Just last week I experienced that mind set yet again. The action was outstanding, five very nice striped bass caught and released at my special secret spot. Trying to explain to non-fishermen why I release almost every fish I catch is another thing that’s all but impossible; I’ve pretty much given up on trying. But when I’m fishing my mind wanders to music every time and it did that morning. So here are some analogies between the fishing experience and making music (or listening to it). Some may seem like a bit of a stretch – no pun intended regarding guitar strings and fishing line – but I’ve thought them through pretty thoroughly. So no snickering allowed! ;~)
Patience and hope. When fishing I have experienced the benefits of being patient more times than I can possibly count. That morning was a prime example. All the conditions were wrong; tide, wind, falling water temperatures, no baitfish (prey) in sight. But I decided to hang in even though my first half-hour of casting yielded nothing except an occasional clump of seaweed. My patience was rewarded with five striped bass, the largest of which weighed about twelve pounds, not a trophy by any means but a very respectable fish, and the others were almost as big. All fishermen feel hope with every cast they make because….you never know….
When playing the guitar, especially when I’m learning a new, challenging piece, I know that focused practice WILL give good results, although just how much practice is never known when I first dive in. Being patient and taking the long view is vital to success, as frustrating and difficult as that may be. And from a guitar teacher’s perspective, being patient with a student who doesn’t practice – usually a young one who craves immediate satisfaction and positive results – is a skill I’ve worked on for decades. I’m pretty good at that most of the time. An obvious lack of practice does set me off mentally from time to time but I try keep my mouth shut and let the student know I am not making value judgements about them as a person. The trick is to make him or her realize the value of practice.
Hope is something I try to nurture in every student. Fear of failure is the enemy of hope so I never nitpick about elements of a piece that are giving a beginner trouble. I always tell them that the “little stuff” can be dealt with many ways; there are many paths to the final destination. Instead, I applaud and point out what they are doing correctly and try to help them build on those things. That way, hope of success never dies.
To succeed at fishing you must be willing to keep an open mind. Changing a lure, varying a retrieve, studying your surroundings, i.e., trying to predict where a fish might have the best chance of finding its dinner will up your score. Doing the same thing over and over with no hook ups rarely is productive. You could make the argument that repetition is an element of patience but in my experience if I fall into repetitive casting and retrieving with no love the fault is not with the fish, it’s on me.
One of the very first things I drill into all my students is that pure, mindless repetition alone will probably not make a piece of music sound better. On the contrary, it can be very detrimental to learning: there is a very real possibility of doing nothing more than practice your mistakes. That’s where keeping an open mind comes into the process. You can’t solve a problem until you locate it. There are so many elements to playing a song to perfection and many times just one of those elements ignored or done incorrectly shuts down the satisfaction gauge. All I’m really saying is: take a mental step back. Examine all the elements of playing and not just the hand that’s doing the work on the neck. If your mind is open to making small but vital adjustments (wrist position, arching of fingers, staying close to frets, posture) you will succeed, sooner or later. This probably sounds obvious but many, many times I’ve seen students accept something technique-wise that sounds reasonably decent on a particular chord in a particular song, only to find that when they must deal with that technique issue in another song when it doesn’t work at all. This is why I stress productive practice (being analytical about all the elements) rather than repeating something again and again with no appreciable improvement.
Sadly, in the beginning anyway, that kind of focus usually leads to some degree of frustration. I was reminded of this on my recent fishing trip to Wyoming. I was fly-fishing and even before I stepped into a certain trout stream that I KNOW holds seemingly unlimited numbers of brook trout I had to deal with tying on a fly with leader material that wasn’t much thicker than a human hair. Was I frustrated? You bet! My old eyes just ain’t what they used to be. But in spite of taking about three minutes just to tie on that fly I knew it was the right thing to do: the right fly with the right knot – tied correctly, using line that the trout were unlikely to see and get spooked by. About a half dozen brookies later I was glad I had hassled my way through something that an expert makes look easy. Guitar playing is just like that. Half-done chord changes, inconsistent rhythm and general sloppiness are the mark of an impatient guitarist.
A big part of the pleasure of fishing is reflecting upon your successes. In places near my home where I frequently fish, every trip to such places brings me back to an instance that was special. That rock over there – remember laying that big striper on it to take a picture? The youngster who walked down that beach with a fishing rod and wanted to know just about everything there was to know about striper fishing, and I told him way more than he probably could remember. I’m smiling now just thinking about it.
And many times when I pick up my guitar I reflect upon places I’ve been with it, friends I’ve made via music over the years, songs that always bring me back to a time and place that was oh so special, although I might not have known it at the time. Feelings and thoughts like these have inspired songwriters and composer forever.
I hope you have something in your life – maybe fishing? – that helps you learn and appreciate the essence of playing the guitar.
Peace & good music,