ways to accomplish this goal, I guess! Also, one's sound is different in a living room as opposed to on a gig, and it seems to be much harder to play physically because the way everything feels and sounds has changed so much. What I think is that, again, the masters are used to playing in that context on a regular basis and are as comfortable with that situation as I am playing in my home.

2) Perhaps the pressures of performing have brought out weaknesses in your playing or your preparation of the material that you weren't aware were there in the familiarity and safety of your practice room. My rule of thumb is to try to know the music way better than I think I'll ever have to, especially if I might be performing it in a high-pressure situation. Here's where unhurried, thorough practice can really pay off. If you think you know "Scrapple" really well, see what happens if you play it at a tempo you're not used to (faster, or even more useful, way slower). You might even try playing it in other keys and/or positions.  

3) This is connected to the section on meditation; take a few deep breaths before you play, and concentrate on trying to stay relaxed. You were relaxed when you practiced (hopefully), so when your right hand tenses up, you're trying to play something in a way you haven't practiced it. It can be really tough to get over this because it's human nature to tense up when we're feeling anxious.  

4) Try to approach playing/performing with an attitude of giving rather than concentrating on trying to impress anyone or win their approval. It's my belief that music is a powerful healing and enlightening force that brings people together spiritually, and I view my role as a musician as a very important one for this reason. This holds true whether I'm playing a concert or just background music in a restaurant. If I feel like I'm trying, in my own small way, to help make the world a better place, and that I'm approaching performing with an attitude of surrendering to the music that belongs to and is part of all of us, then I'll be much less likely to get nervous than if I'm spending my time thinking, "Did the bass player think that was a hip substitution?" Again, the former can be a tough thing to get in the habit of doing, as it's our nature to do the latter. A big part of stage fright comes from a feeling of separation from the audience (and/or fellow musicians), and the more connected you can get yourself to feel to everyone, the more likely you'll be able to conquer the fear.  

5) Even though it will get easier the more you do it, it'll probably never go away completely; getting used to dealing with stage fright and playing though it is a skill that takes practice just like any other. The famous FDR quote "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" comes into play here; when you first get stage fright, it's something you're not used to during practice, and that makes it even worse because you get freaked out that you're getting stage fright. As you get more accustomed to experiencing stage fright, it will go from "oh my GOD, not YOU again" to "oh... you again." It'll become sort of like an annoying relative who keeps showing up uninvited. After awhile, you go from panicking and trying to pretend you're not home to resigning yourself to the situation and trying to live your life around him/her the best you can.  

6) Imagine everyone in the audience in their underwear. Just kidding; that's my tribute to mothers everywhere who have a child in a school play.

Sound 

I alluded to this in the section above, but a huge and often frustrating and nerve-racking experience for many guitar players is dealing with their sound and how it changes in different situations. Most of us who've ever played a gig or even a jam session have had that experience where we get our guitar tone just right at home, tweaked to perfection. We show up at the gig, confident that our sound is going to be GREAT. Then the gig starts, and all of a sudden - "HOLD IT! This sounds like shit!!! What happened?!" Suddenly our happy world disintegrates before our eyes, and we tense up, and our playing seems to instantly regress to somewhere around the level of the second week we were playing guitar. At the end of the gig, as the other musicians pack up and halfheartedly say, "Yeah, nice playing," we feel like yelling "NO, wait, that's not really the way I play. You should have heard me last night in my living room; I sounded WAY better than that....really!" Of course, it's just this self-obsessed type of thinking that keeps us from really getting into the "zone."  

What I've finally started to figure out, after years and years of banging my head against a wall because I was unhappy with my sound, is that I have to accept that it's just not possible on every gig to get a sound I'm totally pleased with. In fact, it's probably more common that I'm not going to feel my sound is at its best. The sound of a guitar, particularly the clean, warm, dark sound most jazz guitarists like, is very fragile and very easily adversely affected by the environment. Cymbals and drums, horns, basses, pianos, and especially, the drone of a room full of people talking, can all mask those pleasing frequencies we love to hear coming out of our instrument and/or amp. Add to this the fact that most clubs and other performance spaces often have less than perfect acoustics, and we're almost doomed to failure if we depend on having a nice tone in order to be content with our playing.  

