Practicing Guitar: Self Discipline or Fun?

By Tom Hess

Do you find it difficult to fully enjoy the process of highly disciplined guitar practice? Most guitarists either have lots of fun practicing, but are not highly disciplined, or try to be very disciplined, but find it boring or unfulfilling when they do so. So most people make a (conscious or unconscious) choice to sacrifice ‘fun’ for discipline, or discipline for fun. Making sacrifices with your guitar practice is not only unnecessary, but can be counterproductive to becoming a great guitar player.

Let me show you why…

There was a time many years ago when I was not enjoying practicing. My learning sessions were not fun and I began to think of them as an unpleasant chore. I tried to make practicing more enjoyable, but my efforts slowed down my progress more than they helped. I responded to this by becoming more self disciplined and practicing very hard every day hoping that bigger progress would come. Unfortunately that didn’t make me much better at playing, and only made the learning process feel even less fun. I talked about this to the teacher who I was studying with at that time, and he made me realize that practicing shouldn't be seen only from one perspective, such as all fun or all discipline. The key to success is the right balance of both elements in practicing. Once I understood this, he and I could start working on creating the appropriate guitar practice schedule and improving my mental approach to practicing to finally get me on the right track to becoming the musician that I am today. In other words, I learned that there is a way to do serious practicing that produces real results while enjoying that process at the same time. This success comes partly from the practice routine itself and partly from your mindset and attitude during the process.

You will get more from the rest of this article, if you have a better understanding of how effective you are now at making serious practicing “fun” without reducing the results. To test yourself, take this short survey

Let’s now take a closer look at each of the two components that you must balance in order to enjoy the process of practicing and see consistent progress. I will also share with you the common mistakes people make that lead to an imbalance of these two elements.

Serious/Purpose Driven Practicing (Self Discipline)

Many people assume that sheer self discipline and persistence will make them as good as they want to be. Unfortunately, most guitarists do not understand how to discover and sustain "the right kind" of discipline.
In order to sustain your motivation for guitar practice in the long term, your work must be "fulfilling". If you don't know the reason why doing something is in your very best interest, you will not be fulfilled, and will be unlikely to continue for long. On the other hand, if you do feel the reasons very strongly, you will be able to pull out the needed intensity and discipline from within yourself without trying very hard. Start looking at practicing as something you do in order to achieve a benefit (become a better player). This will automatically create a meaningful reason (beyond simply having fun) to be involved in the activity and not treat it as a chore that you dread doing every day. This may seem obvious and insignificant, but even a small change in thinking will bring about big changes in results!

Some people stereotype this kind of practice as boring or “requiring too much work”. However, it is not the practice approach that is “boring”, it is often your mental state during practice that makes the process seem tedious. Of course, sometimes the opposite problem can occur and your practice approach may cause you to mindlessly go through the motions of practice. It is very difficult to get yourself to enjoy such activity. In this case, your learning strategy would need to become more effective. For more information about this, read this article.

One of the biggest mistakes regarding focused practicing that I see regularly is excluding variety and fun from the learning process. This happens frequently, especially when you are not under the guidance of a teacher who fundamentally understands this issue. You may think you are doing all the things necessary for fast progress, but your practice approach could still be susceptible to improvement. One such change may be including more variety into your practice. This will help avoid mental burn out and guitar playing frustration.

Incorporating variety into your practice does not mean a lack of focus, or doing things that are inconsistent with your goals. It simply means that you have multiple approaches for learning, applying and integrating musical skills. I call this "intelligent" variety. This is much different from "random" variety that involves mindless jumping from one item to another in your practice, with no sense of direction.

Another issue that makes it difficult to see discipline as "fulfilling" is that results usually do not occur immediately and the small gains made along the way might seem insignificant. This delayed gratification will make it hard for you to practice well on a consistent basis unless you learn to enjoy the process. (more about this later).

Improper application of the idea of variety can also lead you to working on weaknesses that don’t really matter. For example, let's assume that your goal is to become a highly advanced metal player. Since this style doesn’t require you to fuse elements of other musical genres, it wouldn't be worth your time to work on finger picking or Segovia fingerings for scales (for example). This is because these skills are not necessary for you to reach your goal. So don't waste time on them! It will take you so much longer to reach your goal if you keep getting distracted by working on unnecessary playing elements.

