I learned to play guitar the summer after my senior year of high school. The guitar was a graduation present from my mom; after years of fantasizing about playing an instrument, the Yamaha plain pine six-string felt like a gift from heaven. We had moved after graduation to upstate New York from suburban Maryland, and I took lessons at a local music shop, perhaps my only social outlet that summer. I was impressed with my progress, unlike piano, which I had suffered at for years, strumming chords was easy enough. I never was that subtle on the guitar; it took me years before I could pluck a figure, but I always loved to strum.
My first performances were for the very lucky oldsters at the Goshen senior center where I volunteered that summer. I am not sure they quite enjoyed the material (only a few walkouts), but I didn’t mind playing. I took inspiration from folk giants from my parents’ generation: Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, some Neil Young, the oldies, as well as some new stuff like Sufjan and The Mountain Goats.
In the fall, at college, I quickly fell into a group of other students who played folk music. Even more exciting, open mics abounded that first semester. Just about every week there was another chance to play folk music—whether a social justice event or a coffee house, it didn’t matter, I was there. And most exciting of all, I was writing my own stuff. The song I wrote on a Thursday I could perform in front of a rapt audience Friday. It was the most instant, and greatest gratification I had received so far as a performer.
I think I was happiest during this period of college, when I was really playing and writing music. It was my thing, more than any other writing I had done in my short life, this stuff was actually accepted by an audience (unlike the poetry of my high school years that was met mostly by groans and the gnashing of teeth (I won’t even mention the stand-up comedy)). There were moments, like when I organized my own concert with a friend at a venue on campus that I even felt like I could make a career out of this. The idea of never having to get a straight job was just as thrilling then as it was now.
Then all of the people I used to play music with moved on. Or maybe I moved on. Or we all moved on and by junior or senior year, the time I used to spend with my music I spent with homework or playwriting or being a deejay.
It’s called a plateau, and if you achieve any level of success in your life you will become familiar with this deadly geography. It is the feeling that although you have made it past the initial stage of trying, and you have a success or two, you will never do anything better. This state of being, can last from several months to a lifetime. And after hitting that first plateau there is a second a third down the line, too.
I also felt that the audience had moved on. Instead of trying out new musical ideas, I was the same songwriter in freshman year that I was in senior year. Even though I now knew barre chords and could do a couple simple figures and solos, let’s face it, I wasn’t learning enough to make the music compelling. Not only was I losing an audience, I was losing confidence that anyone would want to see me play.
And maybe they didn’t. My nadir came during a Peace Week event the spring of my senior year. Admittedly, between my thesis film, several classes and the whole graduation thing, I didn’t have much time to practice. Either way, I was awful. Of the people who came out, a couple of friends, some people selling baked goods, other bands, none paid attention to my set. It was devastating, enough that I really never took my music seriously afterwards.
I regret that.
So, here’s my advice to you, pursuer of creative things. Don’t give up. Even when your audience has moved on, don’t move on, too. The plateau happens to everyone. We can’t know when it will end, but there are things you can do to climb the mountain. I could have made an effort to form a band, learn jazz guitar, do something completely different for a concert. Instead, I panicked and shut down. Ninety-nine percent of creative people give up. There’s no shortage of musicians, artists, writers in this world, but there are only a few who can live up to their dreams. My advice: let go of the pride and get to work. There is one reward for failure, but there are multiple outcomes when you try.
Anyone have a similar experience? Tell me about it in the comments.