There Is No Finishing

Feb 05, 2021

Ms. Fretboard is known around the house for many things – her rhinestone eyeglasses, her mad pancake-making skills, but also her flawless Yoda impression, particularly the line "There is no trying, only doing." In a similar vein, I've been reminding myself lately, "There is no finishing, only starting." You never finish getting good at guitar; you practically never even finish learning a particular song. Whether it's working to keep it in your repertoire or bringing new things you learn to what you can already play, that song will remain in flux for as long as you play music.

When I wrote music for advertising, I loved the blank slate a new job represented, and the challenge of the short deadline.  I'd create and record my demo, send it off, and feel a rush of accomplishment – until the revisions came back. Then, after absorbing the disappointment that they didn't love it yet, there'd be another round of adrenaline as I tackled making changes and improvement, and another high of having jumped the next hurdle – until those revisions came back. I'd keeping thinking, "wow, now I'm done," but that feeling would only last until the next email asking for yet more tweaks. Along the way, there was this accompanying sense of holding my breath. As long as the deadline obtained, phone calls, dinners at home or my morning run were all effectively on hold until the project was done. Eventually, the project really would be done, and I could spend a day or two being totally on point with the dishes, or backing up files like you're supposed to. But before long I'd start feeling restless again, like Sherlock Holmes eyeing the hypodermic needle and wishing another client would climb the stairs and provide his brain with something worth working on.

Deadlines are how stuff gets done. But holding your breath sucks. And if you've been holding your breath waiting to get good at guitar, you know how well that works. In fact, since you know it's impossible to hold your breath for that long, getting good may seem impossible. It's not, but this much is true: you're never going to finish learning to play. When they asked Wes Montgomery "how much do you practice?" he answered: "I don't. Every once in a while, I just open the case and throw in some raw meat." Charlie Hunter's definition of the musician's job is pretty comparable: "You just get up every day and try not to suck."

So with perfection off the table, it can be more useful instead to simply consider: what's the next piece of the puzzle? Which is the difference between focusing on finishing, and focusing on starting. Because when it comes to learning to play, starting turns out to be a much better orientation than finishing. You won't finish learning to play bebop this afternoon. But you can start learning, anytime in the next sixty seconds, and keep learning, for the next 20 minutes, until it's time to take out the trash or leave the house for the dentist's. 

I try not to sling too much advice around here unless it pertains directly to notes and chords, or how to practice them. But I do have three tricks for starting. I don't always use them, but when I do, they work for me.

1. I use a timer. 
2. I write down what I'm about to do.
3. When the timer starts, I start.

It's really basic. But when it works, it works like this: first, I realize that I'm scrolling the news instead of, oh, I don't know, writing my newsletter. "Holy crap," I realize, "it's been thirty five minutes since I opened my browser to write my newsletter. What the heck!?" After a sufficiency of self-loathing and recriminations, I then 1) start the timer, 2) write down ":20 Newsletter" in my notebook and 3) open the app I write my newsletter in, create a new document and start typing. If someone walks into the room and I have to actually communicate, I pause the timer. If I'm working uninterrupted, by the time the timer actually goes off, I'm more often than not actually immersed in what I'm doing, and I reset the timer for another twenty minutes. And then, for another twenty if I'm still immersed after round two. And in that way, I actually get an hour done on whatever it is I was avoiding by scrolling the news.

Again, I try and stay in my lane, so here's how this applies to getting more notes and chords under your fingers: first, forget about arriving at musical completeness. Just start. You know what you want to get better at. Pick one of those things, and spend twenty uninterrupted minutes on it today. And then stop. You wouldn't go running for three hours, maybe ever, but if you're going be a runner, you would show up and do a little, every day or every other day, to get started. That's all practicing is. You show up, you start, you do something, you stop. You don't have to win marathons to be a runner. You're a runner if you run. You don't have to make records, play concerts or burn flawlessly at 230 beats per minute to be a guitar player. You just have to play. Show up and work on it, whenever you can. And when you're working, work. When you're done, stop. That's it.