Not too long ago, I was driving by the park close to my apartment in Phoenix, and I saw a young kid playing basketball by himself well after dark… it was really cool to watch… I mean this kid was attacking it! In spite of the fact that I had no frame of reference, I got all nostalgic and teary eyed, and I felt a burning sense of admiration for his work ethic. The older I get, the more I cling tightly to the naïve intensity that drove endless hours of dream-fueled work at a time when nothing else mattered. I think half the problem with growing up is that we tend to forget about that stuff. I hope I find reasons to get up early and stay up late for my passions into my old age. This is a story about my life and why I was moved by a kid I’ve never met.
I was never very good at sports. When I was a boy – probably nine or ten – my friends were all into baseball. Down the hill from my house in the middle of nowhere Montana, some boys I knew lived on several acres of property. They had this fantastic baseball diamond that their Dad had built in their backyard; and every warm day after school, most of my buddies were out there playing. I played with them sometimes. But because they were so good and I wasn’t, I spent a lot of time at the top of the hill pitching a ball against a mini-trampoline leaned against a tree… or playing catch and practicing with my Dad; in hopes that one day I would get really good at the basics and surprise my friends with my skill. It never happened. As much as I practiced and played, I lacked the innate ability and coordination that baseball seemed to require, and I never got very good.
Next, it was soccer. When recreational league sports started, in addition to team practices, I started working in my backyard again. I was better at that, and I did pretty well in team practice… but once pressure came into play, I got nervous and choked with the game on the line. I would start in one or two games each season. But I always knew it wouldn’t last. It didn’t.
When I tried my hand at basketball, I was wildly inconsistent. One day in practice, I couldn’t miss. The next day, I couldn’t make a layup. I scored once in a game, but it was more of a fluke where I ended up with the ball and landed a lucky shot with poor fundamentals. I never got very good. Even so, I spent a lot of time with dirty hands and a basketball, shooting until it was too dark to see the hoop.
When I was almost 12, my Grandmother bought me a violin for Christmas. I had been begging my parents to let me play for over a year. I think they shared this with her… and not too long afterwards, there it was under the tree. Once again, all my friends had been playing for a long time, and were pretty damn good at it already.
I went through the same process. I played for a lot of the day every day on the weekends, and often played from the time I got home from School until I was forced to put it away to go to bed. I loved it… still, I got frustrated when the newness wore off and I hit the inevitable plateau in my growth. But perhaps because of what I perceived to be failures in my past with sports, I didn’t stop.
The summer after I started playing, I went to a violin camp in Missoula Montana. I met a beautiful girl there, and she was many years ahead of me in her ability. I was an awkward, nervous kid – too afraid to really get to know her out of context. So she was the motivation I needed to get through the plateau. She was four books ahead of me in the Suzuki method, and the general rule was that it took about one year to adequately complete a Suzuki book. I swore that I would be in her group by the following year so that I would be able to get to know her. As I was sure that she would complete another book by the following summer, I would have to complete five books to catch up.
I told no one, but I got to work. It didn’t take long until I kind of forgot about her and it became about the violin… and about music – something I had fallen in love with. Soon, I was playing – on average – six to eight hours a day. I was fascinated by the forward movement. It was the first thing I had ever done that I felt like I could be good at.
After a year of playing for hours and hours every day, I actually hit the goal I had half forgotten about. I had completed most of five Suzuki books, and I ended up in the same group as that girl. That year changed everything about my views on possibility and what I could accomplish with enough focus. I started playing even more and started to get the idea that being great at the violin could be something that really meant a lot in my life. I ended up being right.
When I discovered the concept of songwriting, it was like the world had turned from black and white to color. Classical music was endlessly beautiful and subtle, but there was something about a well crafted four minute pop song that totally floored me. There were artists saying things in their music that was so relevant and immediate in my life, that I felt like they knew me. I wasn’t alone anymore… because if they could say those things with music, how could I be?
So I started over with something new. I wrote pages and pages of lyrics, hummed melodies in every moment I could find alone, and played guitar 3 or 4 hours a day. The plateaus were devastating. The work seemed like it would never end and my fingers bled a lot. I still remember the first time I actually finished a song that I thought was pretty good. I sang it in front of some friends. I was nervous, and I didn’t really do a good job. My friends made fun of me for months.
Nevertheless, in addition to playing the violin about two hours a day, I spent evenings and weekends playing, singing, writing, trying to make something great. Learning to write songs became my purpose. It mattered more than anything and it became important enough to make the impact of the blows of growing up less relevant.
When I was sixteen – after two years of songwriting – I got my first overwhelmingly positive audience response. That drove me even more. It got to the point where I never walked to or from school with anyone else, because it would prevent me from humming hit melodies out loud and trying to understand why I liked them so much… or writing melodies of my own.
The pursuit was all-consuming. I scribbled lyrics in notebooks during class, and started to miss writing down important assignments. I started staying in and writing songs instead of going out with my friends. One time, I was so zoned out humming a melody on my way home from school, that I walked into the street and got hit by a car. In spite of the fact that it was sometimes too much, there was magic about it. The overwhelming fire I felt for the process of learning to write great songs hasn’t left me to this day.
Writing and performing songs is everything to me. I can’t imagine life without it now. But I had to work really hard at all the other unrelated stuff to get to it. I never would have kept at it with songwriting if I hadn’t grown up pouring myself into everything I tried. The late nights playing sports were like preparation for when that kind of work would really matter. Learning to play the violin was how I learned to understand the basics of music that I use every day now, and it really got me ready for the years of slow growth that would (and continue to) go into songwriting. I shed my naïveté in stages. And when other things came up, I was ready to work for them. I had to learn to sing and to really play the guitar. Those things became merely parts of the larger picture of working toward being a really great writer and performer. I’m still at it, and I needed all of it.
When I was driving by the kid practicing on the basketball court the other night, I realized something important about this stuff. It’s not songwriting… or violin… or baseball or soccer or basketball that matters in this context. It’s the outrageous, one-pointed thrill of nearly obsessive focus on becoming better that makes the difference.
Because when I take a step back and really look at life, It didn’t matter what I was doing, just that I was putting everything I had into it. The great days, the days that go down in history as being extraordinary: they were the days that my hands were dirty and I couldn’t see the hoop anymore… the days that I snuck my violin into my bedroom to pluck it quietly after I was supposed to be in bed… the days that a melody I had been humming to myself on the way to school, turned into something that actually became a song.
I’m glad I started with sports. I’m glad I was humbled by pursuits that led to nothing. If I been greeted with the thrust and encouragement of incredible talent in the first thing I tried, it would have probably been a curse in the long run. I needed the motive to stay up night after night aching for it. Barry Switzer, a former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, is quoted as having said: “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” A lot of people who were “born on third base” are at a disadvantage in a sense; because they don’t have to fight as hard. Twenty years down the road… my money’s on the kid with his sleeves rolled up and his heart on fire… the kid who’s not very good, but has to be asked five times to come inside for dinner because he can’t be bothered to stop playing basketball alone in the park.