Some Lessons From A Boxing Match

Let’s start with the sweet science

My last post used a quote from boxing, and this post uses some lessons a friend of mine taught me about boxing.  The reason for this is that, in my head, there are a number of parallels between sports and guitar playing, the biggest one being that both require a seemingly endless amount of training and preparation to be able to pull of a performance at the best of your ability in front of an audience.

As I write this, UFC champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey just took her 12 straight win to remain undefeated with a knock out in 34 seconds.  This means that the sum total of her last three fights is under a minute.  Her detractors say this doesn’t mean anything.  They want to see her go the distance in a fight.  I disagree with them.  The fact that she can finish those fights so quickly says EVERYTHING about how much work and preparation she put into those fights.

I read Ronda’s biography and the thing that resonated with me (other than the endless grueling training – I thought back to a LOT of 12-hour days at Berklee while reading this) is how much she got up and kept going when she was knocked down in her life.  When she was back in the states after getting a bronze in the Olympics for judo with no gainful employment she tended bar, worked at an animal shelter and worked as a gym receptionist while living in a car, and managed to get her head in the game and turn herself around from that situation to become the most dominant athlete (male or female IMHO) on the planet.  (You have to have the mental and the physical skills to get to the top of your game.)

Back to the boxing

A good friend of mine (who just happens to be an unbelievable guitar player, musician, songwriter and guitar builder ) Chris Fitzpatrick, recently “celebrated” a milestone birthday in an unconventional way when he signed up to raise money by fighting in a Haymakers For Hope event.  (Haymakers for Hope is an organization that sponsors fights to raise money for cancer research).

It is impossible to understand the physical and mental demands that are required to walk into (and out of) a boxing match if you’ve never stepped foot in a ring.  Some people take a 1/2 hour boxing cardio class and think, “that’s not so hard – I could do 3 minute rounds” not understanding that it’s a whole other thing to try to throw punches when there’s another person there determined to knock you out.  If you haven’t prepped, even if you can avoid getting hit – you’re likely not going to make it out of the first round.

(Some language NSFW.  This excerpt is from the film Heckler, but I’d also recommend Raging Boll which shows more footage from this fight.)

My friend Fitz trained for months to get ready for his fight which required intensive diet and training, getting up at ungodly early hours and pushing his body to the absolute limit.  This was more remarkable given that this fight is something sane people 20-30 years younger might do on a dare.  He won the fight which you can see here.

While he was training, we talked a lot about the similarities between learning how to fight  and learning how to play guitar.  After the fight, there’s a whole post-fight period of introspection – kind of like a post gig introspection, and during that I asked him what lessons he learned.  The lessons he learned are a great guide for guitar playing, or any other venture you want to engage in.

With that – here’s a short sweet list of lessons courtesy of Chris Fitzpatrick.  Remember that the difference between thinking something and knowing something is that knowledge is experiential – so I hope you’ll learn these hard fought lessons of knowledge easier than Fitz had to learn them!   (Also, make sure to check out his Strange County Drifters project and keep an eye out for some forthcoming FnH guitars!)


  1. Don’t be outworked.
  2. Practice for perfection, understanding that perfection is a just a goal, not to be used as a judgement of success or failure.
  3. Push through your limits, you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself and what you can do.
  4. Your comfort zone is a place to rest, not a place to live.
  5. There will always be someone better, Always. learn from them.
  6. Ego is the most dangerous barrier to achievement.
  7. Your mind is so incredibly powerful that it can override your physical being. We all live this everyday and don’t even realize it. Use it.
  8. No one cares except for you. Don’t bother trying to make others care. Care for yourself.
  9. Breathe and relax.

All of these apply to everything, but my discipline is music and guitar.

To which I would add the famous Samurai maxim, “Seven times down – Eight times up.”

There are real limits in life.  If you haven’t ever done a bench press (and never done a similar physical activity) you’re not going to pop a heavy weight off your chest on a bench your first time- but that doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be able to do it.

You don’t know what you can’t do today until you try.
You don’t know what you can’t do tomorrow when you put the work in today.
You don’t know what you can’t do a year from now when you put the work in everyday.

A limit you have today doesn’t necessarily have to be a life long limit if it’s something you can change with consistent, focused work.

