This post is the first in a series of three, so, you know, expect a couple more on this topic. Thanks for reading!
The past two summers, I’ve spent the last week in July riding my bike across Iowa with 15,000 other people.
I speak of RAGBRAI, a weeklong rolling Mardi Gras that’s been a fixture in Iowa culture for the last 43 years. I’m taking a break this summer, and I want to reflect on what the experience has taught me about being a musician. But first, here’s a little background on this strange phenomenon.
RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) has been going on since 1973 and has a fascinating history. The route changes every year, but here’s the gist:
You arrive at the starting town on the western state border, set up your tent, and check out the RAGBRAI Expo. The next morning, you get up before dawn, load your gear into your driver’s trunk and bike 40-100 miles to the next overnight town, stopping in several other towns along the way to consume coffee, pie and beer and to enjoy some Iowa hospitality. You do this for 7 days. It is awesome.
Isn’t Biking Across a State Super Hard?
RAGBRAI is kind of like running a marathon.
On one hand, it’s extremely physically demanding; a serious athletic event that requires serious preparation. On the other hand, though, almost anyone can do it if they’ve put in a few months of training.
Really. There are 12 year-olds and 80 year-olds on RAGBRAI, and you don’t have to consider yourself an athlete or be in great shape. If you start riding in April and at least mostly follow the recommended training plan, your body will be ready to ride across Iowa by July.
Your body will be ready, but your mind might be a different story. A tired brain, not tired legs, is what really threatens to stop the show.
RAGBRAI and music are both all about one thing:
Just Keep Pedaling
RAGBRAI is a camping bike tour. It’s 7 days of riding a bike all day and sleeping in a tent at night. The first couple days are exhilarating: you’ve been training for this all spring and summer and now here you are!
A few days in, the novelty has worn off. Your legs are still tired from the previous day when you get on the bike in the morning, and you don’t really want to sit on a bike seat all day anymore. You kind of want to go home, or at least go hang out in air conditioning for a few hours.
The trick is to just keep pedaling.
Let your brain complain. Think about how miserable you are and how you were crazy to try something like this. Go for it. As long as you keep pedaling while you’re thinking these thoughts, you’ll eventually reach your destination for the day.
Becoming a great musician is the same way, isn’t it?
Just Keep Practicing
As a young and inexperienced player, you don’t know how far you have to go. You’re not a sophisticated listener yet, so you don’t know just how wide is the gulf that lies between you and truly great playing. This is the young trumpet player who compares his recital recording of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto to Wynton Marsalis’ and says “Yeah, I sound pretty good!”
The serious music student has started to learn to listen. She hears her Haydn performance and understands exactly how far she is from sounding like Wynton, or Alison Balsom, or whomever. She realizes she has years of work ahead of her.
So many serious music students give up because they know what/who they want to sound like, and they finally understand just how far they are from sounding like that. An inexperienced student, like a rider on the first day of RAGBRAI, doesn’t have this problem. Both are caught up in the euphoria of starting.
The Only Way Out Is Through
This is where perseverance comes in. The only way to get from day one of RAGBRAI to day seven of RAGBRAI is to keep pedaling, and the only way to become a great musician is to keep practicing. You don’t have to feel good the whole time, you don’t have to think it’s going well, and you don’t have to believe you can do it.
You just have to keep pedaling.