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Practice Makes Bliss

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    Though “following ones bliss” can apply to any field, from accounting to architecture, the examples I come across the most often in my experience are in the area of the arts. Over my lifetime I have encountered two distinct (yet sometimes overlapping) groups of artists: autodidacts (the “self-taught”), and those who undergo years of formal training. Both occupy  the opposite end of the spectrum from those who pick up a musical instrument, paintbrush, or pen and expect instant success – and then get bored or impatient when they find it takes years of discipline and hard work (which is a key component of following one’s bliss)

    Naturally lots of people pick up guitars and want to play like a rock star – but having the desire is not the same as following one’s bliss, and does not automatically translate into “success.” I think of a friend of mine I’ll call Dave – the perfect example of the years of devotion and discipline it takes to learn one’s craft, and the hard work that accompanies following one’s bliss.

    From the start, it was clear my friend was not a “doodler,” but an artist-in-training. True, Dave never had any “formal” instruction, but he spent years in intense study and training before ever performing before a paying audience. He easily spent 6 hours a day practicing the guitar, and essentially apprenticed himself to anyone and everyone who could play the guitar (and the banjo, and the ukelele, and the mandolin). Dave got to know local bluegrass and rock musicians, picking their brains about chord sequences and rhythm and change-ups and how to achieve certain sounds, make specific movements, etc. He volunteered to work for free at regional and statewide bluegrass festivals, even hired on as a professional roadie – going anywhere that he could to interact with musicians. He spent hours every week jamming with musicians who were better than he was, practicing with them, earning from them. He asked questions of everybody

    . . . and I do mean everybody.

    Dave’s theory, best as I could tell, was that anyone who played guitar knew something that he did not – even those who weren’t as experienced and talented and didn’t play as well as he did – so he believed everyone had something to teach him. That humility and embrace of the gifts and talents of others opened multiple doors for him. By the time he turned 36 he was a master musician who teaches others.

    I have friends who have undergone rigorous formal training to become professional musicians, but none so rigorous as Dave’s years of training and apprenticeship, made possible by his sense of discipline and his commitment to the craft. Like a Zen master’s dharma transmission that can be traced back to Ryokan or Hui-neng (“I learned at the feet of so-and-so, who learned at the feet thus-and-such, etc.”) one can follow David’s musical lineage back through the masters, to Bill Monroe and beyond. That’s more than hyperbole: within his field that’s exactly how he was seen, as someone who followed the traditional path of long apprenticeship and training, which gave him more credibility and a stronger reputation among fellow musicians than those with formal schooling.

    Dave’s approach, and that of other “self-taught” artists, joins those who are formally trained at the opposite end of the spectrum from what I call the “doodlers”: those who are too easily bored by repetition and routine and lose interest in everything, whether art, music, dance, or writing, that does not meet with instantaneous success.

    Not to say that doodling doesn’t have its place. On the other hand, it can lose its charm. Most muscial doodlers I know who are my age may have been the life of the party when young, but then spent the next thirty years  playing the first three notes over and over of that Bad Company song that everybody liked when they were back in high school – with no learning, no growing, no stretching, no practice. Ironically, most “doodlers” I’ve known universally seem to think those like Dave who  made a career from their art were just lucky: “If only I had the breaks he had.”

    Art is of course subjective; it isn’t measured by “success.” I’ve known plenty of artists and musicians who are just scraping by, who still need the day job to make the rent – but they live for their art. Many aren’t successful by contemporary standards and maybe never will be, might even be called failures by family and others. But they have their bliss and they are creators, whether or not their creations are embraced by the public.

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