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Enjoying The Process (Having Fun While Practicing)

Many guitarists think (on some level) that one cannot have fun practicing guitar and get results at the same time. This thinking arises from an idea that "having fun" means random, disorganized practicing with no clear direction and no goals. While it is true that such an approach will not produce significant results, it is still very possible to have fun while working on your playing. Having fun means being able to enjoy the process of practicing. There are many things that go into this, and here is a short list:

  • Experiencing consistent, measurable results throughout the learning process
  • Having confidence that you will reach all of your goals with time.
  • Avoiding boredom by knowing when to make adjustments in your practice schedule.
  • Fueling your desire to reach your goals by surrounding yourself by what inspires you!
  • Practicing application and integration of new skills (together with the old skills). The ways in which we practice mastery, application and integration are totally different and naturally provide a source of ‘intelligent variety’ into your practice routine.

If I told you that you would get to experience all of the above (and much more) by creating an intelligent, relevant and flexible practicing program, wouldn't you suddenly feel motivated to practice longer and harder in order to see these results? If you answered yes, then you must understand everything I wrote above about how discipline naturally develops from fulfillment!

Summary: 7 Steps to Effective Balancing of Discipline and Fun

  1. Make your practice fulfilling! Without the feeling of accomplishment, your motivation and desire will fade. If you are having trouble achieving fulfillment, try the following:

    • Soak yourself in musical inspiration - Think back to what made you want to play guitar. Relive the excitement you felt when you got your first instrument. Finally, look ahead to the day when you will have the skills you desire! Focus your mind on the satisfaction of reaching your goals instead of obstacles!
    • Become self-reliant - even if you are working with the very best teacher, you are still practicing on your own most of the time. You must make sure that whatever instructions your teacher gives you (or that you assign yourself) get carried out correctly and consistently!
    • Never give up! Remember YOU CAN learn to play guitar as well as you want to, if you have all of your fingers, a strong desire to improve and follow an effective approach to practicing! Never give up!
  2. Have specific musical goals. You have to be absolutely clear about what level of playing you want to achieve and what you plan to do with these skills once you have them! This is not only critical for guitar playing, but also for everything in life. You need to identify where you want to arrive before you can get there. This means keeping the goal in the FOREFRONT of your mind in order to enable yourself to harness the power of your intentions and desire. Set goals for your practicing, find out how to reach them, and take consistent action to get yourself there.
  3. Incorporate intelligent variety into your practicing. Doing this will help you prevent boredom and burn out. At the same time, by “structuring” your variety in an intelligent way, you will be able to make consistent and measurable progress. Both things can be achieved if your practice schedule is efficient and effective (and proper mindset is applied).
  4. Find an effective way to measure your progress. This is useful for many reasons. First, it is fun to compare your current skill level to your playing from several weeks, months or years ago, and second, it will help to keep you on track toward reaching your musical goals. Few people do this consistently; most wander aimlessly with no clear sense of direction. This leads to inability to make significant progress.
  5. Keep your mind focused on the item you are practicing until you go on to the next thing on your practice schedule. Don’t switch between different things at random. If you understand the reason why practicing a specific item is important for your goals, this becomes easy to do.
  6. Design an effective and flexible practice schedule. You need to organize all the things you want to learn in a system that is effective enough to bring results and also one that can be adjusted to introduce variety. If you cannot do this well on your own, there is help for you here.
  7. Find ways to apply your musical tools. The easiest way to have fun while practicing is through application of skills to real music. This sounds obvious, but far too many students think that practicing should be all about "learning new things". Because of this, they don’t schedule time for application, integration and mastery of what they already know. As a result, many end up with lots of isolated things “they can do”, but no ability to actually use their skills. Learning more things is important but it shouldn't be your top priority all of the time. It is also not much fun to practice things that you can not really integrate with your other musical skills in a real musical context. Great players aren’t great because they ‘know more’, it’s usually because they can integrate and apply more than the common player.

Above all else, remember to keep at it! Use the advice from this article to make your practicing both fun and focused in order to decrease the time needed to reach your goals! If you haven’t yet taken the survey mentioned at the beginning of the article, you can do so here:

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