You’re working on exactly this movement that your fingers need to make to create the sound you’re after.
The sound rings out NOW.
Acoustic music lives and breathes the present moment.
Since the present moment is all that exists, anything that helps you connect more fully to the present will help you grow as a human being. To the degree that we dodge and run from the present, we’re distancing ourself from who and what we are—living, breathing beings in the present moment.
With adulthood comes, for most of the adults I know, a heaviness connected to too much extra time lying around. Adults carry a heavy bag of past around with them, and many adults delight in wielding the past like a weapon within their own hearts and minds.
At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that most people I meet are also light in future. The get-rich-quick, buy-now-pay-later mentality dominates among the folks I meet out there in the world outside my practice space. Funny things are going on with this whole time thing here in the 21st century—there’s never enough of it, it’s running out, it’s accelerating, it almost feels like it’s careening out of control.
Thankfully, since music is entirely grounded in and related to Time, playing music provides us with the potential for developing a much more nuanced and healthy relationship to Time. You could say that when we play music, we’re really playing Time.
Certainly, we’re playing with Time.
Time bends, it slows down and speeds up, we retard it and accelerate it, and we can go from playing a plodding slow piece to a rip-roaring roller coaster ride of a piece one right after the other.
Music itself is all about time, and learning to play music is in huge part learning how to feel, perceive and relate to time as a two-way phenomenon. It gives to us, and we give back to it.
There’s another way time comes into play for the practicing musician, however, and this other way is what I’m going to discuss here.
Enjoy the Ride
The process of learning to play music occurs over a long stretch of time. I know no musician who just picked up an instrument and automatically was able to play it at genius levels without ever working at it.
Yes, there are talented maestros who seem to command supernatural abilities on any instrument they pick up, but I guarantee you they came into their genius capabilities through a path coated in diligent practice.
In order to succeed at learning to play an instrument, you’re going to need to learn how to relate to the long-term. Since the get-rich-quick i-want-it-now mentality seems to dominate these days, the challenges you’ll experience on your musical path will differ in magnitude and intensity in direct relation to how comfortable you are relaxing into the long-term.
Here’s a good question to gauge where you’re at with the long-term: when I use the term “long-term,” what span of time do you imagine? Right there, you’ve got an insight into how you’re relating to time in your life.
Maybe long-term means six months to you. Maybe it’s six years.
Within the context of learning to play an instrument well, I’d say five years is the shortest possible long-term that I’d encourage you to adopt within your mind as you go about your daily practice. Five years from now, you will most assuredly be more accomplished on your instrument if you’re doing the right things in a patient, diligent manner now.
The thing is, this process of going from point A today to point B five years from now creates miracles if you just do your thing each day and continuously apply solid fundamental principles.
If you can learn how to relate to the process of growth within a developmental artform across a long-term time perspective, you will reap results that will fundamentally transform your character and your life experience.
I encourage you to root down deep in the present each day as you work on your technique and expression and all that other good musical stuff, but I also encourage you to hang on to the long-term vision of why you’re going to all the trouble that solid practice entails.
Guitar students who quit are legion while students who hang on for the long-term are more precious than the rarest gems.
I’m big on obliterating the myth that children can learn music easily while adults have a hard time learning to play music. If you give yourself a long-term time perspective and just plug away at your instrument under the guidance of some good teaching, I guarantee you that no matter who you are, no matter how old you are, you will make amazing progress from wherever you start to wherever you get to across that long-term timeline.
A Conscious Relationship With Time
Since time is such a huge part of playing music, we might as well enter into a conscious relationship with it in as many ways as we possibly can.
Persistence is the name of the game, no matter what other game you think you’re playing.
If you’re engaged in anything worthwhile, you will have to apply persistence continuously in order to prevail.
Once you have persistence locked in, though, you become unstoppable.
If you haven’t yet consciously, almost ceremoniously adopted persistence as one of your primary values on your journey through life, try it out and notice what happens. There is a big difference between unconsciously persisting and consciously aligning yourself with this value we call persistence.
Persistence marries action and time.
Persistence asserts that you will follow through on a decision across as long a span of time as is necessary to carry you to your envisioned destination. Time is built in, action is built in, and the combination of a span of time and sustained continuous action results in the achievement of your goal.
We’re talking about learning to play an instrument here in this blog, though of course these lessons apply to any path whether it’s learning to program computers or training in a martial art.
If you don’t adopt a long-term perspective within your musical practice, then the challenges that come have much more power to take you down. As much as playing music is a physical process involving your body, the real work is mental. This insight carries across every activity humans engage in—the real work is mental.
The real work is in how you use your mind, or how your mind uses you.
Without persistence and a long-term time perspective, the odds of you failing to achieve whatever level of ability you’re going after on your instrument are extremely high.
