About thirty years ago I stopped thinking of myself as a musician.
I was a teenager. I had been taking classical guitar lessons from Doug Brown in Weehawken, NJ. Doug was about 23 years old and finishing up his guitar studies at the Manhattan School of Music. His teacher was Manuel Barrueco, who was making a name for himself and would soon become recognized as one of the premiere classical guitarists in the world. I love that my guitar teacher’s guitar teacher was this man.
Doug instilled in me a work ethic. There is a strength exercise he taught me–in the first position you play two chromatic scales at the same time, an octave apart. The fingers work the fretboard like a spider. You do a bunch of these in a row and your left forearm and the back of your left hand begins to cramp up pretty quickly. I remember Doug telling me to do the scales up and down as fast as I could, cleanly, and when I felt like I couldn’t possibly do it if for another second, “You do one more.”
After years of studying with Doug and practicing as much as six hours a day, playing a lot of scales and doing a lot of exercises, Doug said to me, “At this point, the muscles in your hands are as strong as mine. So what’s the difference in our playing?”
I didn’t really have an answer other than “experience.” That wasn’t the wrong answer, but it wasn’t a complete answer either. The question nagged me.
It took me a while to figure out but eventually I did. The difference was Doug had done a lot more work than I had. He started his guitar-playing life at a younger age than I did, he’d spent many more hours practicing and developing his repertoire. He listened to many more guitarists playing many more works and he listened to them critically. He had been thinking about the music a lot longer than I had been, had the music in his head a lot longer.
Doug had put in a lot of hours.
And I realized that’s what being an artist was about. Putting in the hours.
I stopped studying classical guitar at 19 for a couple of reasons: I realized I wasn’t a performer and around the same time I discovered I had a passion for telling stories. So I traded in my guitar for a typewriter, and then added a camera.
And Doug, if you’re reading this, I still play—it brings me a lot of joy—and though I may have stopped thinking of myself as a musician when I stopped taking guitar lessons from you, I apply what you taught me every day. I still do one more and I still put in the hours. Thanks.
And for the record, though the muscles in our hands MAY have been of equal strength, you had long thin fingers, perfect fingers for a guitarist, especially a classical guitarist. My fingers are, sadly, average.
Here’s a snippet of footage of revered Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos performing his Prelude No. 2 for guitar. It’s not really synced to the audio recording, but it’s still pretty great to see him in action.