If we are dedicated to our growth as artists who play the guitar, we must be very smart to get the best out of ourselves. Part of the difficulty in doing so lies in combating the forces and conditioning of the world around us. The world around us tends very strongly to condition us in ways that will lead us far from our goals as artists, as people who have the power to express a deeper level of reality and convey that to other people through their art, in our case, music and the guitar.

One of the most destructive mindsets we can have is a hurried and worried attitude about our daily work, our daily practice. We are conditioned in our schooling, and later in our life in the working world, to a fearful attitude which tells us we need to perform to a certain standard, or else! We need to get those high marks, or else we fail our class. We need to finish that project, finish that report, or else the ax will fall!

This is why we have the word “deadline“. It means “if you do not finish this required work on time, you’re dead!”

Some people become so used to this feeling that they begin to believe they “work best under pressure”. They need to feel they have a gun pointed at their head, so they believe, to even get any work done!

Well, I want to tell you that if you wish to develop as an artist, you must get very far away from this belief system. You must discover a whole new way of motivating yourself to perform that does not depend on the fear of some terrible thing happening to you. You must find a way to give yourself completely to your daily work, your daily practice, that is motivated only by the pleasure you are getting from every moment of every day’s practice.

I have often had a student tell me that the reason why they did so poorly on the 4 different things I gave them to practice was because they were worried about ” getting everything done perfectly in time for the lesson”, so they rushed through the material, hurried and worried. Of course, rushing through the material meant they missed just about everything that was important, like the fingering, and whether or not they were actually able to play to a steady beat, or even whether or not they were playing the correct notes! And as far as being aware of all body tensions, forget it!

So, I have to break the news to them that their entire week of practice was worthless, and must be done over. I also have to explain that the very attempt to “get it perfect” is what lead them to “get it very imperfect”.

Understand this: there is no such thing as perfect. “Perfect” by itself, is not a goal that your mind can grab hold of and set itself to accomplish. The word “perfect” must be used in connection with a given, knowable, and obtainable goal in order to do us any good. Otherwise, “perfect” is a big fat scary word that can only be used to intimidate and rattle you so much that you will probably accomplish very little.

We must learn to think in terms of goalines, not deadlines, when we practice. Week by week, you or your teacher must set out the proper “next goal” for you to accomplish with any given piece of music you are working on. For instance, if I am working on a scale with a student, I will say something like “next week, I want to hear this scale at 60 to the quarter note, with your fingers working exactly the way I have shown you. I want you to work it up every day using the Basic Practice Approach, to that speed throughout the course of the week. Don’t worry about any faster speeds, just get it as perfect as you can at that speed”.

If it is a song, or a solo that needs to go at 120 bpm, I might set out the goals this way:

  • 1st week: get the notes and the fingers right. Start to walk through the notes no tempo, and discover the most challenging parts, and start to analyze why they are difficult, and what you are going to do about it.
  • 2nd week: test yourself by playing small sections of the music at 60bpms, taking 4 clicks for each note. Make sure all the movements can be done smoothly at this speed. If they can’t, there is no chance of being able to do it any faster. Then, start to work those sections up in speed using the Basic Practice Approach.
  • 3rd week: begin to play to the actual rhythm of the music, giving all the notes their true rhythmic value, not all equal time as before. Discover where the problems are now. Start to work on them, and find what tempo you can play everything at with no mistakes, section by section.
  • 4th week: here, I will begin to assign specific tempo goals for different sections, as I see the student is ready to accomplish those goals.All along the way, I am giving out other goals as appropriate. “Your pick is going too far out from the string on your up-pick on that scale. Fix it this week with correct practice.” The next week, when that student walks in, I look at the notebook to see what goals I have given, and I’d better see at least some movement toward that goal. (The worst thing a student can do is not look at their notebook, not look at the goals I have set forth.)

    This constant process of setting the next appropriate goal, and setting it out clearly along with making sure the means to accomplish it are understood, is what brings constant progress in our study of the guitar. The lack of doing so is why there is so little progress for so many people.

    People often go for a very inappropriate goal. If they are working on a fast solo or piece, they try to play it almost right away just like the guy on the record, who probably spent ten years practicing it before recording it! By reaching for this very advanced goal right away, we usually guarantee failure and frustration. Progress as a guitarist, as Segovia said, is a step by step process, and no step can be missed. If I am standing on the ground looking at a staircase going up, and I try to jump up to the 10th step instead of walking up the first nine, what do you think will happen? I will fall flat on my face or fanny, and may be too black and blue to make another attempt.

    And yet, that is what many people do when practicing guitar. They do it because of two reasons, the same two reasons responsible for most of what is wrong with the world: ego and ignorance. Don’t be this way. As far as ego, remember this: be humble, don’t stumble. Don’t try to play that solo at 120bpm right away. Spend a month getting it perfect at 60. That way, the path to getting it at 80 is simple. Then 100 and 120 will follow, and be solid, not shaky.

    As far as ignorance, I often tell students “the only reason you are practicing badly is because you actually think, deep inside, that you WILL learn this music successfully doing it your way, and skipping so many steps. You are wrong, you won’t. And your faulty playing, when put to the test, is the proof. When you become wise enough (and honest enough) to see the truth of this, you will practice correctly.”

    When attempting to set the next best goal for yourself in any situation, ask yourself this question: “if I apply everything I know, up to this moment, about guitar and how to practice, and I apply it to this music I am working on, AND I give it my very best effort, what level of improvement can I reasonably expect?” Ask yourself this question, and pick short term goals, ones that can be obtained in a week to a month.

    If you are practicing your lesson material during the week and you start to feel pressured to “get it right” in time for the lesson, don’t start hurrying through things and getting sloppy just to cover everything. Adjust your goals. Forget that scale for this week, and just work on those chord changes. Re-focus your goals and re-focus your efforts. That way, at least you will accomplish something instead of nothing. Better to juggle 3 balls in the air successfully than to drop 5!

    Remember, the achievement of each goal IS the way to reach your final goal, just as taking each step up the stairs is the way to the top. Have fun, and don’t make yourself crazy. Even if you do progress correctly, as you should, people move at different speeds. I tend to work hard and move fast, but I like to sit on the steps every once in a while, and just play my guitar while I look around!

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