I hope this helps!  Thanks again to Chris Fitzpatrick for sharing!


The 10,000 Hour Rule In Context

There was research and then there was Gladwell..and then the Gladwell acolytes…and then the Gladwell detractors and then we were left with a number.

10,000 hours.

You need 10,000 hours to master something….or do you?

Here’s another opinion.  From the trenches, based on no scientific data whatsoever, but operating solely in the area of personal experience.

First off – mastery as a term is deceptive at best.

I’m highly suspicious of anyone who calls themselves a master musician, because I’ve never seen anyone who operated at a level of mastery that identified themselves as such.  The people who play at the highest levels are often the ones who can tell you exactly what they can’t do and still struggle with the demands of whatever instrument they have.

Yes you need time – but it has to be focused time

I know a lot of people who started playing guitar when I did.  They’ve easily put 10,000 hours in on their instrument.  They’re marginally better than they were when they first started.  There are several reasons why:

  • They got one thing down and never expanded upon it.  If you ever listen to me practice, it rarely sounds very good.  There’s a reason for that – when you’re practicing you’re supposed to push yourself beyond your current capacity.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked by a practice room where someone was just playing all the stuff they already knew how to do and were convinced that they were really getting better.    If you ever go to a blues jam – you will always find that guy who’s playing the same thing over and over again on every tune.  Come back next week and you’ll hear it again.  It’s like you’re listening to a human sampler.  If you never push yourself – you will never get better.


  • 10,000 hours needs both focus and context.  What are you spending 10,000 hours working on?  The person spending 2,000 hours on focused goals that integrate skill sets will generally run laps around the person who put an unfocused 10,000 hours in.


  • It’s daily work – often on fundamentals.  Really.  It’s putting consistent focused time in every day that yields results.  Itzhak Perlman still practices scales 4-5 hours a day.  Trust me, he knows those scales everywhere there is to play them on the violin – but mastery is in going deep into areas that few other people are willing to commit to.


  • You’ll need models and or mentors.  No one is an island.  You’ll need to emulate other people to get to the unique combination of influences and skills that will create your unique artistic stamp.


  • A big portion of the time required for mastery goes into developing aesthetic.  I can teach you the technical aspects of guitar playing in a relatively short period of time, but it’s going to take me a lot longer to teach you how to play well.


A musician was once relating to me the story of how pedagogy was handled in the part of India he was from.  “If you wanted to learn tabla.  someone would make an introduction and that person would handle all elements of the terms of study (payment, etc).  That was never discussed between teacher and student.  Then, you would go to the guru’s house and you might not touch a tabla for a year.  You would be cutting wood and doing all sorts of manual labor around the house – but the lessons would be going on around you and subconsciously the sounds and rhythms would be working their way into your ear.

Then one day you might get a lesson and learn some basic rhythms.   It might be a three hour lesson to get some basics together and then there would be some follow up spot checks to see how you were progressing.   Once you were ready you’d get another lesson and that would eventually become a regular event – but all during that time you’d be absorbing what was happening around you and starting to develop a sense of how things are supposed to sound – that way you know what sounds you are trying to create.”

A Rag is a DEEP thing.  If you’re just running the notes up and down, you’re not playing a Rag. It’s not just a collection of notes, each one is a world that contains melodies, phrases and even times of day that they’re to be played that define it.  You can learn some of the phrases relatively quickly but really knowing the Rag is a whole different thing, and a whole different time frame.

Aashish Khan once told me that his grandfather made him stay on one particular Rag for a year.  To put that into context, imagine practicing C major scales and phrases for 12 hours a day for a year and at each stage having your teacher tell you, “You’re not ready yet.”  Could you keep pushing forward in the face of that adversity?

Here’s the thing:

Very little is impossible.  The amazing thing about acquiring any skill set is that it’s about breaking complex motions down into its simplest components, mastering each one of them in a vacuum and then integrating them into a larger context.

Bukowski once said, “Endurance is more important than the truth.”  What I think he meant by that was that no one starts off as a brilliant writer/guitarist/anything.  There’s a long period of time that you’re going to be bad at something when you take it on, but the people who keep at it eventually get better.  Some of them even get to be great and become the very thing they were trying to be.

