Cliffs of Dover: The Benefits of Taking on a Seemingly Impossible Challenge

Have you ever challenged yourself with something really, really hard. I mean something so difficult that initially you weren’t even sure if you could do it? Challenges like running a marathon or completing a triathlon, learning to speak a new language, losing 100 pounds, or mastering a musical instrument are all daunting tasks that can take months or years to accomplish and require an extreme level of “stick-to-it-ness”. Initially, this challenge might not be something that you  need to do, but something that you want to do, or maybe even feel compelled to do. You take on this challenge simply to see if you can do it  and because you sense it will make you a better person. The reward might be unknown at the onset and not come for a long time if ever, but still you march on with this challenge because it feels right.

Many years ago I was faced with such a challenge when I was playing guitar in the New England-based band “Crossfire”. The year was 1990 and the bands leader, Rob Gourley, suggested that I learn the Eric Johnson instrumental “Cliffs of Dover”, as he felt it might be a good showcase for me at our shows. He said that this was not something he expected me to do, but that if I wanted to learn it, the band would play it.

At this point of my life I had just finished my Berklee education, an extremely challenging experience in and of itself, so the idea of learning a four-minute piece of complex guitar music didn’t sound too daunting. At least that was my initial perception.

So I embarked on this new guitar journey. I outfitted a makeshift studio in an empty bedroom at my friend, Pete’s house with a practice amp, a boombox, a reel to reel tape deck, a metronome, and a music stand. I went out and purchased a copy of Eric Johnson’s “Ah Via Musicom” on CD as well as the guitar transcription and got to work. And work it was. When I had first heard this piece of guitar magic on the radio I recognized its brilliance, but Johnson’s impeccably fluid technique almost masks the songs difficulty. He made it sound easy, and easy was something I quickly discovered this song was not.

By the time I had put a couple of afternoons into it I realized this process was going to take weeks, maybe even months to be able to do the song justice, but that was no deterrent. I quickly realized if I could master this piece, not only would it be a great showcase for me with my band, it was going to make me a better guitar player in the process.

Crossfire was a steady working band and my only job at this point in my life, performing all over New England 3 to 4 nights a week. So my daily routine during this phase consisted of sleeping late, eating a late breakfast or early lunch, and then heading over to my “guitar studio” for an afternoon of extreme woodshedding.

I began with the intro and learned as much of the opening passage as I could by ear. When I came across a phrase I couldn’t interpret I used the sheet music. When things still didn’t make sense, I used the reel to reel tape deck to slow the song down to half speed. Gradually, one phrase at a time, it began coming together. After a couple of weeks of this I could make it halfway through the song, granted with many mistakes and not very smoothly. I labored on. After about five or six weeks I knew the entire song note for note but could still not play all of it at tempo. So I began practicing the most difficult passages at slower tempos, one phrase at a time, sometimes running a one bar phrase over and over for 10 or 15 minutes, gradually nudging up the tempo of the metronome. Of course a one bar phrase of Cliffs of Dover might be a flurry of 10 or 12 notes played in about a second.

Finally, after about three months of making my friends and family crazy, shredding my fingers to the bone, and a couple of ugly moments when I almost threw the guitar through a window, I was ready to present it to the band. We made a few passes one day during a sound check/rehearsal and we were good to go. The crowd loved it when we played it later that night, and it became a staple in our set for the next two years. My performance on this piece gradually improved over that period, as the experience of playing it live helped me to further kick it up a notch. The song was so difficult to execute that I still practiced it daily during this period. Eventually I left Crossfire for another band and although I continued to play this piece, it wasn’t long before I put it aside.

Looking back, Cliffs of Dover was the hardest piece of music I have ever learned. I probably put between 200 and 300 hours into it prior to ever playing it with the band. But I do remember feeling instant results after I could play it. Performing less technical songs and solos became easier. My hands and fingers were stronger and my stamina had improved. My ear had also improved making it forever easier to learn new pieces of music.

Lately I’ve been feeling the need to challenge my playing again so I decided to bring this piece out of the closet. I sat down with it a couple of weeks ago and have been working it back up to speed ever since. It’s been 15 years, and the process of sitting down with it again is like visiting an old friend. Although not as daunting for me as it was back in 1990, it’s still a bitch, and I have a ways to go yet. Once I can get it to a point I feel comfortable with, I’ll post a video for you all to check out.

Completing this challenge was hard back then, and it’s hard again right now. But I believe it is these kinds of challenges, self-imposed or other, and the new horizons they lead us to that encapsulate the best of the human spirit.

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