Why Do We Practise?

This is a follow up to my article, 'To Practice Or Not To Practice'. In it I hope to share some more recent thoughts on practising which can be of benefit to anyone who is willing to search deep within themselves for the answers.

Ultimate Guitar
I wrote an article a few years ago called "To Practice or Not to Practice." The short article dealt with a dilemma which faces most guitar players at some point in their career whether they are professionals or hobbyists. Having taught a considerably larger number of guitar students since I wrote that first article, I have some additional views on practising and the underlying reasons why we sabotage our own progress on the guitar or indeed any musical instrument.

Most literature on the subject seems to hack at the leaves rather than striking at the root. They are quick fixes or band aids to more fundamental problems which when exposed would allow the student to foster a genuine desire for progress and commitment to more ambitious guitar playing goals and milestones.

A common experience with my own guitar students is a rationalization on their part of why their progress does not meet my expectations(or theirs for that matter). Initially I thought the problem was that of lazyness. This is the "leaves" I was hacking at in my first practising article. Now I didn't believe that being lazy was actually the problem but more that it was the result of a fundamental issue which was a lack of goals, dedication and self confidence amongst other things. These things are all of course related to the general zeitgeist surrounding an instrument such as the guitar which is summed up nicely in the all too popular phrase, "some people have it and some people don't."

Of course we need goals, dedication and self confidence but it is now my belief that these things will arise naturally when there is a paradigm shift in the way we think about guitar playing and what is possible for us. It all begins with that first spark of inspiration and a close analysis of those initial guitar playing fantasies that made you first decide to play guitar. If you can return to that point in your mind every day I believe you can begin each practise session with a burning desire to reach even the most loftiest of your guitar playing goals. If you want to play like Steve Vai, Tommy Emmanuel, Joe Pass or any other virtuoso guitar player then pursue that. To pursue any other goal is in essence to lie to yourself about your innermost desires. To take another path is to climb a ladder only to realise it is up against the wrong wall or in most cases, to resign yourself to the first few rungs of the ladder.

So it doesn't matter whether your biggest hero is Johhny Cash, Jimmy Page or Yngwie Malmsteen. All that matters is that you never lose those initial fantasies you first had before picking up the guitar only to replace them with self depreciating misconceptions handed out by people who have resigned themselves to mediocrity. This is nothing but a disease that spreads like wildfire. To clarify, when I say mediocrity I am referring to your own conception of what that means which is always compared with your true idea of what makes a great guitar player and your very own idea of a guitar playing "lottery win."

Now being completely unbiased, of course there are players who have more innate ability. For some players technique seems to come in a freakishly natural way. In others it is their ear that gives them an advantage. Some players have a fantastic sense of rhythm "out the box." Some are just so motivated and ambitious that they must succeed. But all individuals have vast oceans of untapped potential that must be surrendered too in order to make progress in the least amount of time that is possible for them. That means that it doesn't matter how long it is going to take you but only that you don't put up any false limitations which have their origins in hearsay.

I like to use an analogy which encapsulates the idea of having a goal(s), a map and the correct attitude. Imagine you are in Edinburgh and you want to get to London by car. This is your goal. The first thing you are going to do is get a map (the sat-nav is broken!). Will any map do? Frankfurt to Cologne? No. Only a map which shows you how to get from Edinburgh to London will do. So you get your map. You now have a goal and a means of achieving this goal. Are we there yet? Nope. We have to make sure we have the correct resources. Assuming we already have a car we need to make sure there is enough fuel. We can then set off on our journey.

If we assume that we are spending the majority of the journey on the motorway(freeway) then we want to be travelling at the speed limit of 70mph. Some of you might be fuel conservative and prefer to travel at 60mph. Certainly no-one would travel on the motorway at 20mph. That would just be silly! So we might decide the trip is going to take 7 hours. Assuming there are no accidents, roadworks or general congestion that may be the case. However, as we all know we will probably run into some kind of delays even if it is just to stop off for a rest period for an hour. In my experience with such journeys you get almost all the way to your destination and then spend an extra hour or more just in a highly congested city such as London. One thing is for sure, with the right 'attitude' you are certainly going to get there even if you are several hours late.

The above analogy is probably one of the most common sense analogies even to a novice driver or indeed someone who has only ever been a passenger. Why then can we not apply such common sense to our development as a guitar player? Let's look at some comparisons between the analogy and a specific goal you would like to achieve.

Let's say you would like to be able to play something which you consider to be way beyond your current capability. For me my first goal of this nature was "Eruption" by Eddie Van Halen.

You begin with the goal in mind and then you create your "map." This is going to be a specific schedule of practise which is going to allow you to reach this goal in the most effective, efficient way possible based on your unique circumstances. The only factors to consider are how much time do you have each day to work towards this goal and how can you make the best use of this time. The specifics of such a practise schedule would constitute an article all of its own but if you are unsure then take some guitar lessons with a teacher you respect and who has a reputation for helping students reach their goals. If you can't find one in your local area there are many world class players teaching through online mediums such as Skype so there are no excuses! At this point I would like to add that if your goal is important to you then it is worth investing money even for a few lessons to give you some insight into the art of practising.

Before going any further I would like to add that your map should be as simple as possible. Making things more complex than they need to be is something we can all have a knack for but it only serves to make you overwhelmed and can be another form of self sabotage.

Make it fun and make it urgent! Set yourself a realistic time frame for the achievement of your goal. It doesn't matter if it takes longer, it only matters that you treat it like there were a deadline. Combined with the right mindset, the setting of a date for the goals attainment can be the most effective remedy for procrastination. There is no excuse for making your goal indefinite. If the goal is indefinite then it is an idea waiting to be solidified into an actual achievable goal and to tell yourself otherwise is to accept mediocrity. No exceptions. And remember, mediocrity is whatever you decide it is. Of course be happy regardless of whatever level you are currently at but be happy in the knowledge that you are getting better every day. Water that is not flowing stagnates.

Going back to our analogy. Our fuel is time. It is all we have. If we invest the time in our guitar playing and most importantly we value it then naturally we will seek efficiency and effectiveness. To have big goals yet to spend your practise time doing things which move you no closer to them is to waste your time or at least to have given it less than 100% which again is not realising your true potential.

As in our analogy we will run into roadblocks, we will "burn out" and need a rest, we might get so close and find that the last few steps are the hardest but just like in our analogy we keep going. There is nothing that is "too hard." As long as we use our practice time effectively and efficiently then we are sure to reach our goals in the shortest possible time for us. Everyone reading this knows this. This is not brand new information. The sad fact is that most of us spend our practise time beating ourselves up. Comparing ourselves to our heroes and noting all our flaws rather than being inspired by their achievements and accepting that we too can achieve them if only we can <>"keep our heads down" and get to work. We avoid working on certain things because we lack the self discipline and a strong enough reason. Or should I say, we have buried our strongest reasons under a sea of negative conceptions and ideas about what we can achieve when we all know that no-one knows what we are capable of, not even ourselves.

It is my belief that beyond any physical advantages some guitar players have naturally, what the really great players possess is a burning desire to achieve their goals. Some write them out and systematically break them down into what would be more reminiscent of a blueprint rather than a map. Others just play constantly and do so from a place of inspiration. I remember reading an interview with Ron Thal (Bumblefoot) where he spoke about not having any conception of how difficult anything was. He was referring specifically to the technical side of guitar playing. He reached that ridiculous level out of what you might call naivete. He didn't know it would be 'hard' and so it wasn't. It sounds crazy but there is a great truth in it. We make things as hard or as easy as we think they should be. We "see things as we are, not as they are." Again, anyone reading this knows this to be true. However, understanding something and living it are two different things.

The guitar allows you to express yourself. Express the unlimited potential that you have and don't settle for less. That doesn't mean it has to be "serious." That doesn't mean it isn't fun. All that means is that you allow it to unfold naturally in much the same way that you overcome any other obstacles in your life that for some reason seem more necessary than becoming proficient on an instrument you clearly love.

In summary, if you want to be your own personal best then get your map and get going. It doesn't matter where that is or how it compares to what other peoples goals are. All that matters is that you are fulfilled and that you gave it your all. If you are making excuses to yourself then it is almost impossible to silence that mental chatter long enough to actually be inspired.

And please, if you are going to spend money on guitar lessons and you respect your teacher do as they say. To afford guitar lessons is a luxury and just the act of paying for them does not change you as a guitar player. Your teacher is not responsible for your progress, you are. Just like articles such as these cannot make you a better player but hopefully they can inspire you to make the first step.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." - Lao Tzu

About the Author:
Andy Mclaughlan is a guitar player and tutor from Glasgow, Scotland. www.wishawguitarlessons.co.uk.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Actually, after some thinking i found out what I wrote was really ****ing stupid, if someone gave me the choice to become Gilmour, I would of course say yes.
    My Last Words
    Why would you want to be someone else? I mean, a big part of the enjoyment I get from playing is the knowledge that I invested countless hours in the instrument, if you catch my drift.
    What I love about this and some of the other articles i've read here at Ultimate Guitar is the inescapable fact that there is no way of becoming a great guitar player save for hard work and effort. There really is no app you can download, no gear you can buy,no magical course that will have you 'shredding like Eddie Van Halen in days'..That's not to say there are no short cuts,there absolutely are ways of practicing that are superior to others.Never the less the fact remains that the only path to becoming a great guitar player goes directly through hard work,practice and determination there is no way around it. I think it's important to stress that fact for two reasons: First, that the novice player doesn't become disillusioned into thinking they simply dont't have what it takes,or that 'some have it and some don't'. And second, that playing guitar is indeed something to take great pride in,and to be admired because of the fact it comes no other way. It can't be given,it can't be bought it has to be earned [through hours and hours and days and years of effort]. Only in that regard can it be said that some have it and some don't, what another poster refered to as ' psychological aspect of guitar'and another pointed out 'true desire/motiation/inspiration' In a word 'Practice'
    "Look at how good you can become instead of looking at how much better other people are than you." Best advice my guitar teacher ever gave me.
    To me, this was a really insightful article. I'm glad that someone could explain the psychological aspect of guitar playing, seeing as it is normally pushed aside by other ideals of practice.
    Very good read and very well written. Its a shame if thats true, what u wrote abouth thats some ppl fail to draw true desire/motiation/inspiration from their guitar heroes and fall into the trap of succombing to "giving up" in their pursuit of becoming the player they want in awe of their heroe's skill/talent... The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. You can use it to your advantage so easily by drawing inspiration from them and also to learn from them as watching them play. Man, Ive stolen so many licks and stuff from Gilmour as he is my idol, and Ive always admired and studied him, of course in awe, but Ive always drawn inspiration and learned rather than thinking i will never be as good.I dont want to be Gilmour, but I like his style which Ive incorporated alot of into my own.
    My Last Words
    I agree with the whole be-inspired-instead-of-demotivated thingy when looking at your favorite guitarists. However, seeing a 5 year old on youtube playing Guthrie Govan flawless... I generally try to avoid those video's haha!
    I totally agree with you and feel the same. You can only be yourself, thats why its so important to listen to your own musicality all the time and ESPECIALLY when playing other peoples stuff. My last post was more ment as a joke and a tribte to Gilmour