Mastery is largely about learning how to acquire a skill set.  If you’ve gotten good at playing guitar, it will probably not take you as long to get good at say, mandolin.  I’d argue even further that if you’re a great instrumentalist, you’ll probably pick up something like cooking at a high level much faster than someone who has not acquired mastery in a specific area.

Finally, I’d argue that mastery is a reflection of self.  It’s not about being able to play a scale the fastest or having the hippest lines over a chord progression.  It’s a cumulative process that uses something (playing guitar for example) as a means for getting to the best version of you that’s possible.  It’s not about mastering a Rag for example, it’s about your individual expression within that Rag.  It’s about where you are in a given moment of time and about what you have to say within that medium.

Mastery isn’t about guitar.  It’s about you.

To master anything

You’ll need time.

You’ll need focus.

You’ll need challenging things to work on.

It’s best to get crackin’ now!

As always, thanks for reading!



Tim Ferriss, Martial Arts, Focus And Guitar

The Four Hour???

In a press tour promoting his new book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss (the author of The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body), made an interesting comment to The Metro paper (underlined emphasis is mine).

What are the common misconceptions of learning?
One of the bigger misconceptions of learning is that many skills take a lifetime to get world-class at, or 10,000 hours to become world-class at. If you want to be Tiger Woods at age 8, you’re going to know you have the potential because you’ll be drawing sketches of people hitting balls with different irons, which he was, instead of pirate ships. But, if you want to be the best in your circle of friends or in the top five percent in the U.S. population at golf, swimming, Spanish, Japanese, whatever it might be, I firmly believe that you can accomplish that in most cases in six months or less. To be functionally fluent in a language, for instance, you need about 1,200 words. If you really train someone well, they can acquire 200 to 300 words a day, which means that in a week they can acquire the vocabulary necessary to speak a language.”–the-art-of-learning

Here’s a related quote from the Amazon page for the book, “WHAT IF YOU COULD BECOME WORLD-CLASS IN ANYTHING IN 6 MONTHS OR LESS?….The 4-Hour Chef isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure guide to the world of rapid learning.”

This is a competition mentality applied to learning and it’s also a symptom of a key thing that’s wrong with our culture.


The process of learning something shouldn’t simply be rooted in a desire to  become better at something than the next person, instead, one should engage in the process of learning things to become a better version of oneself.


Just ask a martial artist.


Martial Arts

Martial arts originally developed as a survival mechanism.  If you were attacked by a robber or fighting in a battle and could fight better than the person attacking you, having  that skill meant that you had a better chance of getting out alive.

But then someone brought a gun to the party.

Initially, guns took a long time for load and fire and weren’t that accurate so they were more of a long range weapon.  But that changed over time and when it did, hand to hand combat increasingly couldn’t compete with a gun.  An obscure deadly kick that you’ve developed to perfection after years of practice is not going to stop someone just out of range from pulling a trigger (or stop a sniper from taking you out from a foot ball field away).

But did this stop people from learning martial arts?  Not at all.  Martial arts kept going because martial artists recognized that fighting was only one aspect of any martial arts.  In working through the discipline needed to develop those skills, martial artists made themselves better people and better artists.  They focused on training and competition and belts, because there was rarely a need to use it in self defense on the streets.

On a whole, the focus changed from self-defense to self betterment.

I should mention here that Tim Ferriss won a Chinese National Kickboxing championship with relatively minimal training.  Since contestants were disqualified by stepping outside of a box in the fighting area, he won the competition by pushing each of his opponents outside the box to win.

So he won a title, but only learned little about the art.

In contrast, consider this David Lee Roth story.  On one of his appearances on the Howard Stern show, Roth was asked how many black belts he had and he said (please note – all quotes here are paraphrased), “Well I only have one because I’m only working in one style right now”.  Stern then asked, “But you’ve been doing this for years so how come you only have one belt?” Roth replied, “Well I have a lot of belts from all of the different styles I’ve worked on over the years but I don’t think you can call yourself a black belt in Kung-Fu if you haven’t done it in a while.”



I should mention that I’ve read The 4-hour work week.  It’s an interesting book (the whole idea of outsourcing routine money making things was really interesting),  but it’s a deceptive title.

Tim Ferriss spent countless hours promoting that book, he just didn’t call it work.  He’s a driven guy and a very hard worker and that (in addition to providing products with a unique point of view) got him to where he is.

