Let’s be honest with each other: We don’t practice as often as we should, and the excuses we make to justify our lack of practice are feeble at best.
The typical, “too busy” rhetoric doesn’t seem to affect our Netflixing, gaming, or Football spectating, so since we claim to care so much more about our musical craft, we should probably be able to make time for it.
In reality, most of us neglect practice for reasons other than a lack of time, and if we’re able to tackle these obstacles head-on, we might stand a chance of actually woodshedding. Here are the five reasons I see most in my students and peers, along with some strategies for getting around them:
We don’t take advantage of “practice catalysts”
We’ve all heard the narrative the recounts how a certain guitarist used to wear out their records by playing the same section over and over in an effort to learn a particular part. It’s romantic, certainly, but most players are going to lack that kind of raw tenacity. We’ve learned as a culture to view practice as noble labor, evaluating our motivation by whether we can learn to love the grind of woodshedding. Obviously, there’s value in the traditional route of powering through practice, but in the current musical environment, it’s amazing how many resources we have at our disposal that are expressly designed to make practice more enjoyable. Whether its notation that takes the guesswork out of how a part is played, practice games that turn exercises into an arcade, or backing tracks that allow us to hear our playing in context, every player should be able to find a “practice catalyst” that helps lighten the practicing mood.
We limit the concept of practice to simple repetition
Every guitar teacher, textbook, and YouTube lesson ever has used the “start slow and build up speed” strategy for mechanical practice. Virtually written in stone as law, this practice has caused many players to see improvement as a direct function of the number of times an exercise is repeated, leaving them frustrated in the seasons when hours of practice yield only minor victories. It’s true that repetition often leads to success, but that’s only part of the big picture. Rather than viewing practice as a mindless chore, we should adopt a more scientific perspective, seeing each repetition of an exercise as a round of experimentation. By learning to understand the mechanical variables in our technique, we can take a more direct, incisive approach to growth, making minor changes until we achieve our desired results. Troy Grady has championed this perspective in his “Cracking the Code” series, which is definitely worth your time.
We have an unhealthy attitude of comparison
We’ve all seen the comment under a YouTube video or Instagram post that goes something like “You’re so good that I’m contemplating quitting guitar forever.” I’ll agree that Mateus Asato is a great player and everything, but I don’t think his intention is to make other players quit. In all seriousness, we should never let the achievements or skill of others become obstacles in the way of our own improvement. Not only does it rob our ability to celebrate our own victories, but it belittles the work that those players have invested to get to where they are. Instead, let’s learn to see the strengths of other players as encouragements, motivating us in a way that’s driven less by competition, and more by comradery. Nowadays, many of the top YouTube and Instagram players offer Skype or FaceTime lessons, so if we want to play like them, we have the chance to learn straight from the source!
We don’t see enough value in improvement
Sometimes, we don’t make the effort to learn new ideas because we’re convinced that where we are is good enough. Why learn how to play lead if we’re just a singer-strummer? Why learn anything past the pentatonic scale if we’re already happy with our soloing? It’s true that we should never undertake any personal endeavor just because Ian on the internet said we should, but too often, we leave a depth of investment and engagement on the table when we limit ourselves to what’s comfortable. We never know what sort of musical opportunities might come our way, or the sounds we could discover that we didn’t know we loved if we allow ourselves to be stretched from time to time.
We’re scared that it might not work
I probably feel this one deeper than the others, because I see it in the eyes of my students all the time (especially the adults). Why put myself out there and try to learn something new if I might fail? Why expose myself to that kind of embarrassment? I empathize with this kind of fear, and I’ve seen it emerge from a few different places. Often, we dive into learning an instrument with a blissful ignorance of the effort it’s going to take, which makes the first hurdle of adversity extra hard to clear. Instead of gaining a respect for the discipline of the instrument, we might start to believe that we’re “not cut out for music.” We might believe that if we don’t become as “good” at guitar as we’ve dream we might, it’s a reflexive indication that we aren’t “good” in general. No matter how they arise, these feelings can cause players to abandon the pursuit of music altogether as a calculated move towards emotional safety. The truth is that even if you become the best player in the world, your personal value is always so much more than what you do on a guitar. You can try your best without fear of failure, and you can learn to accept failure when it happens because no matter what, you matter.
What keeps you from practicing? Do you fall into one of these categories, or is it something different? Let me know in a comment, and let’s help each other make our music say what we mean!