I am nearly deaf. Before I had bone anchored hearing aids bolted to my skull I had to make music by feel and use my teeth to hear my guitar through bone conduction. It was and is almost impossible.
The crazy thing is that even people who know about my hearing, epilepsy, migraines and other issues will watch me play and say, “Oh, it’s so easy for you. You have talent.”
The truth is that music was much harder for me than most people. I just keep sweating Hakuin ‘s white beads, just like every other artist, athlete, craftsman or human being. Progress requires effort. It isn’t worth anything otherwise!
Nowadays it seems like everybody is trying to be a social media influencer. Get that viral post or pointless Instagram photo – and for what?
Even offline we often make the mistake of training for a goal. Be the best. Get famous. Be seen. Be somebody. All without realizing that the will to succeed and our desire for fame only serve to slow down our progress.
When my father and I were on the road filming interviews for our video music magazine The Down Neck Gazette we had some strange things happen in front of our lens. One moment in particular that stands out for both of us was an interview with a famous banjo guru who, as it turned out, was not as good as the hype. To this day the footage makes me cringe. All that came out of this guy was gobbledygook.
We were baffled by the experience. How could people think random nonsense was the same as teaching?
Then we rented the movie Mystery Men and it all made sense.
In the film a bunch of inept would-be superheroes are trained by The Sphinx, a mysterious hero who rattles off meaningless proverbs that are so stupid that they could easily be mistaken for wisdom.
At one point The Sphinx tells a frustrated student who is struggling to balance a tack hammer on his head:
When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.
To this day, this phrase will make my father and I laugh out loud. It takes us right back to that awkward interview with a famous teacher who could not teach.
It does not happen to everyone, but playing the banjo can sometimes have the unexpected side effect of covetousness. We start out happy just to have a banjo. Over time we are collecting instruments, parts, gadgets and more. A new banjo will make us sound better, play better, be better . . .
Every banjo player I have ever known, including myself. has gone through this to some degree. Some grow out of it and some do not.
If you find yourself thinking that buying something will take place of long hours of practice, remember this bit of stoic philosophy from Marcus Aurelius (and a gaggle of other stoic philosophers):
Takuan Sōhō had a unique insight into how people learn.
A beginner knows nothing about posture or position of the sword, so there is no dwelling on body or mind; if someone attacks him, he scrambles to deal with it mindlessly. As he learns various things, however —physical posture, how to wield the sword, where to place the mind —his mind dwells on various points; if he tries to strike someone, what with one thing and another, he is exceptionally handicapped.
When he has practiced daily for months and years, finally his posture and way of wielding the sword become mindless, like he was at first when he didn’t know anything and there was nothing to it. This is the frame of mind in which the beginning and the end are the same. If you count from one to ten and over again, then one and ten are next to one another. In the musical scale too, when you go from A to G from one octave to the next, then A and G are next to one another; the lowest and the highest come to resemble each other.
While this is a long quote at first glance, Takuan manages to boil down a process that takes a lifetime into two paragraphs. According to Zen in the Martial Arts, Bruce Lee was a huge fan of this quote, and used it with his students.
Each and every master, regardless of the era or the place, heard the call and attained harmony with heaven and earth. There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit — love.