7200 Hours: On Not Making It In Music by Christopher Salerno

In my early 20s I kept a notebook of ideas for songs, songs I knew how to play, musicians I’d played with, places my band had performed, corresponding set-lists, marginalia and whatnot. I found this book the other day. It’s cover still holds the dopey stickers I pasted all over it, mostly peeled from “RIPE” fruit, “USED” bookstore books, and a few “Max Points” stickers from Maxell cassette tapes. The notebook itself is held together by tape. On the inside flap are four return addresses, each one scratched out when I moved to a new place.

It served as a kind of a commonplace book. Our band’s set-lists from SUBS PLUS in Wilson, NC, from ZIGGYS in Atlantic Beach, NC, and about a dozen other shows in and around Greenville, NC. In some cases there are amounts we got paid ($500 for an outdoor event called FREEBOOT FRIDAYS; $350 for playing PEASANTS CAFE on Halloween, 1999).

There are also names of musicians I played with in and around town, and in some cases what we played when we got together. There are song titles, the chords and solos for which I can only guess at now. This was rural, “Down East” North Carolina. We mostly played traditional music like bluegrass, country blues, blues, jazz. To me these genres are the most communal, the quickest music to access and transfer, and usually fun as hell. A few surrounding towns had Bluegrass Associations where strangers met up on Saturday afternoons. Groups of pickers would huddle in the parking lot and play standards. Theoretically, if you knew the basics, you could show up, sit in, take a solo, play along.

It was a busy time in my life. College, a band, a girlfriend, poems, restaurant work. But I kept endless notebooks and notes around music. Our band was overly serious. We practiced with militancy. We were dicks to each other. I remember one summer, desperately seeking a solid drummer, we drove to the country to meet Clayton, who had answered the ad we had pinned to a board somewhere. Clayton led us to his backyard where he dragged a vintage Ludwig drum kit out of his outdoor shed. It was all mirrored. We set up on his patio and played under the high, skinny pine trees. Clayton’s kick was way, way off. We knew halfway into the first song he wasn’t the guy. Later we tried Brian, then Fred, then Steve, then Benny, and then Scott (Scott had once been the drummer for Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam). Scott was great.

Looking back, I realize that I wrote less or nothing in my notebook about the people who really affected me musically, and who, as it turns out, would later go on to have successful careers in music—these people who either went on to “make it” in music, or were/are so good that it doesn’t matter because, well, they get to hear themselves play whenever they want (this is also “making it,” I realize now).

I can think of at least four or five such people I’ve played with who started or sped up a kind of traffic in me. People who rerouted my commute to the musical well. Whenever I pick up an instrument now, I basically channel something of their ethic, their tone, their reverence for the song, or their dedication to playing for playing’s sake. But why had I written so little about these people in real time, back then? Was it because these experiences were downright formative? Part of me thinks that to write ABOUT the sublime experience is to undercut its holiness. There are few words to serve that moment when your musical sensibility leaps forward. Yet another part of me wonders if I was, in those moments playing with those people, a little jealous. Or envious. Or both.

I read somewhere that jealousy is the feeling of being dispossessed. That it differs from envy. If envy is coveting what someone else has, jealousy is the feeling of wanting what someone else has and thinking it belongs to you. I’ve been both jealous and envious. But I think that, when you’re young and driven to express yourself through a craft, whatever it is, there are the masters, and then there are your contemporaries. The barometer of envy registers less against the masters, and more among your contemporaries. When you actually MEET and play with a musician whose genius is more realized than your own, it can be defining. Some people figure out, at this point, that they’re probably NOT going to have a career in music.  They sort of startle awake at that moment, realizing that they’ve been hypnotized by an adolescent myth. Others resolve to play harder. The art becomes work.

But discipline is the religion of the uninterested. One week in college I spent all my free time learning the first half of Blind Willie McTell’s Library of Congress recordings until the nightmares got so bad I had to quit. Most albums or songs I learned would give me nightmares for nearly a week. Play, pause, rewind, fumble, play, pause, rewind, fumble, replay. Play. The way you have to ruin the song for yourself, take it apart, before you actually own another person’s piece of music. A guy I played with had software that would slow down a solo for you so that you could learn it. Serious software.

