Sometimes, The Point Is To Have No Point

It occurred to me last night, as I examined the calluses and blisters on the fingertips of my left hand, that I’ve been playing the guitar for thirty years.

This is an approximation; I don’t remember exactly when I started, but it would have been around age 12 or so. The fact that I don’t remember starting probably means that it snuck[1] up on me and gradually became, at first, something I did and then later, a part of my self-definition. Interestingly, it would have been around the same sort of time that I began to see myself as a programmer, and then an engineer. Thus are sown the seeds of one’s own self-limitation, or something along those lines.

Part of what interests me about music is the complexity. It’s like trying to understand a fractal; every part of it that you open up reveals yet more to learn. On the other hand, as Sid Vicious said You just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music, so it’s both complex and accessible in one easy measure. It slices and it dices. That fractal complexity[2], though, can be intimidating. It’s a sort of endless challenge, a mountain range that always has a higher peak. Nobody can be best at every single aspect of music; for all musicians, there is always someone else who is better than you at some part of what you do. You can become dispirited by that, or you can learn to set your own goals and measure your progress by them.

To do that, I think it’s important to understand who it is you’re playing for. Most of us have our own internal critics (and when I played in bands I wished, on occasion, that some people had more of them) but it can take a degree of introspection to work out whether those critics are worth impressing. For example, at some point in my twenties I became aware that I was judging my playing by whether my father would be impressed. As soon as I realised this, it was evident how ridiculous it was: my dad’s an talented, intelligent man of towering achievements, but he can’t play a note on the guitar and our tastes in music overlap only slightly at best. The worst internal critic, though, is myself, at around age sixteen or so. For him, what matters is being able to play better than someone else; faster, using fancier fretboard tricks, and so forth. It’s taken much longer to get rid of him than it should, and to accept, finally, that the only person who need judge how well I can play is me. The same me who sets myself goals to achieve, for no other (or better) reason than I think that they would be fun to do.

Which lets me segue towards some sort of point; the reason that you’re doing something, whether it’s playing the guitar or building software, is easy to forget and yet vital to keep in mind. This is a simple and obvious truism, captured in the endearingly bluff American aphorism When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp. Simple and obvious, yet there are still those moments, usually at a pause in the meeting, when someone[3] says “hang on a minute, let’s get back to why we’re doing this” and thus short-circuits a deep and inwardly-spiralling argument (which is usually very technical).

Anyway, getting back to playing the guitar (which is far more interesting than actual work); since I realised that there is actually no point to it, that there is no final grade to be given or accolade to be awarded, it’s become far more enjoyable. My latest goal is to be able to play the guitar parts from Pink Floyd’s Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), including the solos, to my own satisfaction. In this I will be ably abetted by the excellent backing tracks available from LickLibrary[4]. Should you also be of a guitar-playing frame of mind, you may find it a Good Site To Visit.

Let there be Rock…

[1] A far nicer past participle than “sneaked”, even if it is American.
[2] An excellent name for a geek jazz band, if anyone fancies it.
[3] Occasionally this someone is actually me, but not often enough for me to feel superior about it.
[4] Anyone else get a frisson of Spinal Tap when you hear that name?

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes, The Point Is To Have No Point

  1. To Have No Point

    I came here again for Ben’s email and again my eyes were caught by the “No Point” article and I remembered something. My friend pointed me recently to something apropos goals:

    “I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else-wider, deeper-may be considerably more interesting and important.”
    (From “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuściski, translation from an article by Patrick Marnham, New York Times, 14-4-1991)

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