Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Getting 'it' back - after a long break

Walking away from a career in music was one of the hardest decisions in my life.

Some personal background: As a young man just finishing High School, I began a career in music. During that period of several years, I worked in almost every possible musical situation. I worked and recorded with many talented and wonderful people. Taught as many as 75 students a week at my peak. Generally lived a wonderful blessed lifestyle, filled with daily workouts, followed by regular weekly late-night city performances and small town shows across southern Ontario, Canada.

I never really thought of the strain this could put on my playing. Sure my chops improved immensely, but what began to erode was some of the love. Turning the thing I love into a business, had an odd and deep-reaching effect. Instead of enjoying the freedoms and experiences that came with the life of a professional musician. I slowly grew more and more tired of its gypsy lifestyle. The desire to have a family and a home of my own lead to three dreaded words: Back to school.

So began the ever-popular career to "fall back on". During my time in college I played little, due to the workload. In third year, I went on to meet the most beautiful creature I had ever seen - then married her -  played less. Upon graduation, a college placement / turned job at a busy downtown studio ate up large portions of my available time. Then the mother of all time consumers happened - a baby! Boom, boom - two more! In rapid 18 month intervals! For the first time since the early years of my personal history, I was no longer technically a musician.

Life -10
Guitar - 0

Ouch! Hurts even typing it.

Without boring you with too many details, let me just say that as the children aged, and the new career settled in, eventually the desire to play returned. Which brings me to the reason for this post: How do you return to a life in music while balancing your responsibilities? It may seem impossible but it is not, here was what I did.

First things first
Talk to your mate. This is critical! I explained how much my playing meant to me, and that if I don't get it back, in some sense, I will be a less-happy person. Music was a huge part of my life - it is part of what made me the person she fell in love with. This meant that I would need to practice every night; so could no longer hang out with her once the kids were in bed. It was important she knew this was nothing personal. Also, that I would need to dedicate a room in the house for my practice studio.

Turn off the TV or video games
This needs little elaboration. There is completely ZERO reward for time spent watching television or playing games. Only days rolling by on the calendar. If you want to waste your precious time here these are great ways to do it. I enjoy both but they HAD TO GO. Non-negotiable. During the week, it's a no-fly zone.

Remember the love
With the wife on-board, studio set-up and television off, the first thing I did was get back to what it was that made me play in the first place. I went through old magazines and plastered the walls with pictures of my favourite guitar hero's from long past. It felt a rather teenage thing to do... but somehow, it just felt right to do it.

Then, I bought some guitar hangers and rather than have them in their cases I hung my old soldiers out to enjoy. It is amazing, the raw beauty of an instrument, and its ability to inspire at a glance. This was a great motivator in retrospect.

Once the 'cave' was assembled, I pulled out all the old albums that I used to lift songs from in my earliest days. I decided to re-learn all of these songs, only this time I would play them properly, note-for-note. So I did, one by one. Once I had my legs under me again, slowly the posters and pictures came down. Soon the song lifting spread out to new, uncharted (literally) pieces. I must say a word of gratitude to Mr Randy Rhoads though!

Get your A$$ downstairs!
There is nothing like a long day, to drain the desire to do anything. Set a practice time and DO IT. No excuses! Go down there and practice. You will be glad you did. This feeling fades after 10 minutes of playing. At first you will have to force yourself. Before long you will be dying to get down there.

Call the boys
Once I felt some of the chops coming back, I picked up the phone and called some of the old jam buddies. Spending time with other musicians is a HUGE way to grab some mojo back. Piece by piece, I assembled a weekly basement jam band. Having a set-list of songs to learn with people counting on you is a great way to work out the kinks. I cannot understate the importance of playing with others - DO THIS.

Be protective
Once I started playing again, the "make money" gene started to reactivate itself. Friends with children in need of lessons, gigs playing music you aren't into and many other distractions can arise if you aren't very protective. Learn to protect your time playing, and cherry pick only musical situations that excite you.

