Monthly Archives: May 2014

Overcoming Overwhelm

If you are new to guitar, or especially if you have been playing for a while then you may already be acquainted with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that there is a long road ahead and you are not sure you can see the destination. If you have attempted any kind of lesson program you have surely observed that there does not seem to be any one clear thing or few things that you can do to get the results you seek. Maybe you have sensed that there are a LOT of things you need to accomplish. If you are currently involved in a program of instruction, you may have a pile of those things on your desk right now.

As with other impediments to eventual success with music, this feeling is quite normal. Once you get deep enough into this to realize how much is involved with fluent guitar playing, it is easy to become awed by the amount of information to learn and tasks to work through. You may then conclude something like this … “I am not able to do this”, or “I could possibly do this, but I do not have the time”. Then the next logical step is, of course ….giving up.

So let’s consider how we get stuck in this trap and then how we can avoid it, or work around it. The first thing we need to know about overwhelm is this – it is a state of mind, not an objective reality. Particularly, it is a feeling … a feeling that we are not up to the job ahead of us. It is also a false feeling. Unfortunately, there is enough of reality inspiring this feeling that it may be difficult to see the falsehood in it. Let’s put on our reality glasses and take another look at this self-defeating false feeling of doom.

The Facts: The first thing we need to do is address the truth – that learning to play an instrument well is a big task. Although I am a proponent of “positive thinking” to a reasonable extent, a positive attitude does not change the immediate reality of things. We can sit all day and think positive thoughts about being a great musician. Other than a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction, this will accomplish nothing unless we allow this positive framework to motivate sustained action toward a specific goal. A positive outlook combined with focused action will indeed yield impressive results, possibly far beyond what we would have thought ahead of time. So, let’s start by rejecting the sense of doom and replacing it with a positive outlook that we are indeed potentially capable musicians. Let us also combine that mental framework with the willingness to do some work toward our goals.

Properly Balanced Perspective: Second, let’s narrow down our goals to something realistic. Let us not go to either extreme. One extreme might be what I call the “moon child”. In other words, shooting for the moon. Example, “I’m 38 years old, know three chords, work sixty hours a week, have a wife and three kids, and I want to play like Eddie Van Halen within 18 months of dusting off my old high school guitar”. Here is another example that I see routinely in my pre-enrollment interviews, “I want to be able to play expertly in any style from classical to progressive rock and everything in between” (have you ever taken note that well known accomplished guitarists only play in one very narrow range of style?) The other extreme might be, “Since I can’t play like Joe Satriani my playing is worthless”. Really? Try telling that to B.B. King – one of the most acclaimed guitarists who has ever lived, who made a long, lucrative career and legacy out of simple repetitive blues licks.

So let’s face some facts – some goals are completely off the chart unrealistic, and some goals are simply not appropriate for some persons. On the other hand some folks go to the other extreme and assume that ANY goal is beyond their reach. Here is the balance of truth in the middle of the extremes – there is plenty of fun to be had with guitar at skill levels within the reach of the average person. If you set a goal that is out of proportion to the amount of time you can and will invest into guitar, that is a set up from day one for overwhelm. If you give in to overwhelm at the slightest appearance of difficulty, you are robbing yourself and others of the great satisfaction to yourself and others that comes from you expressing yourself well with an instrument. Let’s avoid both extremes. Balance is the key.

Effective Goals: So what is a realistic goal? That is of course going to vary greatly from person to person according to any number of factors. We can look here at some of the common factors. It is very important to pick a range of style to focus on. For instance, classical guitar is a very different approach to guitar than rock. It is unlikely that anyone, and particularly a hobbyist, is going to achieve great things in both of these styles. Even professional musicians tend to focus on one style. So pick the one you like most – the one that has the most songs that you enjoy hearing. In doing so you have eliminated a great deal of material that you need to bother with learning.

Now let’s narrow it down some more. For instance, within the Blues style, we have a number of even more specific styles …. Delta Blues (acoustic slide), Chicago Blues (low gain electric guitar), Texas Blues (medium gain electric guitar with a rock flavor). If you want to play Texas Blues, you do not need to master alternate tunings for acoustic slide guitar. So you see, when you narrow down your goal, you eliminate a LOT of material that you would be wasting time to pursue. This does not mean you are permanently eliminating the possibility of playing songs from any other style. Contrarily, learning to play well in one style will undoubtedly leave you potentially much more capable to approach other styles with better results, especially closely related styles such as Blues and Rock.

Ok, so we have narrowed things down to where we can see some outer limits to what we have to accomplish to reach our goal. There is still a lot left to do. So how do we look at all this and avoid a sense of doom? Very simple. There is an old adage I am fond of repeating to my clients: How do you eat an Elephant? One bite at a time. Rather than look at a whole body of knowledge and tasks with awe and overwhelm, we break the project into parts that we can manage and set up a plan to start building up fluency in each of a number of targeted areas.

If you have been at this for a while you have probably accumulated a lot of material and it becomes practically impossible to study all of it routinely. So what do you do? You have to look at your short term goals and see what material will help you reach those goals. If you have material that is not pertinent to your short term goals, set it aside for now and focus on things that are directly relevant to the closest goals. For instance, if your near term goal is ability to play pop rock solos, you do not need to practice exotic scales and diminished arpeggios. Focus on pentatonic scales, embellishments, and phrasing. The more advanced materials can wait until you have mastered the basic stuff to an extent that you can yield more practice time to exploring new ideas.

Essentially the problem of overwhelm yields to these things: positive attitude combined with positive action, goal-oriented organization, and targeted elimination of non-essentials. Push aside incapacitating thoughts. Replace them with enthusiastic action. Organize your practice time and materials around your near term goals. Eliminate (for now) those things that do not contribute to these goals.

Finally, as with all things guitar, practice well and often!