Why 'Practice, Practice' Is Often a Terrible Advice

"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Fannie Lou Hamer

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Why 'Practice, Practice' Is Often a Terrible Advice
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"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
- Fannie Lou Hamer

I have been on countless forums and subreddits. They all say the same thing.

Someone asks:

- How can I get better at X?
- What is the secret to being the best at Y?
- Top tips on how to master Z?

They always reply: "Practice, practice, and practice some more until you (magically) get it."

On Quora it is particularly common that people ask questions like:

- How can I improve my guitar skills?
- Can I learn to be a great guitarist by myself?
- Why can't I play cleanly on my guitar?

Yet again, the answer people give tends to revolve around "more and more practice".

For someone without experience, yeah, it does sound reasonable. I mean, you do need time to perfect your craft, right?

Well... yes... and no.

When I first started to play guitar, I was around 15. At that time, it meant pretty much the world to me, so I would spend a lot of hours a week practicing, and practicing, and practicing some more. Don't get me wrong, it was tough but it did pay off quite well, since I did get the hang of the instrument reasonably well in just a couple of months.

As a teenager, I would spend my time with practicing the guitar and playing video games, and that was pretty much it. Of course, it was great back then, since school was not much of a hassle.

But... it did not last. Sooner, rather than later, the excitement of seeing rapid growth in skill starts to fade. This is natural for every activity you can possibly do. This is sometimes referred to as reaching a plateau, which means you reached a level of skill that does not improve any longer (or at least seems that way). I'm pretty sure you've reached plateaus in many activities in your life too.

I believe the most popular plateau comes in the fitness industry. Who doesn't want to get the elusive six-pack abs? Most people do not get it despite working out on a regular basis, so why does this happen?

Do you know what most people do when they get to a fitness plateau, that is, they suddenly don't seem to get any leaner? Well, they start thinking things like:

"If I only put in more effort, I'll make it."
"There has to be something I'm doing wrong."

In some extreme cases, they might feel:

"This doesn't work. It's all a scam!"

And then they'll quit whatever it is that they wanted to achieve, only to then feel guilty about others making it and they not.

The six-pack abs will continue to be in a tiny part of their memory, forever to be reminded about.

What happens when we start seeing that despite the time and effort we are puttin in, we are not seeing the results we expect? Of course, we start to question ourselves, which usually leads to second thoughts.

It was Albert Einstein who (supposedly) once said:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expect different results."

It doesn't matter who said that. What matters is that it does teach us something invaluable. If you feel like you are not getting the results you want, you will have to change something in your approach, unlike what most will think that they have to do even more of the same until they finally make it.

So, dear friend, what does this mean?

It means, at least, the following:

1) You will reach plateaus.
2) Expect them.
3) 
Be prepared.
4) 
Don't be afraid to try new things.

What you need to know, at all times, is that you need to acknowledge that reaching a point where you feel you cannot go past it, does not mean there is anything wrong with what you are doing.

Persistence and effort alone can only get you so far, and you will have to change your angle and strategy at some point.

Remember that: no pain, no gain, but enough pain is enough gain.

Nobody ever got to be a great cook by cooking one single dish, right? Why would it be different with you?

Play smart.

