Throw Down Your Hammer and Sing

Nov 5, 2013

The Art of Grinding

A quick prologue: The below is intended as nothing more than an attempt to work out issues of my own. Anyone that knows me has a fairly good idea that I am far superior at articulating ideas, feelings, and arguments via the written word than I am in inner consideration or conversation. I recognize that a certain amount of this may trigger different feelings in the reader, including a desire to offer advice. I recognize that, by putting my thoughts down in a public forum, I forfeit the rights to my interest and, therefore, respect feedback, but the purpose of this writing is primarily to open discussion about the life cycle of creativity and how we choose to create our definitions of self. In a modern culture that breeds on drama, lightning quick characterizations, and a well-intentioned desire to "fix" each other, I hope this will simply be a few words about my experience, in hopes that it opens conversations with people with whom it resonates, nothing more.

*****

I'm not a particularly brilliant man.

I'm not filled with talent. I'm certainly no genius, nor have I been given a certain insight to music-making or life that separates me from anyone else. I've said this before and been accused of false modesty, an accusation I take very seriously, and so I hope I characterize these realizations of myself in a way that doesn't feel like fishing for contradictory compliments. These are simply the empirical facts born out of academic test scores, my relative speed at grasping concepts, and an objective comparison of my mastery of certain skills paramount to being a musician. These are my shortcomings, painted in strokes that are perhaps too broad, but hopefully in not too piteous a manner. This is my reality as I understand it, and I've tried to state it with the least amount of hyperbole possible because, while I have these certain weaknesses I have been lucky (like everyone) to have certain strengths on which I can attempt to build the life that I want, and that's the subject of this essay.

I'm a grinder.

I've been lucky to have been given an ability to push myself harder, more regularly, and for longer periods than some other people. I'm a draft-horse, and I treasure this trait. For years I have been jealous of people with innate creativity, talent, intellect. However, As I amass and process more experience over time, I realize that there is no such thing as transfer from objective quantitative ability to subjective qualitative outcome in a person's life. You have who you are and there is no person that has a better combination of your traits than you do.

In that vein, I admire people who possess qualities of grace and genius, but I do so from the alternate position of feeling lucky to have the power to get from where I am to that place, even by a different and longer road. I am proud to be a draft horse. I'm proud to be George Foreman. It doesn't make the beauty of an Arabian stallion or the grace of Muhammed Ali count for any less in my mind. On the contrary, I marvel at these gifts and feel a connection to those that understand and use them in the most efficient and personal ways.

******

I've been conscious of my ability and need to grind for twenty five years. It has served me well and, with the requisite luck, I find myself in a position of being able to play music for people with some of my heroes, articulate ideas in a way that is satisfying to me, and, in rare moments, be listened to. I recognize that it is a special place, to be happy and satisfied in what you are doing with your life. Many people get further than me, and without having to grind, but this is where I am, and this is how I've done it and it feels natural and correct for me.

However, I've been confronted recently with a simple idea that never occurred to me. Grinding is not a one way activity. All the years of putting my head down and working, using the friction of effort, sleeping less, working harder, trying more, was not just grinding down whatever imaginary monolith I felt like I needed to get through to come to different understandings of myself and music, but the simple act was having an equal effect on the body acting as the abrasive, mainly....me.

I have woken up early the past couple weeks and pushed myself to go out for a run. Running in the cold and the dark has been a great pleasure for me for a number of years now, as it was a way of feeling powerful, somehow. It confirms who I am and reminds me of my strengths. Recently, though, my legs have been stiff. I've had to stop, icing previously impervious legs, and take days off to rest. I possibly have a stress fracture, and am now questioning if this is the first sign that the endurance that I've been counting on to get me to the end is flagging.

I have been watching the people I've respected and identified as grinders get older around me. With the recent death of an older acquaintance of my wife's who I had lifted in my mind as the most elegant and graceful hard working men and musicians of all time, I am becoming fearful that I won't be able to maintain what strength of body and concentration and spirit I've been able to muster. I'm only 39, maybe half way through life and I'm not obsessing about my mortality. But already I feel the sap of mental power, and wonder if the understanding and ability I've gained will go away as the ability to practice pure endurance flags and disappears in the second half of my life. I'm frightened of not knowing what I can replace it with. There's no way to know if I had the proper foresight to build up enough skills to get me through as my body and mind age. What if the strength was all that I had and there is nothing behind it? Can I still develop and learn and be satisfied?

I have confidence in the music I make and my abilities as a thinker, an improviser, a trumpet technician, but I'm finding that confidence shaken today. I believe that everyone constructs their definitions of themselves, more or less honestly, and I am very conscious that mine is built on Work. What happens when the body and mind become less willing and able to do this work as I age? I'm fragile, just like anyone else. What I really fear is not the inevitable march of time, but having to confront the fluidity of my perception of myself. It's the one thing, at this point, that I'm sure about, and to have to confront my flaws in constructing it scares the shit out of me.

My only comfort is that maybe an increase in friction is life's response to the stasis of an increasing amount of self-satisfaction. I remember the story of Kenneth Gaburo moving percussion instruments further away for a solo performance of one of his works to achieve more difficulty and a more physically "human" performance (read: with mistakes). Maybe as we get older the true practice of embracing the strength of being who I am will become more about working with and around (physical, mental, aesthetic) failures rather than working through them. Maybe that's what the art of grinding actually is. I guess I need to be prepared to find out.