Monday, May 27, 2013

Overcoming Injury...Learning Without Playing

It's been a long time since I've written a blog post.  It's been a long time since I played guitar.  The basis of my posts were to reflect the learning I had done.  Well, I haven't been playing guitar -- thus, I haven't been learning.  Or so I thought...

Tearing My Body Up
I can tell you the exact day it happened -- March 16, 2013.  I had taken my son and a group of his friends out to a small town thirty minutes from my home, here in Olympia.  The purpose of our visit to this small town was to celebrate my son's 14th birthday; celebrate it playing paintball.

On the way out to the paintball field, my son asked me repeatedly, "Dad, do you think you're gonna play?  Do you think you're gonna play?"  My pat answer was, "I don't know.  You know how hard I like to play.  My body doesn't recoup well from the beatings I put on it.  I'll see, however."  When we got to the paintball field, I was pleased to see that there many more people eager to play -- enough for two good-size teams.  This was my out.

I pulled Connor aside and told him that it was better if I erred on the side of not playing.  My rationale is that I wanted my 45-year old body to function the following day.  Noticeably dejected but amenable, Connor acknowledged my decision and went out to play paintball with his friends.  Part way through the first game, the owner of the facility pulled me aside and said, "Hey, I'll tell you what.  I'll gear you up for free so you can go play paintball with your son.  It looked like he was bummed that you weren't playing.  Why don't you go out and play paintball with him."  After a moment's pause, I agreed.

Geared up and ready to go, I headed out to the field to join my son and the others for some paintball.  His team had just won the first game.  He was excited to have me paintball with him.  "We're gonna win every game, dad.  No one can keep up with you.  You're faster than everyone out here," Connor exclaimed.  Motivated by his accolades and ready to have fun with my son, I told him, "Let's have fun."

We played capture the flag.  After thirty seconds of strategizing, we acknowledged to the referee that we were ready to play.

The whistle blew.

I sprinted out to the middle of the field and grabbed the flag.  I was astonished.  No one was shooting at me. Shocked and excited, I began to head toward the other team's side, excited to drop the flag -- excited to claim victory.  People finally clued in to what was going on and began shooting at me -- shooting, but missing widely.  Those paintballs that hit me just bounced off, not exploding on my coveralls.  Not more than a minute into the game, I'm well on my way to sealing the victory.  Then I hit the ground...HARD!

I saw it coming; the patch of mud that sealed my fate.  I didn't try to go around it.  I had successfully run through mud numerous times in my life.  This day, however, would be different.

I hit the mud full-speed.  Two steps into it, I slipped.  I can't imagine it was more than half a second between my realization that I was slipping and me hitting the ground.  It's amazing, however, what races through your mind in such a brief amount of time. Having been a competitive martial artist for many years, my thought, my instinct was to perform a forward shoulder roll, ala parkour.

I prepared myself to roll over my right shoulder. I anticipated a smooth roll.  I anticipated getting to my feet and sprinting to the other team's side, all in one fell swoop. My trajectory, however, was not appropriate for such a maneuver.  Rather than falling at the desired horizontal trajectory, I was rapidly descending in a vertical fashion. Rather than rolling smoothly over my right shoulder, I slammed violently into the ground.

I knew upon impact that I had not only hurt myself, but that I had done some serious damage.  I lay on the ground for some time holding my arm to my side, gathering my senses -- enduring what was the most significant pain I had ever experienced in my life, through gritted teeth.  I feigned a smile to my son and his friends telling them that I'm pretty hurt, but that I'd be okay.

The result?  A third degree separation of my shoulder.  I completely tore the clavicle (collar bone) from the scapula (shoulder blade).  Playing guitar was impossible.  I was not only bummed, I was pretty depressed.

Learning Without Playing
It took me about a week to completely wrap my mind around the concept that I was significantly limited in my capacity to move my arm.  I was trying hard to be a good patient, but I couldn't overcome the fact that my injury was significantly impairing ability to live life.  Moreover, it was impairing my ability to play guitar.

I had tried several times to pick up a guitar and play, but with no ability to endure the pain that I experienced as a result.

My son, Connor, plays bass.  While I've always supported and appreciated my son's bass playing, I began to take a new and different interest in it.  He takes private lessons via Skype (bass guitar) and with the Director of the Tacoma Youth Symphony (double-bass). During his lessons I had always passively observed.  I was always more interested in how he was doing than what he was doing.  Realizing this opened me up, however, to learning in a different way.

Most every person I had learned guitar from had, at some point or another, emphasized the importance of listening.  Listening is hard, however.  Learning to listen takes patience.  Exercising this patience within the context of trying to practice guitar is hard to do.  When you're driven by making gains, it's easier to take shorter paths toward these gains.  While these shorter paths lead to results, I don't believe they lead to the type of mastery I desired.  But being injured and not able to play guitar forced me to exercise this patience.  It forced me to become a different type of learner.

I began listening to my son practice.  Moreover, I began listening to his teachers teach him how to listen.  While I had been taught in a very similar manner to listen (moreover, how to listen), I found it easier to digest these teachings in the context of observer, rather than student. Everything seemed slower to me.  By listening to my son, I was able to anticipate next notes.  By listening to my son, I was able to visualize the patterns on the neck.  I could  see, in my mind's eye, every note being played.

I had never visualized patterns or positions on the fretboard in the context of the sounds I've heard. I strongly suspect that this was the desired end result that instructors aim for when they teach their students to listen, but it was a desired end result that had escaped me.

Now, I don't want to claim to have a new found prodigious capacity for playing everything I hear.  That would be false and misleading.  What I can do, however, is hear better.  What I can do, however, is more quickly find notes on my fretboard, relative to the pitches I'm hearing in my head.  While I still don't have the mechanical wherewithal to play everything I hear or conceive, I now have a better understanding of the relationship between what it is I hear and the terrain of the fretboard.

I did all of this not by playing guitar, but by keenly observing and listening to my son.

I've only recently begun playing guitar, again.  While my shoulder will never heal,  it is now mostly pain free -- allowing me to play the guitar for longer periods of time.  While I'm working to recoup what dexterity I possessed, I'm having fun.  I'm appreciative of the time away and the realization that I really love playing guitar. I'm appreciative of the mindset I now have for learning the instrument.

My growth had been retarded by a focus on how I'm doing.  My mastery of the instrument had been hindered by that mindset. I've learned that my focus should no longer be on how I'm doing, but what I'm doing.  By focusing on what I'm doing first, the how I'm doing will come. As cliche as it sounds, I've learned to enjoy the journey, not the destination.

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