“Imagine this: you are trapped forever in an empty room, with nothing but your guitar. What do you do?” My guitar teacher stared at me intently, awaiting my reply.
I squirmed, attempting a furtive glance at my watch. Five minutes left in my lesson. I was doomed. There’s nothing worse than a trick question.
“Ummm… practice guitar?” I ventured.
“Yes, but for how long?” my teacher replied.
I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
I don’t remember what I said. Probably some random length of time. Whatever it was, it got me through those last five minutes. But the question wasn’t put to rest yet. My answer didn’t satisfy my teacher. For that matter, it didn’t satisfy me.
How long would I practice? The thought followed me all week, creeping into my mind on my early morning runs, drawing my attention away from cell structure and Spanish vocabulary in school, and making guitar practice almost futile.
At first the answer seemed obvious. I would practice for a while, then get bored and stop. Maybe an hour — a day — a week. I didn’t know. But why did it matter?
Then came doubt. Maybe I wouldn’t stop. Maybe I would practice forever. It sounded a bit ludicrous, but after all, what else would I do? Needless to say, my options would be a bit limited… unless of course I discovered a passion for imaginary hopscotch or counting the cracks on the ceiling. Besides, I enjoyed my daily practice. Practicing alone in a room wouldn’t be that different, would it?
After all, in reality the two situations were almost identical. I might as well be locked up alone during my solitary practice sessions by the window, playing for an audience of distracted waxwings, and my attentive, hungry cat.
But as I pondered, one difference slowly emerged. It’s the key that transforms boredom into inspiration: when I practice each morning, I’m playing for someone. I don’t know who it is. But I know that eventually my music will be heard, and the skills I improve every day in front of my window will be used to create something elegant, or cheerful, or intense: something I can share.
And that is the purpose of my practice, my music, and my life. I believe in developing excellence, and giving it back to the world.
Whether I’m playing a song, writing an essay, or practicing martial arts, I’m searching for an almost indescribable excellence: that rich, smooth tone that makes notes music, that vivid description that makes writing a story, or that crisp snap that makes a kick a tool. And when I’ve found that excellence, then I have something to share. And it’s that sharing that makes it all worthwhile.
After reflecting, that imaginary room seemed very empty, and very lonely.
When I arrived at my guitar lesson the following week, I couldn’t wait for my teacher to bring up the question.
“I wouldn’t practice at all,” I said.
My teacher just smiled.
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