Deep Practice and Playing the Blues

About five months ago, I was at a friend’s house in Salt Lake City, who had started a business buying and selling vintage guitars. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen years old, so I have had a 40-year relationship with the instrument. Somewhere early on, for various reasons that I won’t get into, I became a rhythm acoustic guitar player, singer, and eventually songwriter. So, there I was, in a room full of old guitars, and I picked up a Fender Telecaster and began to play it. It was love at first touch. The action on the neck felt as if it had been brushed by the wings of angels and I remembered my first love and my first guitar—a Gibson SG Standard, which I bought when I was thirteen with money I made painting a house during the summer. All those feelings of wonder with an electric guitar came flooding back and somehow I knew that this guitar was meant for me. The guitar was a ’72 Fender Telecaster custom. I told my friend, “I gotta have it.” And bought the guitar.

This caused some consternation with my wife, but she was generally supportive and perhaps thought that it was just a phase of mine, as I had recently bought a new acoustic guitar as well (my first new guitar in about 30 years). I took my new love home and began to play. I soon found that the internet, and You Tube especially, is a virtual treasure trove of instructional videos on how to play any kind of guitar and style that one wants.  My first guitar hero was Eric Clapton, so I went back to my roots and started studying Eric Clapton’s guitar style. I began practicing regularly, from an hour to two hours a day, and started applying the principles of deep practice and mastery that I had learned on my Integral journey to the task of mastering the electric blues guitar.

I had recently read a book by Daniel Coyle called The Talent Code, in which he discusses the principles of deep practice and how exceptional mastery has very little to do with raw talent, but with the capacity to practice in a deeply committed, repetitive way that is constantly pushing one just beyond one’s comfort zone.  (By the way, I highly recommend this book as one of my favorite practice-oriented books, which also include Mastery by George Leonard and Integral Life Practice by Wilber, Patten, Leonard, and Morelli.)

For over five years now, I have religiously dedicated myself to an Integral Life Practice, which largely features intense exercise and binaurally-enhanced meditation. These practices have changed my life so profoundly and positively that time and space fail here, but, to put it briefly, I have become convinced that one of the essential disciplines necessary to a useful, actualized, and even realized life is dedication to transformative practice. As I often quote Diane Hamilton, practice is the cultivation by repetition of whatever quality one wants to bring forth.

In Daniel Coyle’s book, he gets into the neurological changes caused by repetitive deep practice, describing how new neural pathways are created and how they are reinforced by living sheaths of myelin that form over these neural pathways. The new pathways, reinforced by myelin, are actually formed very quickly, however, they will also disappear very quickly if not reinforced by more practice. This substantiates and explains one of the truisms of Integral Recovery, namely relapse happens when one stops practicing. This is especially important when dealing with deeply ingrained, addictive habits that are hard-wired into the brain—practice is deep re-wiring for new and healthier neural pathways.

So, armed with this experience and knowledge, and also with the fact that my confidence and capacity to learn new skills has increased greatly through my dedicated binaural practice, I set out to master the blues guitar.  And, more specifically, to master Eric Clapton’s blues style of guitar. Have I accomplished this in five months of dedicated practice? No way in hell. Sometimes I feel almost overwhelmed studying at the feet of this guitar master—by the fluidity, grace, and emotion that he brings to his guitar playing.  But the journey…. oh, the journey has been beautiful. And I am playing a better electric blues guitar than I ever dreamed possible.

Somewhere along the line, I had got the message that I was a rhythm guy and didn’t have the capacity to play lead electric guitar. Needless to say, I am nowhere near the level of Clapton’s mastery, however, I am playing better than I ever dreamed possible for myself and I have no idea how good I may become if I continue at this rate of practice and growth.  It has been very interesting to watch the peaks and plateaus that arise from any dedicated practice. One feels periods of great breakthrough and then one works at a certain plateau level until the next breakthrough occurs. Every time I learn a new lick, or a new nuance, it becomes integrated into a larger Gestalt that develops into a free-flowing, creative guitar playing experience. It’s like learning katas when one studies martial arts. One learns very disciplined moves through constant repetition of the particular patterns of the katas, so that when one is actually confronted with a combat situation, one can move freely and creatively to meet the opposing force in a skillful and effective manner.  The same goes for practice with my guitar. I practice certain patterns and licks over and over again, so that finally, when I am playing along with certain songs, these learned patterns can be expressed with new creativity as they respond to the rhythm and the melodies of the music.

It is inspiring. It is spiritual. It is definitely a flow state and fills my soul with a longing for ever greater mastery and union with my instrument and the music. As I have said in other writings, I think one of the greatest challenges of the newly emerging Integral/Second Tier level of consciousness is to embrace and engage in Integral transformative practice, not merely as a theoretical good idea but as a daily and lifelong embodied commitment.

I write these words in extreme wonder and gratitude at the gifts that are arising from my discovery and embracing of deep Integral practice. I’ll end this with a quote from the master:

“Bet you didn’t think I knew how to rock and roll
Oh, I got the boogie woogie right down in my very soul.
There ain’t no need for me to be a wallflower
Cuz now I’m living on blues power.”

Eric Clapton

John on the Blues Guitar

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