I’ve never been a very good student.  I can’t pin down why, but it’s somewhere between laziness and disinterest.  Thankfully, the tradition of schooling in the US is one that rather expects that you won’t learn, and instead simply insists that you comply with certain metrics and rules, and complete certain menial tasks.  Dance monkey, dance.  It’s mostly to ensure that they (They) can identify noncompliance early, and squash it, to keep the GDP up.  As a result of not receiving a real education,  we are poor students.  Not only are we prepared to perform only to the menial standards set by our superiors, but we are even handicapped when it comes to learning about things that actually interest us.

I can see it when I go to the climbing gym.  It’s a real scene in there, with lots of coeds wandering around looking a bit lost.  For the most part, people there aren’t interested so much in improving as they’re just content to hang out and be part of the scene.  This accounts for 80-90% of the crowd.  The other 10-20% are trying to climb hard; harder than yesterday, twice as hard as the day before.  The problem is that most of them will never climb as hard as they like to.  Athleticism, as a god-given trait or adolescent bonus, can only take a person so far.  Trying hard can only take a person to, say, V8-, or 5.12b, and that’s only reached by devoting a huge amount of free-time to the gym and to the rock.  Trying hard in the way that comes naturally to you is just one method of training, and training in only one way inevitably leads to a plateau, or to injury, both of which are frustrating.

So what’s the deal?  You’ve got to get smart.  Sure, there are some 18-year-olds out there with unholy talent who’re taking all the bouldering comps by storm.  But they are young, freakishly talented, they train hard (though many don’t admit that), and most importantly, they’re not you.  What are the rest of us pedestrians to do? We have to become students of our sport, or of whatever it is that we want to do well.  Being a student of the sport means that we have to dissect what it is that we do, find our weaknesses, develop a strategy, cut away the unnecessary, commit, and execute.  The great masters of our sport, John Gill especially comes to mind, were creative students of climbing as a discipline, and they excelled beyond their peers.

I recently began this process in a very different way: I began taking banjo lessons.  I’ve been playing banjo for a little bit more than a year now, and up until now, I’ve been entirely self-taught.  In the beginning I struggled, and then I practiced.  I became competent, and then I hit a wall.  My progress stalled, and it was time to seek help.  Most real students have a teacher of some kind (or several for that matter), so I found one.  Until I began taking lessons, I was what I would now call a “tune player”: I lacked a deep understanding of what I was doing, but I learned to execute certain patterns with a degree of precision.  Now, I’m back to square one, and I’m blessed to have found a teacher who is deeply seated in both musical theory, and technical craftsmanship.  I’m learning the instrument all over again, and it isn’t easy because real learning requires real study.  Rather than a hit-or-miss try-and-try-again method of learning, the reconstruction and repair of my technique requires very acute attention that can follow the movements of my feet, voice, and both hands as all try to do something different from the bad habits that I previously ingrained in them.  I feel like a complete beginner again, which brings to light the point that effort without directed study just brings about a false sense of understanding and accomplishment (in a fairly short amount of time), while as a true student one feels like a complete fuckup most of the time, but the gains are real and deep and rewarding.

Right now, I feel like I am almost less competent than I was three weeks ago.  But I am confident that this feeling simply comes from slowly destroying my illusions and revealing my weaknesses.  What components need to be trained?  Left hand fingering technique.  Right hand rhythmic patterns.  My feet.  My voice.  My ability to read music.  Everything.  In the same way, if you want to excel at something else, like climbing, you have to dissect it.  Power, power endurance, contact strength, technique, resting, nutrition, flexibility, training cycles, aerobic capacity, weight training, attitude, focus.  Good lord, it’s a long way to go.

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