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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.