What learning the guitar taught me about life

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Monkeying around on stage

I first picked up a guitar at the age of 5. It was my uncle’s acoustic and I didn’t have the vaguest idea what to do with it. I ended up using it as a footstool to reach some cookies and promptly got it taken away from me. I didn’t touch another guitar for ten more years. Then one day my dad surprised me by buying me my first guitar. It was a really classy looking Pluto acoustic and I was pleasantly surprised and happy to own one. Needless to say, I had no idea then the impact this incident would have on my life. All I wanted to do then was to learn a few Green Day and Linkin Park songs 😀

But over the last 11 years, this instrument has taught me more about life than anything else. It’s a joy to wake up everyday and have the ability to express your thoughts, your feelings, and your emotions through music. Yesterday, I sat down and tried to think of all the different aspects of my life the guitar has made an impact on. There were too many to count! But I managed to distil all these learnings into a few broad categories. I sincerely hope it inspires you to consider picking up a guitar and starting a new musical journey, if you haven’t already.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it

Learning any musical instrument properly (or any subject for that matter) is not an easy affair. Especially when you’re starting out. The number of people I know who have started learning an instrument, and given up within a month is far too many. Getting through those initial months takes a fair amount of commitment and grit. The important things to remember at this stage is to stay committed and keep moving forward. Progress will be rapid in those early stages if you’re consistent with your practice schedule. But leaving your guitar idle for even a week can set you back a long way.

The basics are extremely important

One of the biggest mistakes any beginner guitarist does is to neglect the basics of guitar playing in an attempt to get better faster. Even though you will feel like you’re making rapid progress, you will soon hit a ceiling to your playing ability because of the numerous mistakes which would have crept in over time. The trick is to pick one facet of your playing, be it technique, theory, improvisation — anything — and start slow (very very slow). Don’t worry if others are getting ahead of you. Having your foundations correct can help you attain greater heights than any of them. Up the ante gradually. Before you know it you will be rocking out like Slash. And always remember, correcting your mistakes takes a lot more time and effort than learning it right the first time around.

A good mentor can accelerate your learning

In the modern world of hyper fast Internet and vast amounts of learning material available online, it’s relatively simple to reach a fairly advanced level in any discipline if you set your mind to it. But having an accomplished mentor guiding your journey could make the difference between ‘really good’ and ‘world class’. Choose your mentor wisely. Ideally, find someone who you aspire to become and who inspires you. And most importantly, see where his other disciples have reached. People with world class talents are not necessarily world class teachers. And use the Internet to your advantage. Don’t be deterred if your ideal mentor is not in the same physical location as you. Regular video calls could get the same effect if done consistently.

Teamwork is everything

One of the true joys of learning a musical instrument is that you get the ability to express your thoughts and ideas through music. But this ability can transcend to another level the minute you start working with other musicians to create music. I’ve been part of multiple bands through my musical journey, some short lived and some which have gone on to release award winning records. Now unless you are a multi instrumentalist musical virtuoso, you need good musicians with you to create really good music. The most important thing to remember is that you have a specific function to play within a band’s framework. There is no one function which is greater than the rest. A rock solid bass player is as crucial to a band as an amazing lead guitar player. Do what you need to do in the band’s context really really well. And if everyone in the band is doing the same thing, then that’s when the magic starts. Sometimes you need to step into the spotlight and other times you will need to be providing the foundation for your bandmates to be in the spotlight. It’s a give and take relationship. Just take care of the giving and the taking will take care of itself.

Beginner’s Mind

One of the common mistakes we do when we become good at something is to relax, rest on our laurels and not apply ourselves to becoming even better at the skill we’re good at. The thing we need to always remember is that no matter how much we think we know a particular subject, there is always a universe of improvement to be made. And the only way to remain motivated to keep going is to have beginner’s mind. A beginner is never under any illusion about his infallibility. He will keep trying till he learns what he needs to learn. Curiosity, willpower, and a lack of ego are the hallmarks of beginner’s mind. Having beginner’s mind can push you through the highest of ceilings in your chosen field. But without beginner’s mind you are forever destined to plateau out into something well short of world class. I would recommend reading Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo to really get into the concept of Beginner’s Mind for Guitar.

Get the tools that you need, not the ones you want

For me, the goal of learning a musical instrument was to gain the ability to express my creative self. This goal of self expression holds true for any creative endeavour. And the goal of improving your skills is to ensure that there is no gap between what your mind can conceive and what your physical body can create. And as you get better and better with your external expressiveness, you might feel the need to get better instruments and better tools. But become adept at understanding what exactly you need to express your self in the best way possible. And that might be possible with all the things you already have at your disposal. If that seems impossible, only then work towards acquiring the tools which will let you do that. A lot of beginner guitarists start out with the most expensive guitars, effects pedals etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But never be disheartened from working on yourself because all you have is a 30$ acoustic. You can make some amazing music with just that.

Get on that bloody stage

While it’s completely ok to be a pure studio based artist, the true fun of being a guitarist/musician is when you get on a stage and rock out to an audience. Now if you’ve never been on stage before, this thought can possibly give you the jitters. But unless you man/woman up and do it, you’re never going to reach your full potential as a musician. Having to play to an audience for 20 mins is equivalent to around 10 hours of practice time. You’ll realise the necessity of being able to play your parts perfectly 100 upon 100 times, rather than the 70 upon 100 times you used to do before. You will definitely make mistakes initially, and you might even get embarrassed a little bit. But without these mistakes spurring you onward, you will not be able to grow. Being on stage also teaches you to be a performer and not just a musician. While staring at your guitar the whole time when you’re on stage might help you play better, it does not make for a fun show for the audience. With time you will learn how to be a showman, how to have great synergy with your bandmates, and have lots of fun while doing it. I have to warn you though, it’s an addictive feeling once you get used to it 😀

Over time, I started realising that these lessons are pretty general in their foundation. You can apply them to any aspect of your personal development and they will hold true. To summarise:

  • Becoming really good at something is not easy. But commitment, consistency, and a bit of grit can get you all the way there.
  • Build a strong foundation for your learning process. It takes more time to correct basic mistakes later than learning it right the first time.
  • Having a good mentor is key to accelerating your learning.
  • A good team can achieve much more together than the sum of it’s parts.
  • Beginner’s mind is essential to pushing through imaginary ceilings in your learning. Curiosity, willpower, and a lack of ego are hallmarks of beginner’s mind.
  • You can express yourself most of the time with the tools already at your disposal. Don’t stop trying just because you don’t have the most advanced tools.
  • Put yourself in front of an audience, make mistakes, get better. Soon you’ll be addicted to the stage!

Do leave your comments if you liked this post. I would love to hear how the guitar helped you in your own personal development.

PS — I play for the metal band The Down Troddence. We are from India, and and our music blends Thrash and Groove Metal with a large dose of traditional Kerala (our home state) folk music elements. You can check out our music on Soundcloud and Apple Music.

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Journeying beyond self.

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