Practicing IS the Real Thing

Graduations are that time when we realize we will likely wind up working for or paying taxes to the kid we picked on in fourth grade for the rest of our lives.  I feel for the graduates of 2011.  Their high school or college life was lived in the shadow of the Great Recession or whatever we will call this.  They have 9/11, two wars (2 and ½ if you count Libya), Katrina, the tsunami and, oh, yeah, no jobs out there.    

Looks like the kid we picked on might have to tell us, “Sorry, I’ve laid off everyone but my brother and my sister-in-law, but be sure to email me a resume.”  It’s tough out there.  I’m not sure what to tell them.  Except maybe, “Keep living like it’s going to be fine.  Eventually, it may be.”

I once came across a listing of “graduation speeches.”  The settings ranged from high schools to prestigious colleges, universities and graduate schools.  The speakers were often famous people, usually alumni of the schools who came back to show that they had indeed done well, despite what most of the faculty and administration thought at the time.

I found speeches by Presidents, movie directors (Oliver Stone), politicians, and writers.  The coolest list of speakers had to be for the Berklee College of music—wouldn’t you like graduation better if your speaker was James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel or Sting?

The one that truly caught my eye, though, was by award-winning jazz musician Pat Metheny.  Metheny is one of the most creative jazz guitarists I have ever listened to.  After a lot of typical “graduation” musings, he said the following:

Because for as much as I can stand here and claim to be a successful player, with Grammy awards and winning polls and now honorary degrees and all that stuff; one very fundamental thing has not changed, and I realized that it will never change, and that is this–that the main thing in my life, even as I stand here right now, right this second, is that I really need to go home and practice.

In music and in life–stay focused on the main thing.  And the main thing is this—to be in your life, really in it.  One shift that has happened for me in the last several years is that I am trying to enjoy getting to the goal as much as reaching it.  I know that is so “middle-agey”, but it is real.  It’s not the getting there as the being there that makes life so rich and full of promise—and also its peril and vulnerability.

Accolades, financial success and awards do not bring joy.  They can reduce some misery, and that’s something.  But they can also distract you from success and joy, even though they seem to be the very essence of success.  But true success is being who you are, doing what you do, writing what you need to write and connecting to that which is deepest and truest in your life.  A well-lived life is when you know at any moment that what you really need is to go home and practice your gift yet once more, if only God is your audience.

Ann Lamott, in her book on writing called Bird by Bird, says that she warns new writers against working too hard on “getting published.”  If you’re a writer, writing is what you do.  So WRITE and stop worrying about it!

Easily said if you aren’t trying to make a living at it, of course.  But songs written half-heartedly and only to squeeze out a living from them are like children you love only for what they can do for you—at some point you wind up either disappointed or blinded to what you really have here.  Folksinger Kate Campbell once said in a workshop, “You have to care about what you’re writing.”  Believe me, sooner or later, caring or the lack of it is evident to the sharp listener.

I’m sure the same is true of vital faith—it’s most valuable when all hell is breaking loose.  And no matter how bad or good it is, you keep practicing.  As a guitarist of 48 years, here’s what I can tell you about practicing:

  1. Money isn’t enough to make you practice.
  2. No one, even your mother, can make you practice if you don’t really want to.
  3. If you really love it, the harder thing is to stop playing.  Motivation is never a problem.
  4. The best instrument in the world will not make someone who does not love the craft play better, and the cheapest guitar made is capable of some decent sounds if you are well-practiced.
  5. You only grow by constantly taking on new challenges.  Otherwise, boredom sets in.
  6. Practice isn’t the same as performing—all those people watching!—but it sure makes screw-ups less likely.
  7. Five or ten minutes every day is somehow more valuable than three hours once per month.  Don’t ask me why.  But you have to be “touching” it for it to stay alive in your body.
  8. Practicing something you love and playing it for the sheer joy of it is not affected by Wall Street, recession, wars, or unemployment.  You can keep doing it no matter what.  Briscoe Darling, a music playing mountaineer on the old Andy Griffith show once put it this way:  “You got time to breathe, you got time for music.”
  9. You can only improvise when you know the melody, when it’s in your muscles and mind and touch so it’s “right there” when you need it.

It doesn’t take much to put “God-loving and Jesus-following” in the place of music.  Practicing that life, trying it out, staying with it, is never a problem if the motives are right.  It can’t be about getting what you want or what it does for you or that you’re a big success.  Just that the sheer doing and living of it makes us happier than anything.  Keep practicing.  Even now.  Especially now.

About Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

Posted on August 5, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What a great post, Gary.

    You made me think of John Coltrane, whom many consider to be the best jazz musician who ever lived.

    Coltrane had a well-known drug problem, which eventually led to his premature death of liver failure at the age of 40. I came across a musician or two in college who really thought that they needed to take drugs, themselves, in order to reach the transcendental heights that Coltrane had reached.

    And I understand: his music reached a spiritual height that continues to touch me spiritually in a way that no other musician can. And I’m not the only one— for example, there’s a church in San Francisco with John Coltrane as its patron saint (http://www.coltranechurch.org/). And with spiritual names for his songs like “Om,” “Meditations,” “Acknowledgment,” “Psalm,” “Ascension,” or “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” it seemed to many who had only a superficial familiarity with his biography, that it was his drug use that allowed him to access spiritual heights that were beyond what most non-using people could attain.

    There’s just one problem with that notion: it’s wrong. Coltrane kicked his heroin habit in 1957, after a spiritual experience– years before he recorded his best and most celebrated work.

    And yet it wasn’t just spirituality that led Coltrane to create his most amazing work, years later.

    It was practice. Lots of it.

    He practiced in the morning. He practiced in the afternoon. And he practiced at night. In fact, he got kicked out of hotels, while on the road, for practicing at all hours.

    Coltrane could play anything; his creativity was boundless— and it was all improvised. But behind the scenes, he practiced relentlessly. And that’s why it all appeared to be seamless for him.

    • Thank you, Jon. This comment was a delight to read and the Coltrane story is powerful. I will listen to these songs you mentioned.

      Hope you expand this into a longer reflection. I want to read it when you do.

      Gary

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