What Challenges You?

My opinion is that given the choice, each of us will pursue where our interests and challenges meet.  Teachers may be students who struggled in school and want to help others out.  Therapists may be people who struggle with mental health.  Doctors may have history of struggling with his/her own health issues.   Fitness coaches may not have been fit all their lives.

In my life musicmaking has captured my attention because it’s difficult to me.  I do believe that I have talent, but music is far from being effortless.  Quite the opposite, actually —  playing the guitar is like the most difficult, demanding thing I do.  I used to feel very frustrated at the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be, as far as my proficiency on the instrument.

I have a song that I’m finishing up, called Landmine.  It has a spot for a soaring rock guitar solo.  “Soaring” is the keyword there.  I wanted a melodic (as in not too busy) solo that lifts up the spirit.  And I wanted to improvise it, as I believe in happy accidents that happen when I play in the moment, without over-planning every note.

I tackled the solo in one session, and lo and behold, the very first take stood out to me.  Most of my subsequent takes show my deficiencies as a player — most takes I don’t play the whole way through because I commit unacceptable mistakes.  But that first take had the magic.  Or so I thought.

I loved the phrasing and I did manage to play the whole thing without playing an obvious wrong note.  But as I got to the mixing stage, I noticed that there was something odd about it.  I thought about showing it to my guitar teacher Mark Cuthbertson, then it dawned on me what was wrong with that solo.

I was rushing.  Playing ahead of the beat the entire time.

That was one of the first things Mark pointed out to me when I started lessons with him, and one of my biggest takeaways.  When you play ahead of the beat, it comes across as immature and amateurish.

Mortified, I hastily organized another session to see if I can capture something better.  But the phrases I played were already stuck in my mind so improvising a fresh solo from scratch was out of the question.  I tried learning what I played before and to see if I can execute it better.  I could do so in bits and pieces that I would splice together.  But the flow of the whole thing wouldn’t be the same.

Faced with the choices between postponing the completion of the song further to really do over the solo, or surrender and let digital editing rescue me — I eventually chose the latter.  The first take did have a special feel to it.  Its critical and only flaw, iffy timing, can easily be corrected in digital recording.  I slid the take a fraction of a second later in time.  The whole thing sits better in the groove now, even if imperfect.  I could adjust the timing further by taking it phrase by phrase or even note by note, but my belief in imperfection of human performance wouldn’t let me go that far.

I got the end result I desired, but I now feel like the spirit of music gave me a stern lesson.  It feels like a stinging loss in a chess game, one that I really thought I was going to win.

I make music because it challenges me.  It is so difficult that I try, try and try daily and I still struggle with it.

But therein lies the joy, too.  Don’t get me wrong, even if I struggle it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in my creations.  I am the biggest fan of my songs, plus it’s gratifying to overcome these challenges.  If music was effortless to make for me, it would also be boring.  I’ve seen other incredibly talented musicians pursue music as hobby, even if their talent/chops are worthy of going pro.  What we desire is the right kind of challenge.

So my advice to fellow human beings is to explore your life and find worthy challenges.  It’s a perfect spot for you if your interests, the world’s needs, and right challenges all converge there.  Just focusing solely on your desires, or what’s in demand by the society, still don’t paint the whole picture.  Worthy challenges are around, and you’ll know it when you find it, because wrestling with such challenges energizes you instead of deflates you.  Well, I do feel a little bit deflated at how I “lost” that round of challenge, but it in no way diminishes my passion for music — it gives me fuel to work on my timing and do better for the next guitar solo.

Such challenges make the life worth living.  I really hope you find yours.