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25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    DickHardwood
    When I reached a plateau I got lazy in it, thinking that I was just not able to move past "a certain level". Then, I started learning new genres and it all expanded. When I felt my rhythm playing was getting stale, I learned funk. When I felt my songwriting lacked "umph" I got into pop and r&b to get fresh ideas. That's where I think the trick is, when you get out of a comfort zone you made yourself. Learn some jazz or flamenco, metalhead. Learn a few Slayer riffs, jazz guitarist. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Great article.
    MaxTPG
    Thanks! Yes, that's a very useful tip: always try to move out of your comfort zone. I try to learn a new song from a completely new style every once in a while to get new ideas from. You never know what you might discover.
    --art
    Yes! I'm a pretty crappy guitarist, but just learning a bit of flamenco off of youtube (in a painstaking, slow motion) got me to control my thumb and have it ready to pick the base note of the next chord. Something I couldn't do in any music until then.  AND just playing a different instrument, with a new captivating tone and different fretboard helps too, bringing out something new. Switch from electric, acoustic, classical, uke...
    livvibes3
    I can honestly say to anyone reading this it is truly correct. Being 16 myself and started playing when I was a 14/15, I have/had reached my 'plateaus'. I taught myself and have had no real lessons or someone to have shown me hot to actually play, I just searched various songs and very slowly picked up chords, and then the names, and then strum patterns and then you reach a certain point of where it appears you are not improving. Practice is important to improve but it is only important when you put certain skills into practice. For example; I cannot bar chords, but certain songs I love to play have barred chords. For a while I just avoided these, but I started to try these and after a while I managed to play some. Then i practiced this skill and now there are certain bar chords I can play with ease. great article! xX
    MaxTPG
    Glad you liked it! I wrote it from my own experience, and soooo many people tell you to practice in good faith but sometimes that's not what you really need.
    deavise
    I'm an intermediate ukulele player.  I don't know why I started with ukuleles.  I just liked them and they are lighter to carry than guitars.  My luthier friend calls the uke a "gateway instrument," but I haven't given it up yet and now I own quite a few of them.  I just started learning music in my 40's, too, so I always felt like I would be "even more behind" if I didn't practice all the time.  That's not true.  I wouldn't love music if I didn't give myself a break when I need one. Anyway, this is absolutely brilliant advice. There will be plateaus when you don't want to play at all.  I found that giving myself a day off from practice was better than being miserable at it and going back the next day was easier without the guilt.  
    MaxTPG
    Great insight! I think Luthiers should stick to what they do best (repair instruments) and not to give such advice as calling the ukulele a "gateway instrument". It's quite rude, if you ask me. I'm interested to know what brought you to music in your 40's, as that's not very common. Thanks for your praise, I'm glad you liked the article!
    matthew.hdg
     I understand how just telling someone to 'practice, practice' isn't really advice... at all, to be honest. But even when you reach a plateau and step out of your comfort zone, you are still practicing. I feel if you aren't enjoying playing guitar, you likely won't stick with it. And if the feeling of not improving is enough to deter you from playing, you probably don't love it as much as you think you do!  A lot of people out there learning to play guitar, especially online, are simply doing it because they want to be a "Rockstar" or it sounds "cool" when you tell people you play guitar. They aren't doing it because they have an interest in it or are passionate about music. Now, i'm not saying you have to be passionate about music to start playing an instrument. But if you are in it for the wrong reasons, (only holding your guitar because you think it will increase your chances with the ladies) you aren't going to get out of it what you're putting in. A lot of it has to do with an individuals passion.  It's your approach to practicing you are making light of. For me personally it has been a sort of mindset i've tried to put myself in. I will give you an example that might help some understand the point I'm bringing up.  My brother (4 years) and I (2 years) have both been learning to play guitar. (Even after 30 years you should still be 'learning' to play guitar) My brothers way of learning guitar has been looking up chords to specific songs by specific artist that he wants to be able to play. I on the other hand am taking the more intimate approach. I want to learn the guitar as a whole. And to understand music theory, so i can apply my knowledge to other instruments.
    kikothegreat
