Discipline - Necessary Or Obsolete?

Part I of this article takes a closer look into the topic of "discipline" in regards to daily musical practice and examines some common mind patterns that can often lead to frustration and musical burn-out if they remain unobserved.

Ultimate Guitar

Part I: Observations

The term "discipline" is tightly connected to the process of practice and development of any demanding skill - be it a sport, the art of calligraphy or playing a musical instrument.

As musicians, we face the dilemma of wanting to express ourselves through our music, but we often don't make the time to consistently sit down and practice. Any serious musician knows how hard it can be to keep up a consistent practice schedule - no matter what. Practicing scales, studying theory, writing songs and recording take after take... The time you are on stage with people cheering at you is nothing compared to the amount of time you spend alone with the instrument - and your own mind. It is therefore crucial to better understand our inner workings, to ensure that our mind is an ally and not an enemy that we fight each day - in addition to our musical challenges.

Let's start by attempting to understand what discipline is: It is obviously not physical like learning a new guitar technique but instead, it is a state of mind.

Here's my definition of the term discipline:

Discipline: The application of willpower to overcome inner resistance.

It's important to know that there is another component to discipline: resistance. Discipline and resistance go hand in hand and one is used to overcome the other.

Think about it this way: The amount of discipline you need is in direct proportion to the resistance inside you. If you had no resistance - no discipline would be needed. I bet you've already discovered this for yourself - there were days when practicing scale patterns for hours was fun and the time just flew by, right? Then, doing it again the next day, the same routine was torture. How can the same thing be heaven one day and hell the next? It's all in our state of mind. Let's examine some common mind games that can cause resistance...

Mental Projections About Practicing

Think of the times when you had a whole day off, all the time in the world and you wanted to get up early to practice. Instead, you slept in, had an extra cup of coffee and after checking your email, the weather in different countries and social networking sites, you get mad at yourself when you think about your plan to practice the entire day. Almost the whole day passes until you finally sit down and practice and then... It's fun! You really enjoy it after getting into it for a few minutes! So, what was your problem that day? The actual act of practicing? No.

Your problem was just a mental projection ABOUT practicing that influenced and determined your actions for that day and made you procrastinate! It's very important to distinguish between real and imagined difficulty to not be caught in a mental projection.

Thinking About The Whole Instead Of The Present Chunk

Another component that easily leads to paralyzation through overwhelm is to think about your entire practice schedule for the day. If you practice for multiple hours - just thinking of all the elements you want to tackle can easily weigh you down and cause severe resistance. Even worse is the thought of how many different musical elements there are to practice and how huge music really is! Again, nothing tangible has happened that has created that uncomfortable feeling within you - just some thoughts in your head.


We start to play guitar for various reasons and I can say that I started to play guitar, because I thought it was the coolest instrument in the world! I thought that it would impress people if I could learn to play and maybe even impress my crush.

It's easy to see that this reason has very little to do with musical expression itself - instead it was a simply a means to an end, it a was self-seeking reason. If you play guitar, because you have a subconscious belief that you are not worthy and by becoming a famous player, rockstar or whatever, you can finally attain worthiness - it means you are using music to fill an inner hole. Of course, if the belief is subconscious you wouldn't even know it - you'd simply act it out.

I'm not saying that this is bad in any way; it's just good to be aware of the reasons why we want to attain certain things and the difficulties those reasons might create for us, because such a mindset will make it impossible to love the practicing and you will most likely hate the process.

The process will be just an obstacle not allowing you to get to where you want to go. If you want to somehow "add value" to your self image - there are far easier ways to do this than music.

Bringing In Time

One thing that can help you maximize your focus during practice is to be aware of your mind's tendency to recall the past or daydream about the future. Recalling the past could be remembering how much practice time you've put in already, often paired with a disappointment that it didn't help you to progress as fast as you wanted...

The mind could also jump to the future and daydream about the skills you will have at some point. That's good for visualizing, but not ideal to get the most out of your practice time right now. Those mind movements are not bad and you shouldn't apply any force to "get rid of them" or to "control" them. It's just what the mind does.

Just don't get lost in the projections and bring your focus back to the one moment that will ever exist: NOW. You cannot do anything in the past nor in the future, but you can concentrate and strive for the best quality in what you do in this moment and do just that. One pick stroke. One chord change.

Exclusive Fixation On Results

One huge obstacle is our almost exclusive obsession with results. "You want me to practice without wanting results?" you might ask. No, of course not, but getting results should not be the only point of focus, because it will hinder us to enjoy the process itself. If the result is all that matters and you hate the journey, you will most likely not get very far.

Think about planning for a journey, asking yourself mentally: "Ok, I'll be going to Paris, New York, Tokyo and then I end up... Back home. So, why go in the first place if I end up where I am right now?"

Stupid, right? We are on the journey for the joy of the journey itself! Even if it could be completed, you'd start out on another journey! We cannot ever get it done! It's all for the joy of it!

This concludes Part I of this article - in Part II we'll proceed to experiment with different solutions.

