I found myself playing chess with my dad this afternoon. Other than a few short games yesterday, we hadn’t played chess for years. At least, I certainly hadn’t. Those few short games yesterday were exactly like I remember our games going when I was a kid, with Dad winning left, right and centre. In fact, to date, I haven’t won a game of chess against my Dad. Today, all that was going to change.We set the pieces up and Dad sat opposite me with his cup of coffee. He had his air of cool confidence, built up from years of victories over me. But, I had something he didn’t have, cold as steel determination (actually, it was a cold cup of tea that I’d decided I was going to finish without reheating it for reasons that, still, remain a mystery to me).
We begun. Pawn to Queen’s-Knight 5 followed swiftly by Rook to Bishop 8. Okay, I’m making those moves up (unless I’m not, in which case, I’ve transcended Chess altogether), the point is we played a game of chess and my dad won. Again. We decided to do best of three. History would testify that this would only increase the duration of my defeat. However, in this case, History can stay in the books and return itself to the library. I’ve got a destiny to change.
Shortly into our game (about 6 moves in and I’d already lost my Rook / Castle, don’t judge) my Dad had to pop off to do something. While he was away, I looked blankly at the board. I kept staring and for the first time, I realised that all those times I’d played chess with my Dad, I’d never really thought ahead. I’m not talking one or two moves ahead, I mean really thought ahead.
While he was away, I considered where every single piece (not just mine) could be moved to, where that move might lead to and what it would possibly open up opportunity wise. I then ran through every move I was thinking of making and what the consequences of each move might be and then what was the most probable reaction that he would make.
Now, honestly, this took almost the full length of time my dad was away which felt like 10 minutes but was probably more around 5. It was an interesting time for me to reflect though. I’m naturally highly impulsive and sometimes this leads me into doing things without too much thought. Which is totally cool when you’re being spontaneous with your partner but absolutely sucks all those times you realise that you’re holding out for the next pay check earlier than you’d like to admit.
When Dad once more sat opposite me, I made my move. Then Dad made his. I paused a spent probably between 3 – 5 minutes each time before I made my moves. I did this throughout the whole game. Not to annoy my Dad but to actually put in all my effort to win the game.
Sometimes, we make the mistake of equating the desire to win with the amount of effort we put in to win. In a more blunt way, because we want something so badly we trick ourselves into thinking we put more effort in to win than we really did. This is more likely to be true when we lose. I’m not trying to be negative here, sometimes we really do give it our all but in the case of all the times I’d played chess with my Dad, I feel I’d been lying to myself about how hard I’d really tried.
To cut a long story short, I played what was the longest chess game of my life (I think we were pushing 50 minutes at the end) and I beat my Dad and I mean I outright checkmated him. Finally, no longer was I the young child being tricked with the 4 move checkmate (which I’m totally pulling on my kids, again don’t judge), I had returned a man of not only the world but of chess. We played our third and final game of the day which, I’ll admit, I lost. But, that third game lasted just as long as the second game, because I took my time between moves to consider what was happening before me and where I wanted to end up.
I took a lesson from this experience today that I’m going to be applying to my guitar playing (although, I feel it is a valid lesson for most areas of life) and I encourage you to do the same. Let’s look at where our playing currently is right now, today. not just focusing on our strengths, but thinking about the big picture. This means we have to be brave and look at those uncomfortable places where our playing just isn’t that hot. Could be changing strings at speed, could be muting when doing a specific technique, could be not really know what to say with our instrument.
Then we have to think about where we truly want our playing to be. This is the part where we’re allowed to dream about the 100,000 people packing out that arena, all screaming our names as we walk onto the stage to play songs from our latest album that’s been Number 1 for a year (don’t tell me you’re not thinking about that).
With our end goal firmly in our minds, we now have to consider – very carefully – all the different tools we have at our disposal and select which ones we want to use to get there. Here is the warning though, not every tool we think will help us actually will. This means that not every book, magazine or DVD we own is really going to get us to our goal. Not every YouTuber or friend we turn to will really take us to the next step. Not every teacher we approach for lessons is going to make us any better or teach us anything new.
That’s the kicker. We should be 100 times more picky about the learning materials we allow ourselves to use and we should be 1000 times more eager to remove what doesn’t meet our standard. To further emphasise this and conclude this line of thinking, here is a true story.
I used to buy a certain guitar magazine very regularly. I didn’t buy every issue that came out but I would end up with about 3/4 of what they would put out each year. I did this for a good few years. One day, I eagerly went to the shop to get the latest copy and as I picked it up and headed to pay for it, I started to thumb through it and to my horror, this is what I read. The same lesson article that I had read in a previous issue of there’s from a few years ago. I thumbed through some more and sure enough, I could see this issue was just recycling what they’d previously put out. I couldn’t believe it. I put the magazine back on the rack and went home. I didn’t buy it. At home, I got all of my guitar magazines out (when I say all, I mean I could have brought 2 or 3 boutique hand wired tube amps and a few 4×12 cabs to go with them with all the money I’d spent on guitar magazines over the years) and I saw the same thing. Different magazines all just recycling the same information. I felt cheated. Thinking about it now, they were all largely owned by the same publishing house which probably accounts for a lot of the recycling of articles but it goes deeper than that.
In our western world of music, we have 12 notes. From those 12 notes we’ve got chords, scales and arpeggios. That is all we have. It isn’t much and really, it should not take us as long – or cost us as much – as it does for us to figure it all out. There has to come a point where, as guitarists but also as musicians, we can freely admit that we know all we need to know and then we can move into the world of guiding ourselves through the landscape of music without the need to pay for ink on a page or another video to noodle over the top of because we’re not really invested in watching it.
I’ve not brought another learning resource since and I am still to this day going through the piles of issues I’ve got, pulling out what I know I’ll really use and getting rid of what I know that – deep down, no matter what else I tell myself – I’m just never going to look at again and it feels liberating.
Just the thoughts of a man in need of another cup of tea. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts on this post, on different ways to learn and on moving closer to achieving your goals.