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Sticking With It - When it Takes Patience and Diligence to Learn

Sticking With It -
When it Takes Patience and Diligence to Learn
By Katherine Michalak

In each of our lives, certain pursuits carry more emotional charge than others. Some endeavors bring up fear or need or insecurity beyond what’s expected. We don’t always want to continue these pursuits, but when the interests do keep calling, we can witness our sometimes fascinating journeys through fear.

The acoustic guitar called to me and called up my self-doubt. Eight months ago, I committed to steady practice, after playing sporadically for 5 ½ years. During those years I walked the line between fear and fascination, attracted to the guitar but unwilling to commit to it, afraid of being enslaved to the instrument.

Each time I set down the guitar in frustration, ostensibly because of a musical difficulty, the problem was my ambivalence. Wishy-washiness cancelled my ability to find creative solutions, and not knowing how to sing or jam seemed reason enough to doubt my potential as a steel-string guitarist. Later I discovered a genre of guitar music that’s not classical, but like classical is played solo, without any vocals, and that became my niche. Initially, though, I had no vision—or determination to find one—and played only nonspecific material.

“In the midst of the process, all I knew was that I had to keep playing. Yes, I wanted playing to become easier, and yes I wanted it to be fun, but I had no vision of what those changes would mean.”
My playing might have gone nowhere, but the frustration became unbearable and I realized that I had to either drop the guitar or have integrity about playing. From then on, when I had to get up at 6 a.m. to keep that integrity, I did.

Every day I trudged over to the neighbor’s temporarily vacant house, where I’d set up a studio, and disciplined myself to play for a minimum of 20-30 minutes. It seemed my whole day revolved around that daily pilgrimage. Would I ever become proficient enough at Monotonic Bass Solo to stop playing it? I resisted with a vengeance every note that had to be played, felt wrung out by a visceral unwillingness that I had to counteract constantly. Maybe I would be known as the girl always practicing for her first recital. Then again, maybe I should just quit. But I was determined to keep my word for at least four months.

People asked about my guitar playing, and I proudly said I hadn’t missed a day since June. But when they asked for a recital I had nothing ready to play. Clinging desperately to those twenty minutes a day, I prayed they’d turn me into a guitarist eventually.

After six months I did begin feeling like a real musician. My family traveled over the holidays, and I became Girl with Guitar, maneuvering the case in and out of cars, guarding it in train stations and boarding a bus with it clutched in front of me. Suddenly guitar-playing defined my life as unique from the lives of those around me, and although their lives enveloped me, playing kept me centered.

Though I easily could have put music on hold, as this was vacation time, I wanted to play. When focuses fulfill emotional needs, we know in our bodies that dedication doesn’t have to be enslavement. Music and player, or creation and creator of anything, can energize one another, creating between them a source of strength.

Soon the holidays were over and I returned home. But when the vacation high faded, I didn’t let my increased practice time fade with it. Holding tenaciously to the greater willingness and stamina that I’d gained, I began playing one to two hours a day.

Ecstasy did fade, and often practice just seemed necessary: not exciting, and not drudgery. Sometimes a session was especially stimulating, but I learned that the only consistent payoff comes from simply knowing that one is committed and reaffirming that every day, through thick and thin. From knowing that inspiration and frustration are merely part of that commitment. The disillusionment that had halted my playing numerous times no longer seemed like a big deal – I played anyway, and it always passed – and I started to feel secure about my future as a guitarist.

When my schedule was too full I frequently put other pursuits on hold for a day or two, but guitar always came first. It was the constant of my life. I could have taken a day off here and there, but I’d always had trouble starting again after I stopped. Then, too, if I didn’t play Sunday I’d have to consider whether Thursday’s full schedule didn’t warrant a day off, as well. Knowing that I would play every day, I relaxed.

“Maybe one of these days I’ll find myself performing professionally. But glimpses of opportunities don’t hold my attention for long. When I think of my musical success, specific accomplishments fade into the background — how long I can concentrate or what I can play hardly seems important. Instead, what stands out is the skill of doing a task for the task’s sake.”

It seems as though a weight has fallen from me, allowing me to see the future stretched out below instead of towering above me. After several years of avoiding recitals, I’m toying with the idea of performing for friends and family. Contemplating this change, I’m fascinated by the process that brought me here. How, exactly, did I begin playing two to six times longer than I had been, yet find the increased practice easier?

In the midst of the process, all I knew was that I had to keep playing. Yes, I wanted playing to become easier, and yes I wanted it to be “fun,” but I had no vision of what those changes would mean. Maybe I was just lucky in getting rewarded for my effort. Still, I can’t shake the sense that each daily practice was part of an inspired program that I was unaware of.

From the beginning, I wanted to play at least an hour a day. After all, progress moves slowly at twenty minutes a day. But despite its dragging pace, twenty minutes was all I could handle, and in the end it was best that I began conservatively, since that’s what allowed my stamina to increase naturally. An hour a day would only have gotten me into trouble, because resistance – that force that made it difficult to play at all – grew out of fear. Fear that dedication was slavery would have been reinforced by a severe regimen. Newly threatened, the involuntary part of myself would have resisted practice even more resolutely, regardless of my intellectual position on it. Most likely, strained by such internal tension, I would eventually have given up.

As it was, my inability to ignore the resistance meant that practice became a safe activity. The unwilling part of myself – the scared part – was like a child who’s afraid to swim. If the child is dunked her fear will only increase, but if she can begin by getting just her feet wet – in a baby pool where the water will make no frightening advances – then she’ll come to find the water safe and go progressively deeper.

This morning I worked on a long, high-speed piece, and my hands begin to ache. Odd as it would seem out of context, this and other recent strains represent a turning point. Only two months ago, so much energy went toward discipline that I didn’t play long enough to bring on physical fatigue; I always tired my mind before my hands. No longer in the baby pool, I finally get to develop the muscles it takes to swim.

Maybe one of these days I’ll find myself performing professionally. But glimpses of opportunities don’t hold my attention for long. When I think of my musical success, specific accomplishments fade into the background—how long I can concentrate or what I can play hardly seems important. Instead, what stands out is the skill of doing a task for the task’s sake. If, in the past months, I’d gained only musical accomplishments, I’d be back on the couch crying as soon as I flubbed songs in performance. Maybe I will be, anyway. But because of this new ability to ride the ups and downs of a discipline, discouragement won’t phase me in any big way. Thanks to those first six months, I’ve learned to embrace the diversity of feelings that come from unflagging practice.

Katherine Michalak, unschooled all her life, was seventeen years old and living in Crestone, Colorado when she wrote this article. She aspires to play guitar like Leo Kottke. Published in GWS and The Crestone Eagle in addition to earlier articles in Life Learning, she’s also had an article accepted by an Australian home education magazine.

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