Frustration can be a major hurdle to overcome when trying to improve at the guitar. In small doses, frustration can motivate and drive us to achieve, but too much frustration causes us to stop thinking clearly, to lose patience, to attempt to short circuit the learning process and in the worst of all cases to just give up.
Frustration slowed my own guitar progress for decades. I even quit for a few years. The worst part was that guitar wasn't fun anymore. I had to force myself to practice. I had no patience with myself while I was practicing. Performing was hell. Frustration led me into a vicious cycle. Bad practice sessions led to bad performances which only made me put more pressure on myself, which made subsequent practice sessions even worse.
Frustration also causes physical problems. Are you trying to build speed and/or eliminate tension in your picking and/or fretting hand? Are you annoyed because this isn't happening quickly enough for you? Do you, as a result, get angry and grit your teeth while trying to force yourself to get better at a pace that you want rather than a pace that is reasonable given your current skill level? Do you think all that teeth gritting and forcing the issue is getting you closer to your goal or further away from it (hint: it's not closer).
The good news is I'm here to tell you that when it comes to frustration, we have a choice. We can choose to not be frustrated. We tend to think of frustration as some external force that we can't control, but that's not true. Frustration is a direct result of the way that we approach the instrument. We can choose to not be frustrated by doing a few simple things:
1. Setting reasonable goals
2. Staying aware
3. Enjoying the process
Let's examine each one of these individually.
Setting reasonable goals is mostly about understanding the difference between short term goals and long term goals. A long term goal might be that I want to play like John Petrucci, but that is a completely unreasonable short term goal which, if I hold myself to that standard and nothing else, I will surely fail every day, beat myself up emotionally in the process and likely end up thinking that playing the guitar is not fun. In this case I need to set some more reasonable short term goals, goals that are reachable in days, weeks or months instead of decades. For example, my short term goals might be to learn all the notes on the fretboard, to learn five usable solo phrases against a given chord progression, or to learn the rhythmic structure of a particularly difficult passage. My long term goal might still be to play like John Petrucci, but I evaluate myself from day to day against my short term goals (which are very attainable) instead of my one long term goal (which may take a lifetime to achieve). Reaching my short term goals encourages me to set more short term goals, which ultimately move me toward my long term goal faster than just having one huge goal that seems so far away.
Awareness is our own personal monitoring system. There is a big difference between being frustrated and being aware of one's own frustration. If I'm frustrated but not aware I will go on being frustrated and not enjoying myself, but if I'm aware of my frustration then I can do something about it. The presence of frustration is often a sign that something I'm doing isn't quite right. Maybe I'm trying to build speed when I should be focusing on coordination and elimination of unnecessary tension. Maybe I'm assuming that I have a problem with my picking hand when my problem is actually in my fretting hand. Maybe I just need to take a break and take my dog for a walk to clear my head.
Enjoying the process means focusing on the journey instead of the destination. As clichd as it sounds, this may be the most important aspect of beating frustration. If all you're focused on is some brass ring that you think is out there that one day you'll reach, I've got a wake-up call for you... there is no brass ring. There is only a continuous improvement process, and wherever you are as a musician at any given point along that process is fine. Ask yourself if you honestly ever want to get to the point where you're not improving anymore. If you always want to be improving then you've just liberated yourself, because you're now free from reaching for that one (non-existent) frozen moment in time when you'll be good enough. You're now free to just enjoy getting better bit by bit every time you pick up the guitar.
And really, if we're not enjoying the learning process, then why do we keep playing? There are two kinds of guitarists: professionals and amateurs. Most professional musicians could earn far more being miserable doing something else, so if we're miserable as professional musicians what's the point? As for amateurs, hobbies are supposed to be fun, right? If we're not having fun then why are we spending time being miserable?
So in conclusion, if you're frustrated:
Re-evaluate your goals Do you have too many long term goals and too few short term goals? If so set some short term goals for yourself and measure yourself against those instead.
Stay aware of your frustration level Frustration can be an indicator that you might need to try something different, or just take a break for a little while.
Enjoy the process Find something you enjoy about learning and focus on that. Stop reaching for the brass ring that doesn't exist and I think you'll find that you're enjoying yourself in the moment far more often.
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