    there are so many things to practice too. techniques like legato, alternate picking, pinch harmonics, hand synchronization, economy picking, bends, vibrato, sweep picking, natural harmonics, fingerpicking and so on...  theory stuff like scales, modes, chords, fretboard positions (and notes), song deconstruction and analysis, time signatures, etc.  ear training, improvisation, song writing, singing, watching performances, learning your idols' styles, learning/listening to different styles of music. and most importantly (at least for me) - finding music u like and learning it on guitar (preferably by ear). basically, practice what u want to learn at the moment, be it a song, a technique, theory, whatever. u don't have to practice sweep picking 365 days a year to get good at it, just the periods that u feel the passion for it. what good is learning anything if u get tired of it while practicing. unless, of course, if u need to play a certain song at a gig.
    stiffbag691
    Excellent article MaxTPG. Just a bit of background:  I'm a sax, harmonica and keyboard player (just for fun).  I have been playing on and off since high school.  I am a bit shy to perform with an audience but I have practised plenty.  And I never really improved. I started playing the acoustic guitar about two years ago.  I was tired of waiting for someone to come visit and play around the camp fire.  I will be 50 this year and I have to say that my respect and admiration for guitar players has sky rocketed.  It is not that  easy to learn...at least for me.  I will take your advice and try different types of songs to learn because I seem to be stuck playing the same songs over and over and not advancing.  Thanks again.  Keep on playing!
    pitbull1779
    I'm in my 50s, too, and am a fairly accomplished pianist; I play several other instruments, as well. (I have a blast with my harmonica!) Out of all the instruments I play, I find that it takes the longest to even begin to get results with the guitar. It took probably close to 2 months before my fingertips toughened up enough to not be the focus of any practice! Once that hurdle was crossed, I thought I'd NEVER be able to get my fingers on the right strings without deliberately placing them there. When that was happening on its own, switching between chords became my nemesis, and once I was making the transitioens between 3 simple open chords okay, God forbid I had to switch the ORDER of those same 3 chords. And the moment I got the hang of that, barre chords showed up to rain on my parade! (I'm not even admitting how spastic my strumming started out--and that was with the hand with the easy part!) Without a doubt, I've had to work longer and harder for each and every simple victory on the guitar, but there is also no doubt that perseverance and practice pays off. I'm not likely to ever find myself filling stadiums with my mad guitar skills, but I can play well enough for people to recognize the song. I feel very fortunate to have so many resources available at my fingertips on sites such as this one, and doubt I'll ever run out of finding something new to totally suck at. I wouldn't say that there is ever a time that I'm not advancing; it's more that there are times when that advancement is so slow it's practically negligible. At those times, I just remind myself of where I started. 
    andy.hall
    After 10 years playing the same 4 Clapton songs, at 34 I figured now or never and got some lessons, and the biggest thing was opening up to new music, from Spanish Carcassi studies to Jerry Reed and then Tommy Emmanuel who has opened up a huge array of new techniques to perfect. You need to find the spark that motivates you and then push through "I'll never be able to do this" with playing time and more playing time and then some more. Bit by bit things will click and you are another rung up the ladder. There are things I can do now I'd never have believed a year ago, and that's hugely motivating to keep going.
    MaxTPG
    That's actually really interesting. Why is it that you decided to start learning at 34 years old and not before?
    andy.hall
    Sorry maybe bad wording. I learned at 15 and learned a pile of Clapton songs, then plateaued for 15 years : At 34 with two kids easy to look for something to transport you away for a bit!!
    MaxTPG
    I see. I guess it's hard to have "you" time to play the guitar with two kids, right?
    andy.hall
    Working from home helps, but just means you have to stay up later : About to get a house with the converted attic as my man cave / guitar room so I'm bouncing off the walls !!!
    MaxTPG
    Yeah, man! Every man needs his own cave. Mine is also an attic which is packed with lots of stuff from my hobbies in addition to my guitars.
    Raido
    For me - I rarely learn covers anymore. Instead I enjoy writing music, playing in a band, experimenting in DAW's, and just jamming. Once you get to that point where you can just take guitar and play random improvisations that sound good, it's almost never boring. Also learn new styles.
    MaxTPG
    That's cool, man! If only more players could get to that point! Improvising is a good way to come up with interesting tunes, especially if you are doing so with other musicians, but I recommend every once in a while you learn to play a song from a completely different style you normally play, as that will give you insight on new tricks. Hey, I've even played bachata songs and I'm a metalhead!
    Raido
    I'm actually happy about the plateau as that means I have smaller competition haha. It already feels bad when you are playing Hey Joe or something and anyone barely pays attention, but then someone starts playing Ed Sheeran, and every girl goes bananas.