When I was 14, I took a trip with my sister back to her home in the San Bernardino Valley in Southern California that lasted for about a month. Along for the ride was my really terrible cheap acoustic guitar that played and sounded pretty bad. I had found some big letter stencils at the Gray Drug store before I left and spray painted my first band’s moniker in rough fashion on the vinyl gig bag. I was practicing to be a rock star.
The rest of that summer, I was just a lonely kid with little confidence. My family had divorced a few years earlier and I had too much self-doubt and a bad self-image. Kinda like the stain and the holes on my cherished Pink Floyd T-Shirt, I was pretty worn out. I was in a constant state of wandering, for days on end, a teenager sentenced to living in a duplex with my father and brother who had their own lives and issues. We were more like a group of roommates than a family. I thought it was kinda cool at the time that I had so much freedom, but in reality, I was unparented and unprotected from my own deep aloneness. I was depressed.
But I had that guitar.
Every day it was my ticket, and I was a passenger to a place where I could be someone else. Songwriting came right away even with my limited skills and technique; I was a devout practitioner of the art of being alone in my room practicing. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew what I wanted. I just wanted to be good. Actually, I wanted to be good at anything, because I wasn’t good at much.
But I had that guitar.
Looking back I can see now that was my gift, my way up and out. I would never become a big rock star, but I would play with some in a few great bands. My story would ultimately be about being around the guys that were around some of the greats. I have been very blessed and lucky after all.
I knew I wanted to take it to the next level, so I left Akron and I went to music school in Hollywood at 20. There I was thrust into a different level of players, and in very short order, was taught some important lessons. Lessons about learning and practicing. This was a new planet where there was nothing more common than unrewarded talent, and everybody was at least good or great. You had to really be something special to stand out. So I had to dig in and do the lonely work and take practicing my craft to a different level.
So, I guess you may be wondering what all this has to do with living sober. Isn’t this a column about that? Yes… let me explain.
To this day I continue to practice the art of practicing itself. Sobriety takes practice. Playing guitar takes practice. Everything in my life takes practice.
When it comes to both guitars and getting sober, here are three things that I know work for me:
Have a plan. Know what you are doing and why. Practicing guitar is just like being sober. I have to begin each session with a purpose and know what the end result will be. I have to see it clearly. “I want this and here is what it will be.” I can see, touch, feel it deep in my soul. I know what I want and why. Purpose begins with a plan.
Do it with a schedule. I pick a day every week to plan and schedule my work. Every Monday I look at the Google calendar for the week and I put appointments on selected days and times. In practicing and in sober living, I have airtight compartments that no one is allowed to penetrate. If someone wants that time I just say “Sorry, I have something scheduled’. As with studying my art of music, I have designated days and times to exercise my practice in the art of learning more, sharing more, and understanding better the life of recovery and sobriety.
Measure the time. I encourage my music, composition, and performance students to keep a practice log. That way they can see the progress. When I look back on a week I can see if I have spent the time needed to enhance the desired skill. Playing guitar, like sobriety, takes time and effort. It’s nice to look back and see that I have done the work and got the job done.
Sobriety is a skill — like playing the guitar, or like anything else. If I think that I’ve got it but don’t do the work, then I turn into that guy that hits the bandstand and realizes that he should have put the time in. Believe me, I have been that guy. You don’t want to be that guy. Similarly, I never want to look in the mirror and see that face of relapse again. This is my life. I do not want to go back to the old, sick me.
I have a character defect, and that is flexibility. I am not good at being flexible when life happens and I cannot keep my schedule. I need to practice this more. Unfortunately, the online search for being more flexible as a topic took me to some really cool exercise and yoga sites. Ummm. not what I was thinking. Onward.
“The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” – Duke Ellington
Ahhh. Thanks for that, Duke.
I cannot be the master of all when it comes to the guitar. There is so much to learn. And similarly, in sobriety, like any lifestyle or regimen, I know that I cannot be the Yoda, the Moses on the rock, or the latest popular podcast personality. But, deep down I know what I see in life’s living mirror:
In the music business, I’m a regional player of note, a minor league slugger that had promise, got off track, and found the trail again. I’m not gonna get to the promised land of rock stardom. But I’ve had a great career jousting at windmills with a vintage fender guitar. And,
I still have this guitar and I’m still sober.
I can keep practicing the guitar and the art of sobriety. It’s the practicing that keeps me sane. Daily goals set, self-promises kept. It’s the one step, one more major scale, one more 12 step meeting, one more new song written or learned, one more airtight 24-hour compartment of leaning in that keeps me doing.
The art of practicing. One day at a time. One more day. One day better than yesterday. One day still alive and in the game.
Reach Marc Lee Shannon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Angelo Merendino. Used with permission from Marc Lee Shannon.