Every now and then, I go through huge, accelerated spurts of growth in my musicianship. Looking back, each time I’ve experienced musical growth, it almost always has been the result of simply letting go of certain preconceptions or assumptions; or let’s not the beat around the bush: getting over my inherent fear of – whatever: Fear of looking foolish; fear of making a mistake; fear of not being good enough; fear of authority. Take your pick. Whatever the flavor, fear has done more to keep me from truly realizing all that I can be than anything or anyone.
As Frank Herbert wrote in his masterpiece Dune, “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” But as the Bene Gesserit “litany against fear” continues, “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
I remember that litany hitting me like a ton of bricks when I first read it so many years ago. Basically, the idea behind it – at least from my perspective – is that you accept that you have fear; that fear may even elicit a physical response (stomach churning, cold sweat, etc.), but you will act in spite of that fear. And for those who are curious, I didn’t have that litany memorized. I remembered the first part, but had to look up the rest of it.
So what does that have to do with playing guitar?
Well, for me, it has or more accurately had to do with playing solos live. I was the consummate rhythm guitar/lead singer type for years, but when I started my worship band nearly eight years ago, I had the dubious distinction as being the most seasoned musician in the group, and with the other guitarists being quite experienced, but more like me, the duties of playing lead guitar and soloing fell on me. I never admitted it to the band, but I was absolutely terrified! But knowing my duty, I started learning all I could about playing lead guitar, learning scales and modes and such.
Then I got stuck; really stuck, because no matter how much I learned about the theory and patterns and licks, that all I was doing for a few years: Just playing linked licks, and just playing patterns. Frankly, what I was playing for solos was pretty old and tired, and reeked of someone else’s stuff. I relied on that stuff because it was safe, but I was scared to venture beyond it. I imagined an abyss of embarrassment from which I could not escape; people laughing at my phrasing.
That all changed this past Christmas season when I volunteered to play guitar for my kids’ school’s Christmas play. This was a very cool contemporary musical where I could crank up my amp (using an attenuator, of course) to get some lead tones, which were plentiful. And because the songs moved so fast, in many cases, I didn’t have time to turn pages, so I was basically forced to get the chord progressions down early, then provide fills and leads as necessary. The cool thing was that I didn’t have the time to let my fear get the best of me, and I just went for it!
Also, because the changes in the songs weren’t blues-based I-VI-V, I just had to be free-form in my phrasing, and concentrate entirely on the melody I was playing, damn the modes, damn the forms, damn the patterns. And after hearing various clips from the show, it all worked! I was actually scratching my head saying, “Was THAT really me playing?”
I now approach solos with the intent of establishing a melodic “idea” then building off that. Most people in the know would say, “Duh!” to me but hey! Better late than never, in my opinion. I still get pangs of fear, especially if I’m not really feeling the groove of a song, and I’ll revert to the old forms and patterns, but I no longer rely on them as a primary means of soloing.
The point to all this is that by breaking through that fear, or in my case, have a situation thrown at me where my fear had no chance to influence me, I was able to grow beyond my limitations at the time. So, fear not and grow!