“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” ~ Neale Donald Walsch
They say that in life many of the people you meet and the things you’ve seen and done will mostly be forgotten. And whatever remains with you is the stuff that mattered.
I once had a guitar teacher named Linc Chamberland, who lived in a remote corner of upstate Connecticut.
Linc Chamberland mattered.
When I was around 18 and starting to get a little bit good on the guitar, my peers all told me that if I was ever going to reach my potential I needed to study with Linc. Well, that just scared the shit out of me because Linc Chamberland was like a myth, a legend in those parts. People came from all over the country to study with him.
He was like the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with teeth a mile wide. The horrible ogre from a Grimm’s fairy tale who ate mediocre guitar players for breakfast and spit out their bones. He had a balding head and a long beard. He was a formidable presence.
After months of being consumed by fear, I finally got the nerve to call him up, which turns out to have been one of the most important decisions I ever made in terms of personal growth, both musically and spiritually. Here’s why:
It was a lot like Tuesday’s with Morrie, only with guitars.
His lessons were built around jazz theory but they were really life lessons in disguise. He would play a really bad sounding chord and ask me, “Wrong chord, huh?” and I’d say, “Yeah, it sounds awful.” Then he would play it again as a chord that passed between two other chords and suddenly it sounded like beautiful music. Perspective.
So we would take a jazz standard like “Stella By Starlight” which is often played in the key of F major.
Linc would explain music theory stuff like modes and scales that you could play over the chord changes, which you learned by playing through the song with him during the lesson. Then he would give you exercises to practice for the next lesson, which we would always record on these things called cassette tapes (see Wiki for technologies of the last century). All pretty standard stuff, right?
Except that Linc Chamberland understood music like Carl Sagan understood the universe.
So I would go home and work my ass off so I could really impress him the following week. Upon my return, we’d get right into it.
“What do you want to play? Stella?” he would ask, knowing the answer. ”Yeah, sure,” I said, ready to tear it up.
“OK, Stella. And a one…two, a one, two, three…in the key of E flat”(DOH!!) (cue the musical brakes screeching to a halt)
“E flat???” I would cry, falling flat on my face and stopping. “I thought we were in F???”
“That was last week,” he said. “Do you know the song or are you just playing an arrangement you memorized? A monkey can do that. I want you to really hear the song, dig? Go home and practice it in all 12 keys and I’ll see you next week. Remember. Discipline, Motherfucker!” (where here the M-word is utilized as the highest compliment you could pay to another musician)
Linc used to say there were two kinds of players. Players and Motherfuckers. One had the chops to play the gig. The other could be a real force in music.
The nerve of this guy! I thought.
Pissed off and seething, I drove home with my musical tail between my legs. So I sat down and started shedding, only to figure out that he was right. I realized all the work I had been neglecting of really getting inside the music vs. playing something the same way every time from memory. Then I started to see that same set of limited rules in a lot of my life. Hmmm.
By the end of that week, I started to sound like I actually knew what I was doing. I was ready for prime time (or so I thought). So I headed back with a newfound confidence and walked in with an 18 year old’s shit-eating-grin that he was going to kick some serious jazz guitar ass today.
“OK, ‘Stella By Starlight’. Key of B flat?” he asked.
“B flat sounds great,” I smiled.
”OK. And a one…two…let’s do it in 5/4 time signature (a totally different rhythm to you non-musicians). And a one, two, three, four, five …” WHAT THE…? 5/4??? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO??? MOTHER F!@#ER!!! He did it again. Pulled the carpet right out from under my feet.
‘Grasshopper, when you can snatch the pebble from my hands…’
And that’s how Linc Chamberland could pull the very best out of you by pushing you out of your comfort zone; away from your self-imposed limitations and get you to dig deep down to a place within that you never knew existed; a place where great things happen, where the treasure is hidden. Where you get to give away your true gift, that is your own unique voice.
It’s the place where you kick back in your chair exhausted and smile, after that one line in the last verse of a song that’s been bothering you for weeks suddenly comes to you out of left field and the whole song comes together and you say, “Now that’s a song. Print it!”
Where the main character in your novel accidentally stumbles upon their true purpose, which is just as much a surprise to you, the author.
And in their (not your) moment of epiphany, you actually come to learn what your story was always about, which may be something very different than what you thought when you started out — but turns out to be so much better.
It’s a magical place, that place within. The place that lies just on the other side of that mountain at the far end of the valley. The one you were so sure you could never reach.
That’s what Linc Chamberland did for me. He pulled me along some days. Pushed me to the breaking point on others. He brought me to that mountain and showed me the awesome view you can only see when you push beyond your limits. I never realized just how far I had come, in music and in life, until many years later.
I’ve forgotten most of the theory after all these years. But not the music. Not the wisdom he passed on to me. At 51, both are still in me. I owe that to Linc Chamberland. He was my greatest mentor. His understanding of music as a metaphor for life has informed every creative endeavor I’ve ever been proud of and saved me when I doubted myself.
Don’t ever stop at good enough.
There’s just way too much good stuff out there to choose from already. But there’s always room for that unique gift that you have to give. For your very best work.
Everything you want in your life (which will come when you find that place within and share it with the world) lies just outside your comfort zone.
Go find a mentor who will push you out of yours and show you what you’re really capable of.
Then just go out there and play the music…