Gear, Technique, Happiness, and Failure

Sometimes we are so immersed in an activity or one of our passions that we lose perspective -- like being too close to the trees to see the forest. Here were are dealing with two very specific areas of human activity but regardless of what you are engaged in it probably involves some kind of technique and material goods to accomplish. So, even if you're not into music or sports, read on.

So, you want to be a better musician, guitarist, or whatever? Our recent diatribe against cheap gear and the ensuing discussion reveals how convoluted the subject really is. Gaining clarity can often be achieved by shifting one's frame of reference to another domain of human praxis where, in our case, technique and gear are equally important. Here, I'd like to draw a comparison between playing guitar and the sport of baseball.

I've been coaching my son in little league baseball for several years and I've seen the problems that technical negligence and bad equipment can cause (not surprisingly, I actually learned a lot more about the total game as a coach then I did as a player from age 10 through high school).

Baseball is supposed to be fun and make people happy. I think a lot of us would say that playing guitar and making music are also supposed to lead to fun and happiness -- even though both sports and music can be filled with moments of misery, anxiety, anger, and sadness, the end goal, nonetheless, is joy.

But baseball is competition and music is not! Well, I'm not so sure about that but, all the same, we can control for the competitive aspect and still use the comparison. Despite what you might imagine, winning and losing are not that important for little leaguers. A team can lose a championship game and, within minutes, the sting of failure is well behind them, sunk beneath promises of ice cream and pizza. Sure, one hard core kid will be in tears but the rest of the team will be running around the field acting like joyous idiots minutes later. Therefore, we can bracket out the competitive nature of baseball in this experiment and focus simply on individual performance and the joy of the game.

What results in an exalted sense of joy for a little leaguer? Hitting a home run out of the park is hard to beat, as is striking out the side after getting out of a jam, or making a diving catch in the outfield with two outs and bases loaded.

Luck can play a big part in these achievements but luck doesn't get one very far in baseball. For example, our last team included a big lummox of a kid, let's call him Joe (not his real name), who hit a massive home run and a double off the fence in one game. Prior to those two hits Joe had accumulated something like 35 strikeouts and more than a few in the final two games that followed.  In short, this player just stunk up the place big time. Why? His hitting mechanics were horrible: his 'hitch' was so bad it looked like a golf swing and you couldn't teach him anything. His last homer was not the first time this kid had gotten lucky and 'run into one.' Despite a batting average under .100 and an on base percentage that was virtually no better, his one-game-per-season hitting streak convinced him that he was perfect so he didn't suffer much from a sense of failure at the plate. No, his pain and suffering came as a fielder where his gear let him down, rather than his technical poverty.

Joe's parents had bought him a cheap glove typical for a lot of little leaguers: very soft leather shell stuffed with foam (the idea being there is no break-in period because of the buttery leather and the foam will eliminate any sting, and, hence, no crying -- paradoxically, the foam also cancels out the leather because a foam glove cannot even be broken in; four years of use and it was just as bouncy and stiff -- all the while being weirdly soft -- as they day he put it on). Well, at age 12 this kid was still using this piece of crap glove that seemed to possess uncanny ball-repelling qualities. And, as a frequent player of 1st base, this timid and unreliable glove resulted in several 4-out innings with the ball flying off the glove and into foul territory down the outfield fence. He also routinely dropped fly balls that would pop right out of the glove. Foam in a glove is like having a trampoline on your hand. Joe would have been happy enough with his glove and failures but when he dropped the ball his teammates (and their parents) would give him hell.

Joe is far from unique in terms of his technical ineptitude and sub-par equipment. Every season I saw kids dragging heavy bats to the plate only to strike out or hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher, etc. Mom or dad just didn't want to 'blow' a lot of money on something like a bat so they bought what was on sale at Dick's Sporting Goods (a $15 lead boat anchor).

With baseball bats you spend for what's missing: weight. Cheap bats are made from cheap metals that weigh more than cutting-edge alloys and composites (typically, the difference between a cheap bat and a good one is something like 5 ounces and, in the case of a moderately-priced bat with an appropriate 'drop weight' (-11 or -13)* the ball just does not have a lot of 'pop' or exit speed off the barrel of the bat. Heavy bats also swing the kid as much as the kid swings the bat, ensuring that their hitting mechanics are totally screwed up, and they have smaller 'sweet spots' which results in a larger proportion of weakly batted balls. The uninformed parent feels the heavy bat and thinks, oh, you can hit 'em far with this, Slugger, but if we go back to elementary physics we find that bat speed is more important than mass (energy = mass X velocity squared) and bat control (the lighter the bat, the better the control) is more important than anything else.

Gear and technique form an asymmetrical unity. With even the best gear, poor technique means almost certain doom but great mechanics means a better chance at success and even overcomes a lot of missing natural athleticism. All things being equal, though, we can see that, in the case of baseball, the right gear combined with the right mechanics (training and execution) leads to a greater opportunity for the amazing play (the momentary sublime) as well as excellent everyday (routine) performance.

Why would this be different in the domain of guitar playing (or anything else)? A guitar that breaks strings frequently, is setup too poorly to control, or a pedal switch that craps out is just as bad as a foam glove at 1st base. Shitty picking technique leads to inconsistent performance just as does the 'hitch' in the swing of the lummox who accidentally 'runs into one' every now and then. 

Being a good guitar player is not unlike being a good hitter: you want to makes the changes, know the material, and, occasionally, rise to the moment and play a killer solo just as a good hitter wants to hit for average (.300) get on base a lot, and, when the moment calls for it, drill one out of the park. Anybody can get lucky now and then but to be the guy who hits .300 with 40 home runs on the season and wins a Gold Glove award, it takes top shelf gear, great mechanics (training), and, indeed, the occasional bit of luck. 

Luck (real luck) takes care of itself but what most of us think of as 'luck' is actually the byproduct of good training, the right frame of mind, confidence, and the right tools. 

Lacking the empirical evidence, we can only speculate or form an hypothesis regarding those who denigrate technique (mechanics) and poo-poo those who insist on high-quality gear as cork-sniffers: the will to fail. In the absence of blaming parents who foist cheap gear on unwitting kids, a gainfully employed adult with aspirations in the realm of guitar performance, who espouses anti-technical sentiments and exhibits a perpetual reliance on sub-standard equipment has as a ready-made excuse for a lack of achievement. And, as weird as it may seem, over 100 years of social psychology tells us that many people are their worst enemies and some even enjoy not only not living up to their potentials but enjoy being abject failures.

* The 'drop weight' of a bat is the difference between the weight of the bat measured in ounces and the length of the bat measured in inches.