What I began to realize is that when I'm unhappy with my sound, I start to tense up, and this tension causes my playing to get worse and worse. The solution I came up with was to let go of the need to have a good sound, to paraphrase Kenny Werner, and concentrate instead on trying to recreate what it felt like when I was comfortable in my practice room the night before. If I can get that feeling of relaxed comfort programmed into my body and call it up even when everything else is going haywire, I can usually play pretty well even when I hate my sound. Practicing this technique has made a dramatic improvement in my performing experience. You can probably see that all of this stuff is interrelated: being relaxed, entering "the zone," dealing with nervousness. They're all all dependent on the same thing—breaking down the illusory barriers that separate us from each other and the rest of the universe in general.

 Ground Zero Revelation

In January of 2004, I went to New York City to do a gig with a group called the Chassidic Jazz Project. It was actually the first time I'd ever done a gig in the jazz mecca, and I was worried I'd get really nervous and play like crap. To further increase the pressure, several friends and acquaintances would be coming to see me, all of whom are experienced jazz musicians, some of them pretty heavy ones. Also, the bass player on the gig was Ed Schuller. I've been lucky enough in the past few years to play here and there with some other heavy hitters, so it wasn't an entirely scary and mysterious situation, but I still felt a good bit of pressure to have my act together around Ed, who is a world-renowned (and world class) bassist. I have been having fewer problems with my stage fright issue, but since this gig was sort of a milestone, I was worried that when the moment happened, I'd feel that same sick, sinking feeling I used to know so well as my body would flood with adrenaline and I would start to shake so badly that I could barely hold a guitar, let alone play one. That panic used to often hit me like a truck from out of nowhere just when I thought I was going to stay relaxed and have a good time. 

The long and short of it is that, not only did everything turn out okay, everything turned out quite well. I don't know whether it was that I am truly growing as a person and am finally able to leave those self-obsessed thoughts in the dust or whether it was pure dumb luck, but several things did happen that I think contributed to having a good experience. First of all, Ed Schuller turned out to be an easygoing, relaxed guy who made everyone around him feel at ease (and actually, most of the great musicians I've met have had that same quality). I also feel like his energy and the benefit of all his past experience was infectious and that, in certain ways, I was actually able to play better than I really can, if that makes any sense; I sort of transcended my own limitations by surrendering to the greater group will of the music. Also, my friends who showed up to the gig were all extremely nice and supportive; I didn't feel at all like anyone was judging me or waiting to see if I'd screw up. But, probably the thing that affected me the most was that, on the way to the gig, the bandleader and I unintentionally drove by Ground Zero. It was the first time since 9/11 that I'd been there, and it had a really profound effect on me, especially since I wasn't expecting to see it. Keep in mind that no memorial or new structure had been built there yet, and at the time it was just empty space, which made it even more shocking to see.

The events of September 11, 2001, impacted me in a major way, like they did for most people in the U.S. and even the world. On that day, I remember having a sort of a vision of all those people leaving the earth at the same time—all their spirits or souls or whatever flying heavenward simultaneously together, and I felt a profound, overwhelming sadness like I'd never experienced over the loss, and yet, at the same time, an inexplicable comfort tied to the realization that all of them, and all of the rest of us left on this planet are all one and the same. I don't necessarily mean this in a religious sense; "one and the same" can mean different manifestations of "God," or it can mean part of the greater whole of humanity, or anything in between. The important part is I felt like the trivial matters that separate us from each other are merely temporary, even illusory and so completely unimportant in the greater scheme of things. In a weird sense, I also felt like that experience was like a preview of my own death. I had a feeling that dying wasn't such a terrifying idea after all because I'm not alone; we're all in this together. We are all born, we all die, and we are all made of the same stardust that has existed for eons and will continue to exist long after we are gone. I think that stage fright, as well as many other forms of fear, are based on a feeling of separation from others... a feeling of being alienated and shut out rather than accepted and embraced. Looking at it from the perspective that we're all joined makes it much easier for me to play music with the attitude of giving and sharing something freely rather than feeling pressure that I'd better measure up in the eyes of those "separate" beings.