Lessons from Tai Chi on Playing Slide Guitar

And being good enough at other things

Three weeks into my Tai Chi class, I’m practicing ‘cloud hands’ at 7 am. It’s the first thing you have to learn before you move on to the 37 flowing movements. The action involves rotating your arms in gentle arcs, matching the rhythm of your breath. As I do this I have a series of epiphanies.

To learn something new, enthusiasm is good, commitment is great, but letting go of yourself is essential too

Last night I was experimenting with my new fretless slide guitar. Having achieved a smooth 12 bar blues strum, I was trying to transition to a melody line and while it sounded correct, my fingers were cramping up, and it came out too contrived. It started losing that warm bluesy feeling. Playing the blues shouldn’t be mechanical.

This morning, my Tai Chi instructor observes my movements and says I’m doing them right, but… I’m putting in too much effort. My arms are stiff. I loosen them. The stiffness moves to my shoulders, I drop them. The knees get stiff. It’s just so hard to let go. I stop and relax my muscles. I breathe and begin again, this time just letting it flow, and it feels different. The movements are easy and the instructor gives a nod of approval.

Cloud Hands (source: www.egreenway.com)

I realise now that it’s the same with the slide guitar. I wasn’t giving myself time to breathe, literally and metaphorically. I was focusing so much on getting it right, the strings were begging me to let go and relax.

I return home, and pick up the guitar, steady my breath, loosen the shoulders, the hands and sink in. There are slip ups, but that’s fine and soon the music sounds different. It sounds the way it should, like whiskey with a splash of spring water. Moreover, with the pressure gone, it’s fun again.

Most times ‘good enough’ is pretty good

Sometimes, trying to achieve mastery can become a road block. Diving deep into details and tinkering with something till it’s perfect can be myopic. It seems like we jump into projects with a finite amount of enthusiasm. There is a tendency to use it all up on finicky bits. Sure, enthusiasm can get replenished, but that moment of first discovery is lost and it can be a while before you return to it - dented with a few misgivings. When you expend your enthusiasm you get frustrated and give up.

In Tai Chi it’s alright to not be perfect at first, there’s a lifetime of practice before us. The mind and body have their own rhythm and will take their own time to achieve mastery. Move on when you think you are good enough. Once the arms are moving fine, we start with the feet. I breathe in and lift a foot. Breathe out as I let it land to the side. The process is repeated with the other foot. We combine it with the arms. The whole body moves in slow coordination. There are a few missteps. I have to remember to breathe and relax. Interesting how the movement of feet and arms guide each other — mutually consensual.

At home with the slide guitar, I slide up from the third fret to the fifth of the bass string. A low growl. I slide back. But the finger doesn’t stop on the third, it slips to the second. I try again, and get it right. Heck, it sounded pretty good when it was wrong. Maybe that’s the way to go.

Go vertical before you go horizontal

My Coursera account is a wasteland of abandoned learning. I love learning, but I tend to take on too much together. At that time it feels like all of it is possible. But life isn’t like that and sooner than later whether you like it or not, circumstances start to trim the hedges of your interests. I usually lose track of everything, unless I stick to one thing for a while. I am sure you have your own stories.

Learning Overload (source: http://blog.global-lts.com/)

I’m impatient to get to the exciting stuff in the Tai Chi class. The long-termers are practicing Wushu Kung Fu sequences with wooden swords. There is a special grace in their synchronised movements. Standing in the outer edges, I am trying to meditate, trying to reach the same zone they are in. A classmate catches my eye and smiles. There’s time to learn more. Stay with Tai Chi for now, get good enough first.

Youtube is full of amazing talent. Folks with lightening fast fingers, euphoric fretboard work. I am learning the blues. But hoe down sounds awesome too on the cigar box guitar. I remind myself to slow down. If I take on too much I’ll only skim the surface. Get the blues going, then start with hoe down. Learning is a lifelong process. It’s easy to forget that.

Learning is meditation. As we learn new things, we also learn more about ourselves. How far will we go? How deep will we dive? How much will we change? These are questions that are answered in time. We have to keep moving to survive, to stay relevant. But it’s alright though to slow down some times, find our bearings, learn to nest and breathe.

Tarun is an experience designer. He loves making music. You can also follow him on Twitter for occasional comments on music and design.

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