This week’s blog is about some of the things that I have learned about myself with regards to practicing, I have a feeling that they are common enough to resonate with others but I am very curious on peoples’ thoughts on some of this as to how it applies to them.
One of the things that I noticed over the years was how much I dreaded going back to playing after any kind of extended lay-off period where I didn’t play for a while. I would actually avoid playing for even longer just because I hated that feeling of having lost ground, so of course, there was even more rust to scrape off when I finally sat down to play. I couldn’t understand what the problem was for me in this for a long time, but then I realized what was motivating it – I was afraid that I really, deep down inside; really did SUCK, and the loss of chops from a couple of days off spoke directly to that fear. I was surprised that this fear was still sticking around, since I had played guitar professionally for decades with lots of famous people, and so surely my junior high type fears were long calmed – nope, there were just buried really deep, but happy to come out under the proper circumstances.
That old phrase “nothing to fear but fear itself” came to my mind when I started thinking about this. I thought back to all the times that I had to come back after a lay off, and I realized that each time “the rust” really only lasted for an hour (or a day) or so, and that I always got whatever I lost back and progressed beyond that – so all I really had to be afraid of WAS “the fear itself”. This realization was surprisingly freeing for me, I thought to myself that maybe if I just EXPECTED to sound like I sucked and not be afraid of it, I wouldn’t avoid it and could get back to the level I needed to be at a lot faster – and without all the angst. It was almost like just recognizing what all the fear was about took away it’s power and I just was mildly amused by it than going into any avoidance or practicing to not have it happen.
Another interesting thing happened from this – I learned to not try to rush through the “rust period” trying to play faster than I could accurately, because the only reason that I was doing that was because – again – I was afraid that I really sucked and that it wasn’t just “rust” that needed to be scraped off. So I learned to always slow down my warm ups, etc. and even just play really slowly for an hour or two. One of the huge lessons that I have learned about practicing is that as long as your hands are locked together and very accurate, with a strong short pick stroke and economy of motion in both hands, speed will be a natural by-product of all of those things, so there is really NO reason to have any anxiety about being able to play fast. Practice whatever you are trying to do perfectly at a tempo you can not make mistakes at, and you cannot help but get to most any tempo you can conceive of over time. So anyways, all this added up to “not being afraid to suck”, and it’s really helped me over the years.
Speaking of people who say that they suck but really don’t, I lived with Scott Henderson (in Don Mock’s old house) for about two years in the 1980s, and he still to this day will tell you that he thinks that he sucks. But I learned that there were a lot of things that Scott said that he meant in ways that were not the conventional definition of the words he used. I remember some of the MI students that we taught coming over to the house one night and I heard him tell them that never practiced. “What a total lie”, I thought, “you literally fall asleep with the guitar in your hands” – and THAT’S not a lie, I’d seen it happen a number of times. But from knowing him over the years I realized what he meant by saying that he “never practiced”, he NEVER practiced anything he wasn’t going to use on a gig, as in no technical exercises, repetitive scale patterns, picking etudes, etc., he just practiced playing music. He improvised on tunes that he was going to play on a gig, worked out chord progressions that he heard in his head and wrote tunes on them, and he would make up licks and name them names that he would keep on a pad of paper with some descriptive name that would remind him of what it was like “Cannonball turnaround” or something. Scott was unusual in that he was a great transcriber and could notate what he learned off records completely accurately, but his sight reading was really slow even though he could get things off the paper and memorize them great given the time. So because of this, he never notated his licks, he recorded them into his old Superscope variable speed tape recorder for reference, and he would add them to the ever growing list of “named licks” that he would run through regularly to make sure he could play them in any key etc., and would practice throwing them into his improvisations. This was a way more compact way of being able to look at your tools than many books of transcribed licks, and obviously served him really well over the years.
As far as if Scott Henderson really means “I suck” the way other people do when they say that, I would tend to think that he more means that he has a long way to go to get to what he knows his potential is – which is true for me and probably all the people who will ever read this as well. There are very few close to perfect performances in our lives, and I think that there is always a higher “up” than we ever achieve in this life, but to me the point is to not let that keep you from going back and reaching for more. For me, it was not being afraid of the concept that I wasn’t at my potential and would always “suck”, but maybe for Scott saying that he “sucks” just drives him on – whatever works for you that gets the music out – “know thyself” as the Greeks used to say 😉
(Doug Perkins, Don Mock, and Scott Henderson at the Joe Diorio Benefit)