But the people who are reading these books are learning the wrong lesson.

Tim Ferriss is a master.  But he’s a master at running and sustaining the Tim Ferris machine, and that’s something he’s put a lifetime of work into and not four hours a week.

This other concept of short-term mastery comes back to my original point.


What is it you want to do?

This idea of short term mastery is nothing new.  Thousands of people have already adapted this idea by getting quick licks under their fingers and posting them on YouTube.

But they’re not master players.  They’re technicians.

And a lot of those videos are awful.  Terrible tone, shaky timing, questionable technique….It has nothing to do with mastery of anything and is instead simply about being better than the people around them.


In contrast, here’s a 2010 quote from Jonas Hellborg:

“In order to function as a human being, you have to be able to focus.  You have to be able to center.  Some people are into religion.  They pray or meditate or they do this or that.  Music is such a thing.  It’s a discipline and you use it for the purpose of focusing your mental, your spiritual activity in one direction and become whole.  As you do that you will get more and more capacity as a musician.  But if you can express what you need to express with just a limited vocabulary, you can still do that.  It’s not about the vocabulary.  It’s not about how many words you can use; it’s about what you can say.”


I’ll throw out a Branford quote as well,

“…We live in a country that seems to be in a massive state of delusion where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that.   My students…all they want to hear is how good they are and how talented they are but most of them are not really willing to work to the degree to live up to that.”


Do you want to be the person who’s the best at something in a room or do you want to be the best person you can?


Going back to the martial art idea, with all of the other means of making and/or hearing music at one’s disposal, there’s not much reason to play guitar except as a means of developing who you are as a person and taking short cuts in that arena is just cheating yourself of a deeper knowledge of who you are..

I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading!


Finding The Deeper Lesson

Finding mastery in strange places….

One person who’s fascinating to me is Gordon Ramsay (in spite of a celebrity chef status).  I remember years ago, on an early season of Hell’s Kitchen, a Cambridge resident that competed on the show and interviewed by the local Fox affiliate after she was voted off.   When asked about how mean or callous he was, the woman replied that he was really neither.  She said he was a world-class chef who maintained high standards since his name was going out on everything and that his demands were in line with what was expected from any professional kitchen.


Another thing that fascinates me about Chef Ramsay (other than the fact that he came from a working class background and parlayed a career ending soccer injury into a pursuit of cooking) is that his mastery shines through on everything he does.  The next time you get a chance to see him do a cooking demonstration, watch the ease and speed he moves at.  Everything he does on camera is graceful, seamless and effortless.  If you’ve ever tried to pull off a video demonstration of something – you know how hard getting everything right really is (much less doing it on a sound stage in front of a national audience).


Reaching a level of technical precision where the technique is invisible is a sign of true mastery.


According to those who know, at the highest level the mastery of one thing is the same as the mastery of all things.   In other words, the focus, skill set and mental space that one needs to enter to be a master musician – is the same that it takes to be a great chef, a great athlete or anything great.


Once you learn how to master something, you’ve gained a skill set in mastery and, ultimately, that lesson can be the greater take away.

Years ago, when I was at my undergrad I wanted to get into martial arts.  I went to study kickboxing (since I had no aptitude for kicking) and my lesson was  with a guy who was nationally ranked.  When I went for the introductory lesson – we did a little bag work and when it was done I asked some questions about the martial arts as a philosophy and he replied that there was no philosophy, it was just about hitting the bag.  (That should have been a huge warning sign but instead I stuck it out for about 3 months).  I remember a class he was teaching where he was doing a weight lifting routine during a full class session of about 20 people.  We were working on kicks and he was teaching us by doing bench presses on a universal weight machine.


Some of the classes were taught by a student of his and while the student teacher was not at the technical skill level level of the main instructor, these were the most informative classes that I had there.  This teacher was attentive and really helped me address specific technical things and applications.  He might not have been at the technical level of the main teacher, but he was the much better teacher of the two.

Needless to say, I didn’t learn a lot from the main teacher about kickboxing (other than the fact that he was a lot better at it than I was).  But I did learn more than I thought I did.


The initial conclusions I took away from this experience were:

  • kickboxing sucks and/or
  • I suck at kickboxing


Obviously kickboxing doesn’t suck and neither of these were the real lessons for me.  They were just faulty conclusions that I came to.