I don’t remember, right off, how to play the Blind Willie McTell anymore. I think he’s tuned down very, very low, and playing a slightly out-of-tune 12-string. I do remember that, if you were to listen to the arc of his recordings, you’d see that the closer he got to death the lower he pitched his guitar.

I once resolved to only join bands with musicians who were better than me. Or, to be more honest, I somehow ended up in this situation and then realized it was a good idea. The kind of people who put in the time that perhaps I hadn’t yet put in, whose father’s were country music artists, whose mothers played the bass guitar. People whose uncles had written obscure books about studio recording. People who had spent the summers of their high school years in their basement with a Les Paul and a stack of CDs.

Recently I learned a good portion of Dave Davies’ lead guitar lines from the Kinks’ Give the People What They Want album, one of my favorites. I’ve learned a lot of Freddie King songs. A bunch of harmonica solos of the various players who accompanied Muddy Waters on his Chess Records albums (except a fair amount of those insurmountable Little Walter solos). Oh, and Blackberry Blossom on the banjo (beginner’s stuff).

I’ve played a lot of guitar. I estimate I’ve played about 7200 hours of guitar. Less banjo, less mandolin, less harmonica. But a lot of guitar, I think. Once I realized I had been playing guitar every day for four straight years. I broke the streak only when I went away to graduate school in Vermont. My priorities began to shift. Nowadays there are weeks that go by when I don’t play music. Probably there’s a month here or there, now, when I play nothing.

Go to any local library book sale and you’ll see a copy of Outliers. This is one of Malcom Gladwell’s bestselling books, many of which are about special moments, people, or phenomena viewed through the broad lens of pop sociology. A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule,” based on a study by Anders Ericsson, who looked at classical violinists and found that, in every case, it had taken a regimen of 2-3 hours a day for 10 years to develop their abilities. Later research by Ericsson and others confirmed similar results in other fields. In Outliers, Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time. Hence the 10,000 Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent. And in the case of Bill Gates, he met the 10,000 Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

What’s most resonant to me about Gladwell’s idea isn’t the lame question of whether natural talent does or does not exist, but more so it’s the notion that practicing anything for a long time affords you an internalized sense of what you and others are capable of, what is conventional, and what is special. But even more importantly you come into direct contact with your limits on a regular basis. Somewhere around the 3000th hour, for me, I was suddenly able to learn directly by listening and pausing albums. Somewhere around the 5000th hour I realized I had hit a wall in my growth as a player, and that I didn’t have the energy or devotion anymore to push through it. I quit trying to be great. I just played whatever. And to the overly serious player, progress becomes addicting. You can always almost play the thing you want to (hear yourself) play.

Some of the musicians I knew ten years ago were playing like a 1000 hours a year, which is like 83 hours month, which is 2.7 hours a day, which is very possible for these people since they were playing before I met them. They played in the hours after I left their living rooms. They played in another band that night. They had another show across town. They played in their sleep. They played the next morning, first thing.

Name dropping is dumb. My disclaimer, right way, must be that I had nothing to do with the success of the people who most influenced my approach to music, nor am I really trying to associate my musicianship with theirs. In fact, my point is that they “made something” of their musicianship that I’m not sure I could ever make.

Scott Avett

I met Scott in Greenville, NC when he was still playing rock/metal but trying to get better at playing banjo. To do this, he would invite people to come by his place and accompany him on different tunes. He had a songbook of oldtime bluegrass classics like Shady Grove, I Saw The Light, Old Joe Clark, and Cripple Creek that we’d run through in the evenings in his living room. That year, The Avett Brothers opened for our band around town here and there. Before that time they were known as Nemo. Nemo played two sets, typically: one of oldtime music, and one of what I can only remember as Metal. It was funny to see them switch it up halfway through the show. Later they started something called, The Back Porch Project, and then, eventually, The Avett Brothers.

Benny

When I met Benny (“Eiden Thorr”) he was in four or five bands. He worked at a skate park during the day and practiced all night. He was obviously playing the odds that one of these bands would pan out. The homeless and schizophrenics would walk in and out of his house while we rehearsed. Sometimes they would sit in. Benny was our drummer for a while, and, as with all good drummers, you just assume they’ll keep drumming. Then one day I saw that he’d turned up in a band called Valient Thorr, which had become really popular on the Warped Tour. That, and he was now this crazy guitarist from outer space. Benny could play anything, really, because he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. Being a musician was bigger than playing any one instrument.