Best Wishes!

About The Author: Derek Steep is a songwriter, composer, performer and recording artist. In addition to the study of various instruments, he has been immersed in different schools of eastern thought and brings this perspective to various aspects of musical practice. You can find his music, articles and blog at www.TheMimicryOfShadows.com.

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I've been playing guitar for over 4 years now and have never had any sort of structure or routine for practicing. I just sit in my bedroom and pick up the guitar , play a song or improvise riffs and solos then put it down again. Thing is I've always felt that I've improved. I've never practiced scales or modes or anything. I just play and not once in 4 years have I ever gotten bored with it. The best way to get better is to just find your own way with practicing methinks.
    True. As long as you are honest with yourself about your ability, and you hold yourself to a high standard of playing. Unstructured is fine as long as it does not become an excuse to avoid doing things you need to learn because they are unpleasant to work on.
    My Last Words
    You know what it is with discipline? The actual practice isn't even that hard. It's hard to force yourself to actually start practicing. I mean, for me it is harder to say: "Ok, now I will continue to practice this sweeping pattern very slowly for the next 15 minutes" than to actually practice said part slowly for the next 15 minutes. It's like getting out of bed for school. Your bed feels so warm and comfy - you don't want to get out, because it makes you feel uneasy. However, from my experience the hardest thing is to actually get out of bed - the moment that you are out of bed isn't uneasy at all. Weird example.
    Dean Washburn
    The lack of 'disarpwin' in my eyes should only be a concern if you're a musician hired by an artist, record label/ studio or person(s) that demand your talent in order to aid in completing a project. So unless if you've to stand on stage with an orchestra behind you then its not necessary. I honestly believe the best way to improve is to play when you want, stop playing when you've had enough, go for a walk, do something that isn't demanding of your brain, come back to your guitar later or the next day or further down the week, pick it up and play again. If you remember the stuff you played last time or most of it, go over it again whilst playing and you will always find you managed to improve alot than previously
    Derek Steep
    Hello dear readers, Thanks for the ratings! Part II of this article is almost finished and will be up soon! Best Wishes!
    Derek Steep
    Thanks for taking the time to read, comment and rate! I have already submitted Part II to UG - it should be up soon! Hope it will be helpful. Best Wishes!
    I haven't really gotten a practice routine. The thing is, once you know what you need to improve on and how to improve them, you can make anything into a way to get better at any skill. If there's something you need to practice, incorporate it into your improvising, at the top speed you can play it cleanly. After awhile, you'll get better at whatever you're practicing.
    The moment you use the word routine in your guitar playing, the magic begins to fade away, at least that's how I feel. Play songs you like, if you see a trick or two that you love learn how to do that, and, importantly, learn a bunch of different genres, just to see how it could affect your playing. Like, if you're a metalhead, try learning a couple of funk songs, spice things up. And write as much as you can.
    The "routine" part is not magic. The magic is what happens as a result of the routine. Ability is the result of diligent and focused practice. There's no other way around it.
    Thus the reason that there are a lot of people who play guitar, but not a whole lot of guitar players. Well said on all accounts. Hope you expand on motivations for playing in relation to discipline.
    Hey, if you're not a professional musician, and you're happy with your playing, more power to you. At the end of the day, that's really all that matters. I've just always found it funny that this idea that there's no 'right' way of doing things or that structure and practice is unnecessary is almost entirely limited to guitarists, particularly guitarists who play rock or blues. I have no idea why that is; for everything you do right, there will always be an objective way of doing it 'better'. Not better according to the rules or what other people say, but better in terms of more control, less tension, just all around better. For some reason, there's this notion amongst us guitarists that it's okay to stop once you've gained a certain level of competency that would be unheard of on other instruments, let alone in other areas of life.
    If someone becomes satisfied with their current level of ability, the desire to improve is instantly erased. There should never be a moment when we say as musicians "Okay. I've arrived." If you're serious about music, you can't afford to be satiated. It's about the little victories along the way that help propel us forward through positive reinforcement. Achieving something difficult over a long period of time gives us confidence to take on the next greatest challenge. If someone would rather stagnate and play the things they can already play, that's their business, but those are the most useless type of musicians. Apply that analogy to a mechanic or another highly skilled profession. "Sorry, I know how to fix your brakes, but I haven't figured out how to replace a transmission. It's okay, though, because I'm happy with where I'm at." You would not be going to that mechanic anymore.
    If you have a practical goal in mind for music you never need discipline because its always exciting. I've always been jamming with bands, looking for the next gig, writing the next song, etc. I consistently get better because it is always necessary to do so. Very rarely have I had to force myself to practice. I'd rather play my guitar than browse the "weather in other countries" any day. It is my ****ing life essence.
    I would say it's mostly in your head, but there is a definite physical component that should be factored in as well. It is not nearly as limiting as the mental projections, but is an important factor in building and sustaining skill, discipline and effective self-expression. But why am I writing this? Why am I even on here! I should be practicing!