Matt Forney
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The Secret Life of Matt Forney

Once a week, I drive over to a nondescript music store for a half-hour guitar lesson. The rest of the week, for 15-30 minutes a day, I practice on my own. I assemble my cheap fold-out music stand, pull out my lesson books and go through the exercises. Depending on how much free time I have, I also try my own stuff. One day, I’m working on the chords to “After Hours“; another, I’m playing slide guitar with random objects around the house (protip: if it’s made of plastic, it won’t play nice with the frets).

My instructor tells me I’m improving every week. He’s a nice guy, but a part of me doesn’t want to believe him. True, I am a better guitarist now then I was six months ago. I can play without looking at the fretboard, I can keep time at 120 bpm, my tone is more mellow and less choppy, and so on.

But it’s hard to cheer yourself on when you can’t even get a basic barre chord right.

I was a trombonist throughout most of my grade school years. I had wanted to be a drummer when I was a kid, but my mom put the kibosh on that pretty quickly: “You are not going to bang on drums in my house!” Everyone, from my band directors to my friends to my family, was impressed with my playing. The most common question I got was “How do you know what notes to play?”, since the various positions on the trombone slide aren’t marked off; you need a good ear in order to know what to play and when. One time, the school principal asked me that question after he dropped in on a rehearsal.

I never had a good answer for them. All I knew was that 15-30 minutes of practice a day since I was 11 had made me an expert at it.

What truly annoyed me was when people would comment to the effect of, “Man, it must be great being born with musical talent,” or something like it. What, did they think I came into this world being able to play like Ornette Coleman? I worked for this. When I first started playing, I was horrible. I couldn’t remember the positions, I couldn’t hold the horn up straight, and whenever I put my lips to the mouthpiece, all that came out was hot air. It took hours upon hours of rehearsal and dedication to get to this point.

Whenever I screw up during guitar practice, the pessimist in me wells up:

Why didn’t you start doing this back when you were a kid? You had money, you had talent, you had all the time in the world, and you pissed it all away playing video games and filching books from your parents’ library!

One of my biggest regrets in life is never once trying to develop my musical talents further. I didn’t even try to join the jazz ensemble, which only the best of the band members were allowed to join; my band teacher ended up inviting me because he knew I’d never take the initiative. And when I went to college, I gave even that up. I can’t help but wonder how my life would have unfolded had I picked up guitar ten years ago.

But when my inner pessimist flares up, my inner optimist comes riding in on a white steed to save the day:

So what? So you didn’t fulfill one of your dreams back then; you gonna let that stop you now? You pissed away your childhood, now you’re gonna piss away the rest of your life?

In high school, you might have been forced to read a forgettable short story called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” If you’re really unlucky, you might have even been forced to watch the awful movie adaptation with Danny Kaye. The story’s about the titular hero, a mild-mannered family man who frequently daydreams about being famous and heroic (i.e. as a fighter pilot and as a surgeon) as a means of escaping the mundane nature of his life. The story’s theme is that Mitty would rather lazily dream about what he could be instead of actually making it happen in reality.

That describes me perfectly, or it used to anyway. I was told I was a great musician, and my response was to do nothing with it. I’ve been told I’m a good writer by my professors, friends and parents, and I’ve done nothing with that too. I’ve wasted twenty years of my life doing the bare minimum to get by. Instead of trying to become a cool, interesting person, I’ve just sat around wondering what being cool or interesting would be like.

The fact that it didn’t and won’t ever work didn’t faze me, until now.

What did work for me is work. I was a great trombonist because I worked at it. I studied the material and practiced it daily. I’m a good writer because I work at it. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and I’ve been reading. In order to become good at something, I have to pay my dues. I can’t simply lie on my bed and expect the universe to drop fame and fortune into my lap.

I have to kill my inner Walter Mitty in order to become the man I want to be.

Anyone who is good at something got that way because they paid their dues. They started at the bottom like the rest of us, and what separates them from everyone else isn’t some magical ability they were born with, but their dedication and willingness to put in the work. My favorite contemporary guitarist is St. Vincent, and as great as she is now, at one point she was at the same place I am: clumsy, frustrated, screwing up the basics and contemplating quitting. She got to where she is now precisely because she didn’t quit.

I can’t quit. I’m not squandering my smarts and my talents for another day.

I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep playing guitar, even if I’m stuck with some crappy used acoustic for my trip. When I get to Portland, I’m going to take up bass and hook up with a band. I’m going to learn how to sing. And using this blog, I’m putting myself out there as a writer.

I have no illusions. Anything I do musically for the time being is going to suck. I don’t expect to get rich or famous off of any of this. I’m not doing it for the fame. I’m doing it because I’m not going to go to my grave wondering whether I could’ve been a contendah.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mitty. You weren’t a bad guy, you were just boring.

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