I remember when I was a kid, watching my dad play guitar. I was in awe of how fast he could switch chords, strum, and pick the strings, depending on the song he was playing. I wanted desperately to be able to do what he did so well.
One night out of nowhere he played one of the most beautiful instrumental pieces I had ever heard. It was slow, and then fast. He picked and strummed, threw in some vibrato, stopped the strings from sound suddenly by grabbing the front of the neck of the guitar, and then went back through the song backwards. I was probably right around sixteen or so, and had never heard him play this piece, had never heard it on the radio. . . I just watched in awe.
“What song is that?” I asked when he had finished. I was extremely familiar with what he could play, extensive though the list was. Zeppelin, Hendrix, Skynyrd, Allman Brothers were his favorites, with many others in his repertoire. When he was in a really good mood and feeling silly he’d play Puff the Magic Dragon. He would play Simple Man for brother and Brown Eyed Girl for me. There was a whole slew of songs in his arsenal. But this one. . . It was a new one.
Often he would come home from work and not say a word, and pick up the guitar and start playing. He’d bounce between different chords, stop, sit quietly for a minute and then play again. . . and in a short time he’d be playing a song I had heard on the radio before. He explained to me that he had what was called ‘perfect pitch’. He never needed a tuner for his guitar. He’d tune by ear and usually his guitar was more in tune than someone else’s, even if they had used a tuner. It was a magnificent gift, but also had it’s downfall. He would hear a song on the radio while at work, and would mentally go through the song again and again, figuring out the chords and itching to get home to play it.
I get this all too well. Lucky for me my instrument is able to be stuck in my purse. I can write anywhere now thanks to technology. Guitars aren’t so portable though, and my dad was a laborer – he didn’t have a desk job where he could take a break and just practice his art.
Anyway, I digress.
So we sat there one weekend evening and dad played this magnificent piece I had never in all my life heard him play. I had asked him what song it was, and he just laughed.
“It’s actually a warm up that I used as a kid.”
My mouth dropped.
“That was your warm up?” I asked in shock. “But. . . that’s gorgeous, Dad. That’s probably the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard you play!” So my dad launched into it again.
I so wish I had a recording of it. There is no way I can describe the magic that came from that instrument as he played what he called ‘a warm up.’
Once he told me what it was, I recognized it for what it was. I had been singing in choir for several years at this point, and I could ascertain the scales he was playing, and the way he was stretching his fingers, much like we sang scales and different arrangements in class to warm up our voices. He was warming up his fingers. It just was so much more intricate than any warm up I had ever heard in my life. It was a song in and of itself.
From then on, dad played the warm up almost any time he picked up the guitar and I was around.
So, how this pertains to the quote:
“Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” – Gustave Flaubert
Dad actually had a pretty bad accident when he was a little younger than Chase, falling and cutting his arm wide open on a broken piece of a bathtub. He damaged a major muscle, and the doctor advised that he start practicing a string instrument to help build everything in the arm back up. He was encouraged first to play the violin.
I’ve mentioned before that my dad’s side of the family are highly musically inclined, and so it was no shock that he was good at the instrument. I guess my aunt was as well, because they battled back and forth in orchestra for first chair in violin.
Eventually, he picked up the guitar. And the warm up he played for me that evening was an arrangement he had made up himself. It challenged him, it brought all of the aspects of playing the instrument in. . . the speed, the strumming, the picking, the vibrato. . . and is helped strengthen the damaged parts of his arm.
His talent always put me in awe. It was a ‘normal’ sound around my house growing up, dad playing the guitar. Sometimes he’d sit and watch t.v. with it on his knee, and then play a song while waiting for a commercial to end. I’ve spoken of waking to him playing on the front porch on summer mornings. I’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night to him playing, I fell asleep often to him playing. . . it was just a part of life. As a kid I took it for granted, and on several occasions was annoyed by it because I was trying to sleep. As I grew older though, I’d ask him to play. I preferred Dad’s rendition of ‘Red House’ to Hendrix version, to be perfectly honest.
While my dad had a natural talent, the man never went more than a couple days without playing. And that’s what this quote is about. You can’t want to be good at something and not live and breathe that thing. When he wasn’t playing, he was listening to music. Sure, he enjoyed music. But he was also studying. No different than me – I read books because I like to read, but also I learn different words, phrases, ways to describe things. . . I haven’t met a true artist who didn’t engage with that art in a recreational way, too – no matter what art they practice. So while to many music is a way to fill the silence, to a musician it’s quite likely that they are simultaneously learning and relaxing at the same time.
Up until Dad couldn’t play anymore, he was constantly learning new ways to play things, and experimenting with sounds. It broke my heart when he told me he wasn’t strong enough to play anymore.
The doctors thought he suffered a stroke about five years before he passed, and he never picked up a guitar again. That was when my dad really started to decline. He was nothing without his art to keep him moving forward. I really think that if it hadn’t been for my brother and myself he wouldn’t have lasted the length of time that he did.
Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself in these posts, and turns out I do. I knew I had told the story about how dad tuned my guitar over the phone once before, and in searching my posts found that story and more in ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’, a post I wrote in October of 2017. The post describes how I’ve come to find music as a source of comfort, and how that originated from my parents. It goes into a lot of detail about dad’s talent, too. Some of which is written above, just in different words.
I debated writing this about my own talents. . . but it seemed my dad was a more fitting example. He never stopped practicing, he never stopped studying the art. He was constantly trying new things, even after playing for over fifty years. He still learned and practiced and tried new things, even though he knew he was already good at it. Talent isn’t all natural. It does take practice and a will to be good at it. I suppose I am always working with words in one way or another, so it applies to me as well. I’ve just not been doing it as long as he did. A prime example is how even though I own three guitars, I’m not very good at playing . . . because I’ve never made time to practice. I don’t have the desire to play the guitar like I have the desire to write. That is what it is. Writing is my art, like music was my father’s.
Today, I encourage you to not ever get so cocky as to think that you know everything there is to know about something, just because you’re good at it. And if you’re lucky enough to be artistically gifted – no matter what that art is – don’t stop working at it. Every single time you pick up your artistic tool of choice, you sharpen your skills, and you sharpen your art. What you may think of as ordinary, may be extraordinary to someone else. Your warm up may be the most extraordinary thing someone else has ever seen or heard.