By PMI Guitar Instructor Chad Crawford
Learning to play an instrument well is a challenging endeavor, but it is within your grasp. As with any significant endeavor, there are numerous side roads that can waste your time or bring you to a dead end. Some of these are technical issues pertaining to musical knowledge and physical technique. These are usually readily apparent … such things as not knowing chords and scales or not being able to get your fingers to execute the required movements. These types of issues are straightforward to address with information and exercises. It is the more subtle human nature responses to the process of learning that are the most dangerous to your aspirations as a musician. Here I will address one of the most common enemies of musical aspirations … the “killer expectations” trap.
I call them killer expectations because they tend to kill motivation by bringing undue frustration and other emotional ills into the process of learning guitar. It is important to have goals and to strive for progress. However, for an aspiring musician with no prior musical experience it is very easy to fall prey to an inaccurate sense of how fast one should make progress or fulfill short term goals. The potential problem with establishing expectations is that the guitarist who spends most learning and practicing time working alone, or only with a teacher, has no real sense of how long it takes to master various elements of musicianship. I have observed a common tendency in guitar students to set expectations that are unrealistically high, and then evaluate their current performance as “lagging behind” compared to these expectations. So let’s see if we can establish some informed guidelines that will help in establishing realistic expectations.
First, let us consider the popular notion of “positive thinking”. I have experienced the same kinds of ruts and roadblocks that all developing guitarists grapple with. The critical difference between myself and many of my peers who also dabbled with guitar over the years is that I made up my mind I was going to do this, and then I went and did the work and never stopped doing the work. There is a variant of positive thinking ideology floating around that deems thinking positively as the end rather than the means. Choosing a positive attitude is a vital part of the process of achievement, but it is only a part and by itself has no power at all to deliver results. You have to do the work! When you begin to do the work you are going to experience the same temporary barriers as have I and anyone who has ever set out to accomplish something significant. That is where positive thinking will pull you out of the ditch. You must choose to have faith in the fact that you are going to succeed! This is not blind faith … it is an informed faith based on the fact that every musician who has ever trod this path has experienced the same challenges. Those who persisted succeeded, and thus they have already proved countless times that your success is inevitable if you persist in doing the work. That is a realistic expectation!
Goals are imperative in any endeavor, and music is no exception. If you are a hobbyist guitarist, consider that your goals should not be the same as one who is aspiring to a career as a professional musician, and in particular it is probably not realistic for a beginning hobbyist to set a short term goal of playing guitar as fluently as Joe Satriani or Brad Paisley, for examples. This does not mean that you might not aspire to learning a few of their songs in due time, but it is not prudent to set goals at the outset that require five hours of practice seven days a week for ten years. Rather, your initial goals should be along the lines of mastering the basics of rhythm and lead guitar pertaining to the style you wish to play. This is well within the reach of a hobbyist, given sufficient time and good guidance from an effective teacher.
Now let’s consider the big question that seems to bring the most unease to students of guitar: “How long is this supposed to take?” Maybe a more specifically relevant question is, “Is my progress rate normal?” Do you see the potential problem with that second question? The problem is that without a great deal of experience observing the progress rates of beginning musicians, you may have, lingering below your conscious thought level, an incorrect notion of what a “normal” progress rate is. If that notion is impossibly unrealistic, and you continually measure your progress against that impossible standard, then you will always measure up as “behind” regardless of how well you are actually doing. Consequently, you will always feel some sense of pressure and angst in your endeavors to improve, and you will not be able to find any satisfaction in the small victories that are in fact marking your steady progress. This will steal your enjoyment of learning guitar, and it often ends in a guitar gathering dust in a corner. Don’t let this happen to your guitar!
Here are some solutions to killer expectations…
1 – Consider whether or not you have any expectations of your progress rate. If you find that you do, then consider the basis for your expectations. If your basis is that you are an experienced guitar teacher and thus have observed over and over how long it takes the average guitar student to meet specific goals, then you may be confident that your judgments regarding your own progress rate are on target. If you have any other basis than experience or the counsel of someone who is thusly experienced, then your expectations may be unrealistic and not helping you in any way. If so, then you will serve yourself well in discarding them.
2 – Recognize that comparing your progress to others or to any arbitrary standard does not help you in any way. Progress rates vary widely due to a variety of factors such as previous musical experience, ability to commit time to practice, frequency and duration of lessons, complexity of the style you are seeking skills in, and so forth. Even if you had a friend with the exact same circumstances as you who seemed to be making faster progress, it would do you no good whatsoever to reflect on this. The only measure that will help is this: assuming you are following the directions in a good program of instruction and that you are practicing regularly, do you know more and have better technique than a month ago, six months ago, a year ago, etc.? If so, then you are on the right track.
3 – Be fair to yourself in measuring your progress. If you have been working on a new exercise for a week or two and you play 9 out of 10 notes correctly, your grade at that point in time for that exercise is 90, rather than the big fat ZERO that most give themselves when they make a mistake. Learning guitar is a process of accumulating 90’s over time. Never stop shooting for 100, but don’t give yourself an F when you have earned an A. Take note, all students of music have inherent strengths and weaknesses in various aspects of musicianship. Do not allow yourself to evaluate your overall progress as musician solely on the one or two areas where you struggle the most.
4 – Give yourself time. There is no way around this, so when you see an ad on the Internet offering overnight skills you can know that you are gazing down a dead end road. Learning music is like gardening in that you plant seeds of knowledge and technique, water them with practice, and then cultivate them to maturity through repetition. Some methods are faster than others, but it is going to take some time no matter which path you take.
5 – Finally, slow down! One thing I see that comes up over and over is that students attempt to play exercises at speeds that are beyond their current skills. This does not help your progress and in fact is a detriment to it. Practicing slop ends in playing slop! Most of the time you should practice things at speeds that allow you to execute them with accuracy and good timing, and then gradually speed up over time. Constantly attempting to play things at speeds that are beyond your current skill level will always leave you feeling frustrated. It is a trap. Avoid it. There is a time to work on speed, and that time is AFTER you have developed the ability to execute things well.
For my clients …
If you are not making progress I will let you know. It is not because I want to beat anyone up over their progress. It is because I have an ethical obligation to inform you if you are squandering your time and money with guitar lessons. When this has come up over the years it is always due to one or more of these three things: persistently missing lessons, not following the instructions, or not practicing regularly. If these do not apply to you, and I have not otherwise advised you that I have concerns with your progress rate, then you may assume that your progress rate is as it should be.
If you have, or find in the future that you have, concerns with your progress rate then bring it to my attention. We will then determine together whether it is a problem with unrealistic expectations, or rather a real problem in your knowledge base, technique, or practice routine. In the latter cases, I will offer appropriate guidance toward a solution. Your ongoing feedback is a critical part of the process, so don’t feel like I am going to be offended if you express concerns over your progress rate.
Follow the steps outlined above to rid yourself of the undue frustration that follows killer expectations, so that you can enjoy the process of learning guitar!
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