By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor
The most significant barrier to eventual success with the guitar is not talent, time constraints, or the quality of a given program of instruction. It is rather this: giving up! There are many reasons why folks give up on a particular course of study, but we see that over time there is a short list that covers most aspiring guitarists who drop out. Of all the motivation killers that assail aspiring guitarists, frustration is the most deadly. Many is the unfortunate guitar gathering dust in the corner due to the catastrophic frustration of a promising student. Let’s take a look at how folks reach such a high level of frustration that they give up, and see if we can find solutions to ease the pain down to manageable levels.
It is very important for every aspiring guitarist to recognize that we all grapple with frustration as we strive to improve our skills. This is a normal part of the process.
Defining the Problem
Let us start by considering what frustration is. It is a feeling of discomfort that arises when we feel what we want is being thwarted. With guitar in particular, we can get very frustrated over three things.
- We are trying to improve on a certain skill or set of skills, and we do not feel we are making any progress despite persistent commitment of time and effort.
- We feel that others are making faster progress and begin to question our “talent” for guitar.
- We compare ourselves to those who are more advanced than us and doubt that we could ever play at that level. Let’s discuss these individually and apply a dose of reality to counter the feeling of frustration.
Examining the Details
“I am not making any progress.” As a teacher, I can tell you that this is only true for people who are not studying and practicing. Anyone who is making an effort to improve is improving to some degree. I have students with a wide range of commitment levels, and even the ones who practice very little or none outside of my studio still make some progress over time. For those who genuinely follow my practice recommendations, they improve significantly faster than those who do not. As with anything, you will get out of it what you put into it.
Progress comes in increments, and we often do not see the progress because we wrongly measure our progress by how we feel about our playing. If last week it felt like we were not playing like we wanted to play, and this week it feels the same way, then we conclude we must not be making any progress. However, our feelings during the process of mastering skills are not a good measuring line by which to judge our progress. There are several more realistic ways to measure progress: metronome drills, comparison to what we were able to do six months ago, and frank feedback from a teacher or other ongoing observer. If you are measuring your progress by how frustrated or not frustrated you feel about your playing, you are setting yourself up in a Catch 22 spiral into quitting. So … stop doing that.
It is important to make note here about the phenomenon of “plateaus”. For most of us, including myself, a chart of progress would not show a straight upward sloping line. Rather it would show a squiggly line of ups and downs with a general trend upwards. On that line there will be flat spots … plateaus where it seems we have come to an end of our ability to advance any further. Sometimes these spots can be tenacious, lasting for months. These plateaus can definitely be a motivation killer, especially for intermediate level players who know that they know what to practice and how to practice it. Then we back off our practice routine, which causes our skills to fall off, reinforcing the notion that we have reached the end of our “talent”. Our thinking becomes a proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy, and next thing we know the guitar is in the corner serving as an expensive hangar for clothes that did not make it all the way to the closet. The important thing here is to be aware that these plateaus are coming so that when it hits you know it is just a passing stage. If you persist through this, the progress will show on the other side of the plateau.
“It seems to me that my abilities or progress rates are significantly below that of others.” There are a number of reasons why one may feel this way. It may be true, in which case you may need to make some informed changes to your approach, or increase the amount of time you are investing in practice. It may be that it is untrue in that you are making comparisons that are inaccurate or incomplete. For example, let’s say two students start at the same time, and after some period of time student 1 is more proficient in applying scales to creating soulful solos. Student 2 may look at this and think he is not doing well. However, it may simply be that Student 2 is more interested in playing chord rhythms with even flow and good timing, and so has spent more time on that skill, and is in fact better at it than student 1.
Assuming you are engaged in an effective practice routine, what someone else is doing is completely irrelevant to your goals. I don’t mind telling you that I am not the most naturally talented guitarist in my circle of musician friends, and I have observed many others over many years who make faster progress than I do. I have also observed many of those more “talented” guitarists quit, whereas I did not quit despite periods of frustration. Their seemingly superior natural abilities (which actually probably had more to do with greater practice time) lost way to my persistence. Now I can play rings around many of those folks. Not that I am interested in competing with anyone. The point is, their abilities did not intimidate me into catastrophic frustration, but merely served to demonstrate to me what could be done with the guitar if I was willing to do the work.
“I am not able to play like (insert name of your guitar hero here).” I will share a personal story here that illustrates the point I wish to make. Back in my “bedroom warrior” days, I had a couple of friends who I used to jam with routinely. Back then I knew only a half dozen open chords and some popular power chord riffs. It so happened that one of my friends and I were hanging out on one occasion and he started giving me a hard time about his superior guitar skills. He was just cutting up, but in my youthful pride I did not like it. It was mid summer, and I rashly challenged him to a guitar duel around Christmas. In desperation, I went to a local guitar shop and picked out a book on music theory (just by blind luck, it happened to be a really good one). After digging a bit, I figured out that the Minor Pentatonic scale was the one I needed to play rock solos. So I bared down on that scale for six months. Come Christmas time, my friend was quite surprised when I unleashed a barrage of Minor Pentatonic riffage on him in front of our “judge” (another mutual friend). I won the contest. The moral of the story is, I could have achieved that level of skill years earlier if I had just made the effort. That was an important lesson for me. It changed my whole perspective on guitar, as I had believed I had little “natural talent” and would never play as well as my friends. I realized I had been in possession of the potential all along. I just needed to do the work to make the potential a reality. Now I am able to play advanced instrumental pieces from the guitar heroes of my youth. The frustration that accompanies wrestling with new skills never goes away completely, but it does not have to be an insurmountable barrier to success. Continuing on despite feelings of frustration is simply a part of the work that we must all do to succeed.
Are you struggling with catastrophic frustration? The kind that makes you feel despondent when you think about picking up your guitar? I have also felt that way at times, as do all aspiring musicians. There are solutions that will get you back on a path of progress toward your goals. Find a good teacher with a solid program and students who can actually play. Set up a good practice routine, follow instructions, believe in yourself, and be patient. If you do these things, your success as a guitar player is inevitable. Don’t give up!
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