Eventually, I realized that I had learned some other things:


    • I learned a lot about teaching – both good and bad practices.
    • I learned some things about myself like my threshold for frustration and the value of discipline and focus.
    • I started thinking about how training affects performance which opened some doors for practicing later on.


The take away


If someone plays something better than you, it doesn’t mean you’re hopeless as a guitar player – but it does mean that person devoted more time to something than you did.

It’s easy to fall into those mental traps and it’s also easy to take the wrong lesson from any given experience away with you. 


Try to find the lessons in whatever you do and then dig deeper into them and see if they have a broader application.


The wrong lessons are the self-defeating lessons. 

The right lessons are the self-empowering lessons.


Thanks for reading!


Melville, Madness and Practicing – Or Finding The Deeper Lesson Part 2

Condensed Cliff Notes


Years ago, I found a back issue of National Lampoon that had a faux ad for Condensed Cliff Notes (“for people who didn’t have time to read the original”).  The joke was that major literary works were just boiled down into one sentence descriptions that couldn’t possibly encompass the scope of the book.  The Condensed Cliff Notes for Moby Dick was, “A whale bites off a man’s leg and he can’t forget about it.”

I don’t know how many of you have read Moby Dick.  I hated it when I had to read it in high school but really got to appreciate it when I was in college and read it again.  One of the central characters in the book was Captain Ahab, a man who not only couldn’t forget about the whale that bit his leg off – but was on monomaniacal mission of revenge that enveloped everyone around him in its wake.   At the end of the book, it’s also his undoing.


The Ahab effect and practicing


The nature of practicing music (seemingly endless repetition) makes it easy to fall into the Ahab role of obsessively trying to get a musical passage under your fingers.  I once had a lick I couldn’t get down.  It was challenging, but it certainly was something that was well with in my skill set.


But the more I worked at it  – the worse it got.


I’d work on this lick everyday for hours and get the metronome to a certain point.  When I came back to it, I’d have to knock the metronome back down 20 bpm – often 10 bpm lower than where I started the lick the day before!

You can imagine what this did for my sanity.


After a week of this – I started noticing a few things:


  • My goal line kept changing.  As I was working on the lick, I kept finding things wrong that I wanted to correct.  I was playing it clean, and then hear other technical issues when I switched to distortion. I was flubbing certain notes, and would go back to fix those.  I was rushing the parts where there were position changes.  I was over thinking it and the more energy I was putting into it the worse it got.  I was actually getting better at playing it, but because I kept adjusting the standard of what I was hearing I seemed further and further away from the goal.
  • I was in a rush.  I was putting all of this emphasis on this lick because I wanted to use it in a live context and  (finally)
  • I was hung up about the fact that I SHOULD be able to play it.


The operative terms here are, “hung up” and “should”.


Should is a faulty term. It implies value judgements that are hard, if not impossible to live up to and negates reality.   This might sound really  touchy-feely  to some people but this is the type of mindset that trips up musicians.  It’s why people get carpel tunnel (or Focal Dystonia)  – because they go all Ahab on something and assume that if they just work harder, that they’re going to get results quicker.

Everyone is different and this approach may work. for some people but it never worked for me.


Here’s what did work for me.


  • I got some distance and took a break.  I stopped playing for a couple fo days and came back to it fresh.
  • When did come back to it I had the lick down, but it taught me to try to approach all practicing more meditatively.  I noticed things that were wrong and worked on adjusting them rather than beating myself up about why I couldn’t do something.  When I did slip up and get angry or riled up – I made a note of that and tried smiling instead.

I found that I was really listening on a deeper level than I was before and using practicing to get to a deeper part of myself. I was really getting into the nuances of what I was playing and digging deeper into the pocket than I every had.  I noticed technical things that weren’t working and ultimately – I made a series of changes that had major technical ramifications for me in the long run.


All from one lick.


Anything has that potential to open the door to deeper expression.  But you won’t find it if all of your energy and attention is fixated on something.


In the next post, I’ll have some lesson material that uses approaches from my Melodic Patterns book, and we’ll get a glimpse into just how tricky playing 4 notes can be.


Thanks for reading!



If you like this post – you may also like: