Eliminate Barriers to Practicing Guitar

Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but do we really take this to heart? In my many years as a teacher, I’ve heard every excuse for not practicing: There’s not enough time; it’s not fun; it hurts too much; I’m not making progress; I’m stuck; or I’m just not inspired enough to practice. It’s very convenient to avoid practicing—and you probably have your own numerous excuses—but there’s no getting around the simple truth that you need to do it in order to improve. 

Not unlike the voice of your conscience, your inner musician is either a cheerleader (“You can do this!”) or an Eeyore (“Why bother? Somebody else is already better than I am.”). And that inner musician can change from day to day, depending upon your desire level. I’d like to help you identify which voice you’re obeying and how to stay on the sunny side of your inner battle.

I’M UNINSPIRED

What is your inspiration? As musicians, we’re usually chasing some kind of sound. It might be the pristine classical guitar of Andrés Segovia, the gymnastic lines of Julian Lage, or the dulcet tones of [name your favorite guitarist]. These are often our initial inspirations, and remembering why you chose the guitar in the first place might be a good motivation to pick it up again and again. Remember, too, that listening is almost as good as practicing, and if you can’t get yourself into the woodshed, you can certainly make the effort to listen deeply to your heroes. 

It can also help to be in the habit of getting in touch with your desire to play better. 

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This is a daily ritual for almost all the musicians I know—good, great, or otherwise. Sometimes it’s a conscious thought: “I gotta get out of bed and get back to that thing I’m working on.” Other times it might be a nagging thought in the back of your mind, like, “I haven’t resumed the stuff I’m working on and it’s getting late in the day.” But regardless of the nature of the thought process, that desire to improve is usually there in some form or another, and the more you can stay connected to it, the better.

THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TIME

When I was 18, I had a teacher who asked me why I was not practicing. He then wrote down all of the reasons I mentioned, basically the stuff of everyday life, and asked how long each distraction might take. The sum of these activities—work at my part-time job (four hours), eating (one hour), sleeping (eight hours), etc.—was only 18 hours. That left a full six hours to practice! So why couldn’t I squeeze in one or two hours? 

No matter how busy and unrelenting your schedule may be, you’re going to have to carve out some time for musical improvement and perhaps push some other things down lower on your list of priorities. The good news is ten to 15 minutes a day is a great and easy goal to start with—and not just for beginners. You’ll make way more progress with daily practice than four hours on one day. All practice is good, but daily practice, not unlike compound interest, is the way to shorten your journey towards that sound you’re chasing. Fifteen minutes will usually lead to 20 or 25, and if you get in the habit of doing that, you’ll find 30 minutes is easier, then 45, etc.

IT HURTS

A common excuse is that it hurts too much to practice. Well, there’s pain and then there’s pain. If you’re suffering from the latter, you should stop immediately and look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it to see what you can do to change to a pain-free technique. A good teacher can help you here. Usually, pain is caused by using way more force than is needed. Most of the time, less is more—especially when it comes to the gripping of the pick, the pressing down on the strings, etc. 

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Sometimes pain comes from playing a guitar that is not set up properly or is at odds with your physiology (i.e., a guitar whose body is too small or too large for you, or a neck that is unmanageable for your hand size). This can be remedied by asking a teacher or shop to help you find the guitar that’s the best fit for you. While we’re on the subject, you might also consider the benefits to your musicality of having a healthy lifestyle that includes eating well and regular exercise. Playing any musical instrument can be a physically challenging task for your mind and body, and being in good shape can help improve your playing and your enjoyment when practicing. 

I’M NOT GETTING ANY BETTER

Being stuck at a place where it feels that you can’t break through to the next level can be crushing to your drive and inspiration. But you don’t have to buy into this common excuse; you just need to see it from a different side, as evidence that you need to make a big push right now, while you’re most frustrated. That big push can be something like tackling what you’re stuck on with more frequent practice. Twice a day could help—you’d be amazed at how much you’ll improve with just an additional 15- or 20-minute daily session. 

You might also have an honest look at why you’ve reached a plateau. Are you, for instance, repeating the same mistakes by trying to play a challenging piece at tempo, rather than first perfecting it at half speed? (To address this problem, see Here’s How in the January 2019 issue.) In any case, at the very least, making a big push when you’re least inclined to do so will help you prove to yourself that you have the grit, integrity, and burning desire that sparks most, if not all, of the musicians you admire.

IT’S JUST TOO FRUSTRATING

Pro tip: It’s well documented that we get a little rush of endorphins in our bodies when we successfully complete small tasks. Remember how hard it was to learn how to tie your shoelaces? Sticking a key in a lock and making a door open? Easy now for sure. At first it took repetition, but once you got the skill it felt so good. That’s the endorphin rush. This happens to us all day long—barring heavy traffic, why do you think it’s so much fun to drive a car?—and you can bring it into the practice room. 

Practicing in such a way that you’re not frustrated will lead to a body filled with endorphins that will make you feel confident and even inspired, which will obviously lead to a desire to spend more time practicing. Using this method, you may actually lose track of your time practicing and find that the clock has clicked past your usual quit time.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.


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Paul Mehling
Paul Mehling

Paul Mehling is the founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco and is often referred to as the godfather of American gypsy jazz.

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