Go see live music
Kind of goes without saying, but nothing can fast forward you like some good old-fashioned inspiration. Seeing a great performance always leaves me reaching for the guitar.

Start a music program
These days, with the many online resources we are truly blessed with convenience. There is nothing like a live teacher still, but in lieu of that, some of the online institutions are excellent. There are also DVD guitar courses and sites available, so do your homework and begin some sort of program.

Learn a new style of music. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and watch your wings spread. New chords, new feels, new music to explore. The world is full of some truly great music, and most of us only ever hear a small sampling. You got the net! Seek it out.

Get a subscription
One of the biggest sources of inspiration to me during these years was guitar publications like Guitar Player Magazine. Wherever you live, find a magazine and get on their subscription list. Then, most important read them cover to cover.

The trick to all of this is immersion. Immerse yourself in as much guitar and guitar culture as you can. The difference between a pro and an amateur has a lot to do with simply the company they keep. The more musicians you have in your circle of life, the more sources for inspiration you have access to. Re-connect with old players, hit jam nights and meet new ones, answer ads for players, join online forums - just get back out there.

After all this, you will be happy to know I currently enjoy an active life of playing again. I am back involved in several group, gigging and recording projects as well as teaching. The best part - I have made more personal gains in the last many years, than in all my time as a pro. How can this be? One main difference: passion. This time I am doing it for me. You can get back to where you used to be - and even beyond. All it takes is dedication, organization and a desire to return to the simple joy of playing.

Life: 5
Guitar: 5

That was one hell of a come-back! Now if only the Leafs could figure out how to do that!


  1. Its not easy to carve out personal time for music when we get busy with family obligations , work and general upkeep of a home. But when we moved a year ago, it was made clear that one room in the house was in fact going to be "the cave" ...now If I can only get the wife to stop putting all her stuff in here , I can take my guitars out of the cases...

  2. Kick her butt out Dan! The sooner you do the sooner you will start to use it. The 'cave' is an essential in this equation.

  3. Great story - as a former bass player who almost went 'pro' then gave it all up, only to start playing guitar some 20 years later - a lot of this really resonates with me.

    Fortunately, the wife understands, is very supportive and I've got to the stage where I'm playing in a tribute band, gigging several times a month to as many as 3,000 people, getting paid and loving every second of it. And it's not impacting my home life or my responsibilities as a father to 4 year old twins.

    Take the advice given here by Jeremy, it's the way ahead to be a satisfied musician and have a good life balance too...

  4. Thanks Green... Nice write up.. This applies to even a beginner like me. I have my peaks and valleys ain my practice time. I go through slumps that last a few months where I barely touch the thing and then go through a spell where I'm on it every day. And seems when i get back to it, I'm just using that time to refresh stuff I already learnt. I need to find that "rhythm" in my practicing so I can keep moving forward.

    For me right now

    Life: 9
    Guitar: 1

    I'd like to change that.

  5. Great advice, Jeremy!

    One thing I used to tell my students to put their guitars where they will almost trip over them. If you have to get your guitar out of its case in the closet to play you'll play less than if you have to move it off your bed or the couch or some place you need to have access to regularly.

  6. Jeremy,

    You are not alone my friend... I started reading this story and saw so many parallels to my own life in music. Started playing at age 12, majored in classical guitar performance and did the musician thing for a few years...got a second degree in computer science, two beautiful daughters 14 months apart, etc...

    I can't agree more with your advice. Keep that fire burning!!!!

    By the way...love the blog and I look forward to checking in from time to time.

    Oasis Guitar Instruction

  7. Thanks Jeff! Glad you like the blog. I think many of us go through the same kind of thing. It is just so difficult to make money - without touring.... Problem is, you can't really have a family and be on the road now can you! So ya gotta find different ways to scratch that itch!

    Don't be a stranger.