I started taking guitar lessons in October, and in the first month I learned how to make basic chords and how to transition between them. I went to visit my dad in mid-October, and he asked me to show him what I’d learned so far. I played him the C-major scale and my battery of chords – A, C, D, E, G, E-minor and A-minor. My dad, being a top-notch guitar player and songwriter, was less than impressed. If he didn’t actually say, “is that it?,” his eyes did.
“I just started,” I reminded him.
“Well, you’ll get there,” he said.
“It’s in your blood,” my step-mother added, insinuating that since both my parents are musicians, I probably have the talent to be one, too. But I wondered if that was true. I had never thought of myself as having musical talent. It was my brother who had taught himself how to play the guitar by simply picking it up one day in high school and experimenting until he got it to sound the way he wanted. He made up songs and played with an easy, confident abandon I wasn’t sure I’d ever have. I thought he had the talent, not me, which was why it had taken me until I was in my thirties to make an attempt at learning an instrument.
Now, a few weeks later, I’ve gotten to the point where I can play simple songs on the guitar. I’ve been working on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” for the past two weeks. Paul’s been working on it, too, because every time I sit down to play he gets this puppy dog look on his face and asks to see my guitar for “just a minute.”
Paul used to play the violin, and so ever since I started taking guitar lessons he’s been feeling nostalgic about music and hankering for an instrument of his own. He’s been making me teach him everything I learn, so it’s like we’re getting two sets of guitar lessons for the price of one.
It’s also likely that we’re driving our neighbors insane. On any given night, I will play “Wish You Were Here” over and over for forty-five minutes, and then Paul will play it over and over for forty-five minutes. And we’re not playing it well, mind you.
I’m definitely getting better, but even this simple song is a challenge for me. Sometimes I try to play and sing at the same time, and oh man, is that hard! My left hand is trying to switch quickly between chords, and my right hand is trying to keep rhythm, and my voice is trying to sing the melody.
“I’m amazed,” I said to Paul the other night, “that there are all these people who can just sit down with a guitar and start singing along like it’s the easiest thing in the world. It is not the easiest thing in the world!”
“Of course,” I continued, “I know that it’s just practice. It’s lots and lots of practice and muscle memory, but still. It must take a long time to get to that point.”
I thought of an interview with Katy Perry I’d watched once a few years ago. She had been playing the guitar and singing, and I had thought, gee, if Katy Perry can do it, I can, too. But now I was more impressed with her than I had been before. Playing the guitar and singing wasn’t as easy as people make it seem.
I recently read novelist Haruki Murakami’s “memoir” What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wouldn’t recommend it. I found it to be mostly rambling and self-important, and Murakami is quite unlikeable, at least in my eyes. One of the things he said that rubbed me the wrong way was this:
In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.
What I don’t like about this statement is that elusive word, “talent.” What does it mean to have talent? Does it mean you can teach yourself to play the guitar? Does it mean that you learn faster, or that you sound better than other peopel? How can you determine whether or not you have talent? And what if you’re wrong? All these years I missed out on playing the guitar because I thought I didn’t have talent. That seems silly now.
And then there’s Paul and his violin. Everyone in his family always bemoans the fact that he doesn’t play anymore. “You were so good!” they say. “You had so much talent!”
“I practiced four hours a day,” Paul told me. “My life was violin, and I got to the point where I hated it. After college I never touched my violin again.” And it’s true. His violin is at his parents’ house, and I’ve never once heard him play.
Is it practice, or is it talent that really makes someone good at something? And what the use of either if you’re not enjoying it?
I never thought I had musical talent. And I’m still not sure if I do. Maybe I won’t know until I’ve been taking lessons for a while. But what I do know is that I’m getting better. Over the weekend, I was pleased as punch when I watched a five-minute Internet tutorial and then taught myself to play “Wagon Wheel.” I might not be playing it one hundred percent correctly, but I’m able to play and sing at the same time, which gives me immense satisfaction. “This is fun!” I told Paul. Now I want to play my guitar all the time, and at least for now I think my enthusiasm and enjoyment is more important than any talent I may or may not have.
Part of being good at something is making it look easy. When we watch a professional play the guitar, or read a beautifully-written novel, we assume that since it seems easy, it must be easy for the musician, or the novelist. We assume it must be easy for them because they have talent – a talent that we don’t have and never will.
But I don’t think that’s completely true.
Everything is hard at first, whether you’re teaching yourself or taking lessons. Maybe you have talent and maybe you don’t, but at the very beginning, everyone struggles. We can’t judge ourselves too harshly at this stage. As my guitar teacher says, you have to keep strumming, even when you blow the chords.
What’s more important than this wishy-washy notion of talent is practice. And having fun with your practice, when possible. Otherwise, you’re apt to burn out.
When I finally have a novel published – and it will happen one day – no one will see the stack of practice novels I’ve left in my wake. They will only see this one beautifully-polished book. I will seem like it was so easy for me, and people will think that I must have talent. When maybe my only real talent was that I kept on practicing until I got it right.
Be Friends with Failure — really cute and wise cartoon about practice