What Teaching Guitar Taught Me About Practice

Most players don’t get far at all on their guitar journey before being confronted with the reality of practicing. We know it’s supposed to be important, even necessary, but we also know that it isn’t always the most inviting activity. Teaching guitar has changed the way I see a lot of things, but I might be most grateful for the perspective it’s given me on practice. Here are a few things I’ve been able to see more clearly through the eyes of my students:

  • Everyone gets frustrated
    • Whether we’re new to guitar or an experienced player, younger or older, all of us have experienced the disappointment of wanting to sound a certain way, but coming up short. It can often seem like we’re alone in our frustration, that the other players we know are traveling on smoother guitar roads, but in reality, even the best players feel frustrated just as often as we do (about more advanced concepts, admittedly). When they express frustration, I‘ve made it a practice to tell my students what I’m struggling with, and often, knowing that they’re not exceptional in their frustration allows them to see their progress through a more positive lens.
  • There is no secret ingredient
    • Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we’ve all given in to the notion that one simple tweak to our musical approach might unlock all of our wildest guitar dreams in one fell swoop. We buy pedals, watch YouTube videos, and subscribe to guitar snake oil of all kinds, but the harsh truth is that nothing can real take the place of invested time. I see a look in my students’ eyes regularly that seems to ask, “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” and while I can’t help but sympathize, I’ll be the first to suggest that a world where skill can’t be bought or cheated really is better. It’s our job as instructors to make the process of developing skill as efficient (and even fun!) as possible, pointing out all the best views on the scenic route to guitar proficiency, since there really isn’t a shortcut.
  • Discipline pays off
    • Especially if we’re not consistently monitoring our playing by filming ourselves, tracking BPM progress, or some other form of regular measurement, it can be difficult to notice our own improvement. However, one of my biggest surprises while teaching guitar has been how obvious it is when a student has practiced since their last lesson (especially when that doesn’t always happen). Comfort, accuracy, and consistency are all accessed most directly via discipline, and nothing beats getting to tell one of my students that their practice is paying off. Whether we feel it or not, regular, intentional practice will always make us a better guitarist than we were last week.
  • We all need encouragement
    • Even though practice is important, and even when results are evident, choosing to practice isn’t always easy. We could choose to do anything else in the time we would be practicing our instrument, which can make the investment of time seem tedious and limiting. My role as an instructor definitely involves relaying information, but so often, my students need a hype man or cheerleader way more than they need a lecturer. We often call the skill-developing process a “grind” for a reason, so as cliché as it may sound, a message of “You can do it!” or “That was awesome!” really does go a long way. Often, we get too lost in our own pride to provide encouragement to other players, but if we were honest, we’d admit a deep desire to receive encouragement ourselves, so the humility required to start a compliment-giving trend might just be worth it.
  • Music comes first
    • As guitarists, we sometimes fall into the trap of feeling incompetent as a whole because we’re not as proficient in a specific area. Common examples include sweep picking, “outside” phrasing, and odd rhythmic groupings, and too often, we spend hours practicing these concepts before ever asking, “Do I want to sound like this?” Listening to instruction is great for getting from where we are now to where we want to be, but it’s not always the best choice to let someone else pick our destination for us. We might want to learn how to sweep, for example, if we love the sound of wide, fluid arpeggios, but we shouldn’t invest time in our sweeping just because some other player might think we suck if we can’t do it.

Our practice time is valuable, and my time as an instructor has made that all the more evident. If you feel frustrated about your own practice regiment, feel free to fill out a lesson request or shoot me a DM on Instagram. I’d love to help you make your music (and your practice) say what you mean.

Ian