• Jay EuDaly

Grunt-Work

Updated: Dec 12, 2018

And The Light-Bulb Experience

In the first blog post of this series I gave a quick argument for the proposition that the feeling in music is supplied by the listener, not the performer. If the musician has his performance techniques and stagecraft together, he doesn't have to be "into it" to sell it - to create the perception in the listener that the musician is "playing with feeling." All good performers are good actors.


In the second post of this series I told the story of how I came to this conclusion; it took several years of shows, at least 6 nights a week, 50 weeks a year and watching guys with more experience than me "play with feeling" night after night, even though I knew they weren't always into it.


In the third post of this series I told the story of how I came to the conclusion that my judgements about my own playing while I am playing are not trustworthy because I cannot, by definition, be objective.


In this post I will talk about how I apply these concepts to my students when teaching.


Keep in mind that I've been on both sides of this student/teacher thing. I spent 10 years formally studying music and the guitar with 2 different, really good teachers.


BTW - I'd already played professionally for several years before I started serious formal study. You can read that story here.


My experience as a student taught me that there is a parallel between my performance as a player and my performance as a student. In much the same way that I can't trust my judgement of my own playing while I'm playing because I can't be objective, so, as a student, I can't trust my judgement of my progress for the same reasons.


I came to that conclusion during the course of my studies with John Elliott. You can read that story here. The conclusion:


I realized my brain was working on this stuff at a subconscious level. I came to the realization that I should trust John and let nature take its course. I was ready for the next page if he thought I was, even if I didn't think so.

There is a statistic in the medical field: The patient does not perceive that he's getting better until he's 80% better. He could be 50% better but his perception is that he's not any better - at all. Only at 80% better does the patient perceive progress.


I think somewhat of the same thing happens with students. I have people come in all the time complaining, "I am so frustrated! I've been working on this every day just like you said and I'm not ANY better than I was last week!"


I can see that they ARE better - a lot better - maybe by 50% or more - it's just not 80% better so they don't think they've progressed AT ALL! Their perception of their own progress is not trustworthy. Their perception is derived from their feelings - which are subject to variables impossible to quantify and may not have anything to do with how they are progressing on the guitar. As the teacher, I am more objective - more trustworthy. Sometimes it's difficult for a student to trust me over his own feelings.


When working on anything, but especially technique exercises, I give students a talk I call, "Brain Stuff." One of the things I talk about is that the way to program your brain to execute an action flawlessly is through daily repetition. Repetition is "writing code" for the brain. I call the daily repetition, "grunt-work." I also say, "Take one day off a week; don't pick up a guitar, don't even think about it."


The reason for this is that when you're doing the repetition you are engaged in data-entry. When you take a day off every so often your brain does stuff on that day that it doesn't do on the days when it's engaged in data-entry. It's an integrative function; it's taking all that data and integrating it with everything that came before - and it does it on a subconscious level all by itself while you're thinking about something else. It works best if you don't think about it or pay attention to it - just give your brain the time and opportunity to do its own thing by taking time off. As I said above, "...let nature take its course." And it does all this no matter what you feel like.


It's a common occurrence that, when you're working on something, a technique exercise, a chord progression or a song perhaps, it feels like you're beating your head against a brick wall. Day after day you work at it, seemingly making no progress at all. After a few days or a week of doing this you take a day off. The day after your day off you pick up the guitar to try it again, and, BOOM! It's there. I call it, "the light bulb experience." The light bulb flashes on over your head. It feels like a quantum leap! But it's not really a quantum leap because you did all that work. If you hadn't done the grunt-work, inputting the data day after day, the light bulb wouldn't have come on. While you were doing the grunt-work, it felt like you weren't making any progress at all but trust me, what you feel is not trustworthy. Keep that in mind when you are tempted to be discouraged at a seeming lack of progress. Just keep plugging away at it, no giving up, and sooner or later the light bulb WILL come on. Dogged persistence and consistency is more important than "talent." The tortoise wins the race.


Once, after I had been studying with John Elliott for a while, I had one of those "light bulb experiences." I thought, "Wait a minute, this has happened several times before; there's a cycle going on here." I realized that being all concerned with how I felt, my apparent lack of progress, was futile; my brain was doing what it was supposed to do and me worrying about it all the time did NOTHING constructive - it might even be counter-productive. I should just relax and not worry about it - just like I had learned to relax onstage and not worry about how good my playing was on any given night.


Many times I've had the experience of dreaming the solution to a technique problem, chord voicing or a fingering; my brain was working on guitar-related issues while I was asleep!


I see students self-sabotage all the time by being all introspective and worried about whether they're making progress or not. I call it, "diseased introspection." It's not healthy and it's counter-productive. Stop it!


The issue when it comes to the grunt-work is NOT whether or not you have "talent"; "talent" does not factor into this at all - it's all mechanical. The issue is whether or not you have the motivation or the drive to do the grunt-work. It's the grunt-work that causes progress, not "talent." You have to figure out how to get gratification from the daily grunt-work itself. For me, it's meditative, therapeutic, and strengthens a sense of self. It has a ritual quality.


It's like this; you get access to personal and spiritual growth and fulfillment through the mundane things - like daily grunt-work on the guitar. So you see what's happening here? I am tying my feelings to something other than a self-judgement about whether I'm progressing or not. The fact of the matter is, if you are doing the daily grunt-work, you ARE progressing, whether you feel like you are or not.


Take my word for it even if you feel otherwise.

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