Tuttle

When I met Chris Tuttle he wasn’t playing much piano. His dad sang and recorded Gospel Albums. His mom played the standup bass, I think. We formed a band, and his playing progressed quickly. I’ve never seen anyone practice like Chris. You’d show up at his apartment after the sun had just gone down and he’d have his keyboard rig (always!) set up in his living room, in lieu of standard furniture, and there he’d be sitting in the semi-dark behind his keyboard playing Pinetop Perkins solos over and over. One day a few years ago I tuned in to watch him play on a Late Night talk show (backing up Jewel), and I felt like I was suddenly privy to the whole journey. The real traditional Nashville route. I could see how all those hours could add up to one four-minute song. Chris had “made it.”

Lightnin’ Wells

Lightnin’ Wells is a folk-blues, country-blues, ragtime-blues legend in Eastern North Carolina.  A master historian and keeper of the old song. He is a life-long devotee of the pioneering performers in the piedmont blues tradition once thriving in the Carolinas, like Blind Boy Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Blake. I had never heard or seen anyone play a National (steel) guitar. Not in New Jersey, anyway. Of the few times I visited his farmhouse (surrounded by tobacco fields on three sides) we played only a few songs together. One late night/early morning after the downtown bars closed, my girlfriend and I found him without a ride and drove him back to his house in the country. I didn’t know him well, but he seemed like a wonderfully generous person. We played a few songs in his living room, with him playing banjo. Sitting on Top of the World was one. I realized the next day that he’d burned an enormous hole in my car’s upholstery after misfiring a cigarette out the backseat window.

Kris

I’ve never really told my best friend Kris how good a musician I think he is. How much better than me he is. I mean, we both know it, right? We don’t need to talk about it. We played in a band together for years. I spent a good 1000 of my 7200 hours, years ago, rehearsing and playing shows with him. There have been occasional moments when I’ve asked him to show me this or that run on the guitar. That’s an implicit compliment between musicians, I think.

I mean, to play with him is to be completely distracted by how right it sounds. Yeah, his guitars cost more than my first car, but it’s how he plays them, and his depth of stylistic power in almost ANY genre. He’s devoted to traditional music these days. But I’ve heard him on his Les Paul cranking out Glam Rock solos with other musicians we met along the way–guys who just happened to come from similar stock. That’s the kind of stuff only the 10,000-hour musician can pull out. I have little of that depth.

Last year Kris and I visited the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth Pennsylvania. Our acoustic Mecca, basically. We met up in the room where Martin generously displays a number of their high-end guitars so that people can play them before and after the factory tour. My quick film was an impulse move: here’s my friend Kris at the Martin Guitar Factory, a place we’ve talked about visiting for years. But I also see something else in this video. I’m moving my camera around the wooded room, not resting on Kris for more than a few seconds at a time. What the hell?

Looking at it now, I see what is maybe a complicated discomfort there in the film’s shoddy production. How my focus strays from his playing. It’s like there’s something in that cedar-lined room I’m not comfortable facing. Is this my envy coming out, the way my camera’s eye avoids my friend, the room’s only moving, living thing? I’m a 7,200 looking at a 10,000. And here are the missing (2800) hours that I’d rather not face.

~~~

$

Probably the world was once deluxe. Every city worth seeing

at least once. Beside the bus stop an empty

purse is starting to fill with rain.

People are dressed as if everything is circulating

outside of their clothing. On the bus

a lady reaches into the pocket of her red smock,

retrieves a Scrabble piece.

Maybe the unused things have meaning.

We must be nearing Newark. Everything’s falling

into my heart. This is an effort, the poem is

an effort to sew a small band on the arm and wear it

on the last DeCamp bus to Port

Authority. No one else seeks this conceit and yet

here it is. My bus cuts through

a chill space of few imperatives. A scribble

above the seats reads, Occupy your mouth with my cock.

Christopher Salerno’s books of poems include Minimum Heroic, winner of the 2010 Mississippi Review Poetry Series Award, and Whirligig (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006). A chapbook, ATM is available from Horse Less Press. Recent and future poems can be found in journals such as Fence, LIT, Salt Hill, InDigest, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. Currently, he’s an Assistant Professor of English at William Paterson University where manages the new journal, Map Literary.

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Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.