With persistence and a long-term time perspective, the odds of you achieving what you’re after are practically 100%.
If something outside of you and seemingly beyond your control steps in and halts your progress whether it’s an accident or a serious illness or something else, I don’t consider that failure. If you’re committed to your goal, almost nothing can stand in your way.
Persistence is the big key as far as this long-term perspective to development goes, but it’s not the only key that will help you carry forward through the ups and downs of the path.
Here’s the next one, which I personally find extremely challenging:
Patience is so huge.
If you’re already committed to persistence, you’ll get to your goal one way or another.
Patience has everything to do with your experience of getting there.
Are you going to be frustrated and agitated every step of the way? Are you going to wish you were THERE already instead of HERE? Are you going to be angry and resentful and jealous toward those who have already created your desired outcome in their lives? Or, are you going to remain grateful for the journey you’re on no matter where it takes you? Are you going to recognize that you’ll never again be where you are right now and notice how beautiful the process of going from point A to point B is?
Patience takes the long-term perspective and grounds it in kindness. This kindness is internal—how you treat yourself as you work toward your goal.
The frustration in music looks similar no matter where you’re at in your relationship to your instrument—you want to be able to do something that you can’t yet do. You want to make music that you can’t yet make. You want to play for groups that you can’t yet play for. You want to achieve what you haven’t yet achieved.
Frustration can serve you by giving you extra energy, but it’s not a conscious way to live and grow. Would you consciously choose to feel frustrated all the time? I suspect not—you’d probably, if you were choosing consciously, decide to embrace patience and enjoy each step of your journey no matter what.
It’s that simple, and boy, pulling off that simplicity in real-time is incredibly hard. The thing with patience, just like persistence, is you have to choose it again and again in each new moment.
You get some momentum from your previous decisions to embrace and remain patient and persistent, but you have to choose anew in each moment.
That deciding never goes away, because the moment is always fresh.
It can feel a lot like going to the gym when you’re practicing hard and having to choose again and again and again to persist with patience even just within a single practice session.
One hour of practicing can bring you face to face with your need to remain true to your commitment to these principles over and over again.
Be prepared for that—if you can recognize and accept the need for constant renewal of your commitment, it’ll help you glow all the brighter with your deep patience.
Our long stretches of steady practice definitely make us better, and getting better feels incredible.
Getting better at playing music is fantastic, but getting better at being a great human being is the real purpose behind all this musical development.
When you choose patience and persistence over and over again—when you have a context in which you’re constantly being brought into contact with the need to make that commitment again and again thanks to the challenges inherent in your practice—you continually grow and evolve.
Eventually, when you get your patience and persistence rooted so down deep within you that you almost can’t tell where they end and you begin, that’s when you’ve got it. You become nearly invulnerable to the games your mind and the path itself will try to play with you to get you to quit or at least to slow your progress.
Why do we get in our own way? That’s a question for a whole series of articles, but the fact is that we do, and the sooner we recognize that it’s happening and how it’s happening, the sooner we can get on with persisting patiently.
How To Hold Your Vision
One more piece of the puzzle to relating to the long-term involves how you hold your vision of where you’re going.
First off, you need a vision. A picture of what it will feel like and look like and smell like and sound like and taste like when you reach your ideal goal.
The picture you hold will magnetize you and help pull you forward across the long stretch of time that we’ve been talking about here.
Any move from one point to another point involves change. If you’re aiming for something worthy, then the move across space and time from where you are to where you envision will involve growth. That’s almost the definition of a worthy goal: sustained action targeting a result that helps you grow into a better human being.
Once you have your vision, you need to hang on to it no matter what. Your vision will help you, but persistence and patience will help you hold it in front of you come what may.
So, not only do you need to relax into the long-term if you really want to get somewhere interesting on your instrument, but you need to create the most vivid and exciting vision you can of where you want to get to. Otherwise, how will you know when you get there? It’s good to have a clear vision of all the aspects of what you’re going after so you can recognize it and appreciate what you’ve done in achieving it.
Dwell In the Now and Reach for the Long-Term
No matter how you already relate to the long-term, I encourage you to extend your sense of the long-term. Live into a longer-term dream. Craft your life across decades. Plan and plot and then get busy with the joyful effort of your daily work.
Which returns us to the present. All this magic that we’re going to work in our lives and in our relationship to music will occur right now.
Learning to dwell in the moment with a powerful vision of the future is an art.
Thankfully, the daily work of learning to play beautiful music can give you a relatively simple context in which to practice not just the music part, but also the important work of balancing your attention in the present with your intention for the future.
Attend to the present while intending the future. Try to hold both together—explore the paradox that’s hidden there.
Persist patiently with your vision Now.