FOR MY STUDENTS: “Help, I think I’m getting worse!”

A student recently wrote to me ‘Help! I think I am worse this week than I was the week before! What’s wrong with me??’

The short answer to this one is, absolutely nothing! Some days the guitar just feels better than others. I’ll explain.

Every guitarist’s hands are like little athletes. And, like athletes, they are subject to the care they are given and the conditions that surround them.

It is possible to practice too much and feel the effects of fatigue: if I am remiss in my own practicing and play a strenuous gig, I will notice that some things that are usually within my grasp are suddenly out of reach; conversely, if I play TOO much without taking a day off, I often notice that my endurance and my chops will experience the same effects as they do if I don’t practice enough. Muscles need conditioning. They need to be stretched and flexed. But they also need rest. Your hands, which are made up of a surprising number of tiny muscles, are no different.

It’s also possible that you are trying to accomplish too much at once. If you are in the habit of learning one thing at a time, and suddenly attempt to learn three things at once, it’s mildly unrealistic to expect all of these things to improve at the same rate that a single thing might. Like our hands, our brain and nervous system, where our mind-body connection is stored, are capable of amazing things. However, they are essentially complex but finite machines, and it is important to remember that they have a limited capacity to process information. A teacher of mine once said ‘you can’t cram for music!’ In my lifetime as a player, I have to admit this is absolutely true. I have gotten better at all of my gig and personal practice just by showing up, every day, and doing my best. Often I will look back at something that seemed difficult to me six months ago and notice that it is no longer as challenging as it once was. But, I will look at something I was working on last week and it will seem just as hard to me as it did the last time I picked it up, or possibly even MORE difficult because it has lost the excitement of being new.

THIS is the moment where the test of true musicianship comes in. Are you willing to sit down and dig into something over and over again, even if you don’t see immediate results? Do you have the faith and determination to believe that just sitting down every day and taking joy in both the difficulties AND the successes of practicing will pay off in the long term? Do you have enough love of the instrument to forget about the ‘long term’ and just enjoy getting with wherever you’re at, right now, with your playing?

It’s also entirely possible that you’re simply having an off day. We all have them. I’ve been playing for almost 24 years and I still have them often. It makes me really appreciate the good ones! The trick with practicing is, I think, to continually raise the bar so that the fallout from an off day is not so bad. Eventually you will find you’ve improved to the point where your ‘bad days’ are still better than your best days were when you started! Sometimes these improvements are hard to see because you are so close to your daily practice. This is one of the reasons you have a teacher 🙂

If you are diligent in your practice and, more importantly, if you love to play, I think the most important thing to remember is that progress is a BYPRODUCT of practicing. Not a RESULT. In music, there are no results. There are just points along the way in which you might be able to look back, smile a bit, and appreciate how far you’ve come.