Saturday, December 26, 2009

Grounding and progression

Grounding and progression

“Why the ‘Classic Angler?’” I pondered the other evening. I began writing essays under the moniker “The Classical Angler,” or “The Classic Angler” when I was forced to come up with a domain name for my internet writing ventures. I considered the name for a few seconds, and then ended up committed to it. I still don’t know why I chose it. However, in these recent evening musings and daydreams, I think I put my fingers around it.

I guess to me this refers to the fine arts: Music, literature, architecture, visual art, etc. Its connotation is a little less direct, and here lies the majority of thought and substance: A dedication to fundamental principles and roots, an emersion in study and examination, technique and theory. It also refers to tradition, but that is another essay altogether.

Lost yet? I am.

Allow me to map out my train of thought. The map is drawn on an old used cocktail napkin, so forgive me for straying or getting lost.

Classical music is structurally the most advanced and involved form of music. Take the counterpoint of Bach, or the building development of a Beethoven symphony, one cannot but listen critically. It is also difficult to learn. Many of today’s most popular musicians have roots in classical music. It teaches technique. This is why my father practiced the piano incessantly, and why, when advising a talented young jazz bassist, Dad encouraged him to attend the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and study classical as well as Jazz. It was good advice as it turns out. Once the technique, theory, and structure are understood and mastered, one can branch out and create or interpret.

It was the same with my mother’s painting. She studied technique incessantly both at the old Layton School of Art, as well as on her own, often hauling home armloads of books on the great European masters every week. She learned to mix her own mediums and colors from scratch. People often wondered how she was able to paint and sketch in so many diverse styles and wander from somber to exuberant moods in landscapes. The answer was that she spent years building a foundation.

Perhaps the discipline of that foundation is the main road I am trying to find…

This can be applied to all of life, as well as fly-fishing: learning to walk before trying to run, or studying the elements of a discipline as Marcus Aurelius would.

If you have followed some of my writings, you would know that tend to over think things, and am often guilty of a lack of discipline that allows me, for example, to attempt to tie Atlantic Salmon married wing flies before I know how to place the thread on the hook. My path is not always an even one.

We all tend to want to receive five minutes of instruction or study in the underlying foundations and elements of a discipline, and then go forth and conquer the world. Impatience? Perhaps.

In the movie Shine, the young David Helfgott is taken to his first professional piano teacher by his father, who instructs him to teach young David how to play Rachmaninoffs notoriously brutal 3rd piano concerto; a piece so devilish that it is known as “The mountain.”

The teacher instead grounds the pupil in Mozart.

I made the same mistake. The first major writing I did was to produce a 300-page memoir. This ambitious project took a full year, but since I had not yet learned to properly use language, it is requiring laborious and tedious editing. Instead, I should have first concentrated on short works. Study, learn, and then build on the foundation and progress.

Some people fumble around in mediocrity for a while, and then, concluding that they are stuck there, return to the roots and begin to study and practice the essential basics. Most people though, refuse to return to the beginning to learn.

In fly-fishing, I can find no better example of this than casting.

Casting is the one thing we anglers can actually control. We can’t make the fish bite, control the water temperature, clarity, or height, or calm the wind, but we can be prepared for anything our fishing outing throws at us by practicing the elements of proper casting.

One of the most common things I see on streams, lakes, and rivers is frustration caused by an inability to make the proper cast needed. This could be a wind-defeating double haul across the river to deliver a popper under a tree limb, or it could be a delicate ten-foot cast in a crystal clear and tiny stream with overhanging branches and spooky trout.

Yet, as I teach private and group casting lessons, or observe anglers on the water, I see the same persons making the same mistakes and exhibiting frustration. It is the rare person that, after struggling for a while, goes back to basics and solves his or her issues.

Its funny, golfers will spend hours at the putting green and driving range in order to look less like a buffoon in front of their boss at the annual company outing, but the same person will make a trip to the Henry’s Fork without the ability to mend line or roll-cast.

I don’t know why this is, but it seems universal.

Where was I? Ah, here I am on the right edge of the cocktail napkin next to the gravy stain and just short of the place marked ‘X.’

I guess it is my personal philosophy that in order to understand things one has to dismantle them, isolate the essential structures, and ground oneself in the fundamental underlying elements of technique that together make up the discipline or activity.

If you will, a classical approach.

If I had to create a moniker a second time, I might go with “The philosophical fool.”


  1. Cool post Erik! In all things in life we must walk before we run. This ties in to your thoughts on "buying a skill advantage." In giving lessons to intermediate casters, almost invariably people want "more distance." And almost invariably I'm forced to go back to basics. For whatever reason, lots of people simply don't have, or won't make, the time to actually learn. Many, many show up again with a new rod touted to be the latest cannon. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth follows when they discover that "it" can't cast any further than than the old one. Nor will it magically roll cast on it's own. Strange...
    I once overheard a young guitar student exclaim in exasperation "I don't wanna learn all that chord theory, I just wanna learn to play the song!" His instructor calmly replied "I can do that, but you'll never learn to play guitar."

  2. AJ,
    Your perseverance at reading this convoluted post should be congratulated.

    Your point on the new rod is spot on. I see the same thing at classes I teach. Some guy will have a cheap SA or Cortland rod and reel kit, and will tell me that they are going to buy a better rod soon, as this one kind of blows.
    I then take the rod and cast the whole line. It's not the rod.... it is the caster. Back to basics.

    The guitar analogy is perfect. "I don't want to put in the work in order to ground myself in the necessary fundimentals, I just want to play!" Gee.. how come I sound like a rusty concertina?

  3. It is this kind of thinking that makes me want to learn .Great post Erik !It is good to be reminded to go back to the basics ,Mike Kinney preaches this in his casting instruction ,all the way back to your stance !We have to look beyound even the cst at times to figure out where we are making mistakes to begin with .where does the power begin it is in the legs ,then the body then the rod !
    i have the same problem with classic altantic salmon flys ,dont feel bad they are very difficult and I think it is time to go back to mozart !

  4. Thanks NM.

    Your point about the cast beginning in the legs is spot-on. I am lucky to have practiced some rather advanced study of the european medieval sword. Lots of crossover between the two.

  5. well I guess you could say we are whelding a sort of sword !

  6. "The teacher instead grounds the pupil in Mozart."

    Let me suggest that the teacher will first have the student play scales, arpeggios, and etudes for years, perhaps decades, before tackling Mozart, a composer requiring more artistry and finesse than ever needed for that syrupy slavic slobberer, Rachmaninov.

  7. Anon,
    Yes you raise a very good point. Yound David was already an accomplished pianist, but he did begin with scales, etudes, fingering, etc. I just wanted to keep it simple as most people outside the musical world don't know the terminology.

    It is a funny thing about Mozart...
    Many musicians and lovers of classical music begin really loving the grand and overly romantic music, but then in their old age, often return once again to Mozart. There is an essence there, a complex simplicity if you will, that seems difficult to fully appreciate without maturity. That is rather funny itself, since Mozart died so young and throughout his life remained a child. Perhaps he is the inner child in all of us?


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