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Are you happy and fulfilled with your level of musical skills? Can you honestly say that you have reached all of your musical goals? Has your playing consistently gotten better during the time you have been playing?
I don’t know about you, but when I was first learning to play, I couldn’t honestly answer “Yes” to any of these questions. So if you answered the same, then you and I probably have a lot in common. I used to wonder if I would ever attain the playing level of my favorite guitarists and reach my musical goals. If you are still reading this, then you probably are wondering (or have thought about) the same things. Looking back now, I understand why I was feeling this way. I also understand that if I had stayed in that mental state, I would never have gotten out of the rut I was in and progressed as a player.
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The first thing that you need to do in order to overcome guitar playing frustration, is to become crystal clear about what the real problems are (rather than simply observing the surface level “symptoms” of problems). Let me further illustrate the importance of this to you with a short story about one of my students.
From Frustration to Greatness!
One of my most advanced students, Mike Philippov, started lessons with me as an early intermediate player. He was not satisfied with the rate of his progress in reaching his musical goals. Like most students, he told me about his frustrations by describing things that he thought “were” problems, but in reality were simply surface level symptoms of deeper causes. One of the first things I did was help Mike to understand and see the difference between the symptoms and the core causes of his problems. Now for the first time, he began to understand the issues that needed to be improved before he could begin to advance at a much faster pace. With this insight, I created specific strategies which enabled us to make his approach to practicing and reaching his goals highly effective. That was a key factor to all of Mike’s successes and the end of his struggle and frustration.
Through our lessons that followed, and of course through Mike’s practicing, drive and dedication, he has since become a great virtuoso guitarist and professional musician. You can listen to his playing here.
What About You?
How much do you know about the core causes of your frustration and struggles? How deep is your perspective?
Let’s look at an example: If one of your challenges is to play cleaner, you might say something like, “My playing is sometimes sloppy.” (if so, then you are stating your “symptom”, not your problem). In order to discover the “problem” you might analyze the movements of each hand and notice that your picking motions are inefficient. This would be part of your problem. In fact, there are probably many other problems which are all contributing to your sloppy guitar playing. Each of these ‘problems’ has one or more “core causes”. It could look something like this:
Identifying, understanding and overcoming each of the core causes is the only way to efficiently, effectively and permanently solve your unique problems.
If you're not sure about what specific issues are causing your frustration, take this two-minute survey.
10 Tips to Get Relief for Your Musical Frustration
Tip #1. Give Yourself Credit – Before looking to improve something, look at the progress that has already been made. Appreciate and be thankful for that. Remember when you were a beginner and you couldn’t play at all? You would have been happy to have the skills you have now. Appreciate this, and feel good about what you have achieved up to this point. Many people beat themselves up over their own playing when they are really pretty good already. This does not mean that you should become complacent or lose motivation to improve, it only means to be happy with yourself and your playing as you continue to improve and move forward as a guitar player and musician.
Tip #2. Become Aware of That Which Empowers and Inspires You – There may be certain things, moments, scenarios, events, places or people that make you feel good about yourself as a musician. These things are different for each musician. Perhaps you become very inspired by going to see a concert. Or maybe you get very motivated by watching or jamming with musicians who are currently better than you. Or, maybe you become inspired by revisiting some of your old recordings that you have made 3 6 or 12 months ago and seeing how much you have improved. Being able to realize (and have tangible proof of) how much you have grown as a musician is a powerful inspirational force for some people. Whatever these things are, anything that gets you away from concentrating on the temporary frustrations and setbacks and focuses you on your motivation and inspiration is what you should surround yourself with.
Tip #3. Are You a Guitar Player, a Musician, or an Artist? – The way you see yourself and the way you see who you want to become will create fundamental shifts in your thinking and in the ways you feel about your progress. For example, if you see yourself mainly as a guitar player, you may approach your practicing with a certain mindset. Most of your efforts would focus on improving your guitar playing skills. On the other hand, as a musician, your focus will span a wider range of activities in addition to your guitar playing, such as developing your musical skills (aural skills, understanding of how music works, songwriting methods etc.). Finally, as an artist, self expression becomes the most important goal and everything that you know about music and guitar become mere tools to express the art that is inside you (and self expression becomes the pinnacle of what you do). Now, I am not saying that any one of these 3 things is better than the other 2, but you need to become aware of where you fall on this continuum and whether or not you want to make a shift more toward a different direction (and if not, then in what ways can you further improve your current position?). Making the shift from a being a guitar player to becoming a musician or an artist will definitely change ways in which you think and feel about your progress and practicing in general.
Tip #4. Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact – Sometimes small changes in your practicing habits can make a big difference in your results. For example, reorganize your guitar practice routine so that items that require the most of your concentration are practiced first when your mind is fresh. If you are strapped for time (or if you are having trouble maintaining intense concentration over longer practice sessions), divide your practice time into manageable blocks to improve your effectiveness. These little practice sessions will add up. Also, analyze your practice environment. If you are currently practicing with a lot of distractions (your TV is on, or you answer the phone every time it rings or lots of people are coming and going around you etc..) then you need to eliminate them before you can start to see maximum returns on your investment of practice time. Also, you should record your progress in areas that can be measured (such as the speed at which you can play certain exercises and passages). There are many ways to do this, but regardless of what system you use to record your progress, I highly encourage you to DO it! Little ideas like this, when combined together, can make a substantial difference in your progress.
Tip #5. Big Changes Make a Bigger Impact – Although the small ideas discussed above are certainly good, if you take bigger steps and make bigger changes in your approach to learning guitar and music, you can expect much bigger rewards. For example, if you are frustrated with your inability to progress beyond a certain point AND if you are self taught and have never taken lessons before, then perhaps you should look into getting a teacher (or a different teacher if you are not seeing enough progress with your current one). As we have already discussed, the first step to changing your playing for the better is to recognize that SOMETHING must change. If what you are doing now is not bringing you the result you want, you must change your approach until the results become favorable.
Tip #6. Let Time Be On Your Side – Many guitarists feel frustrated when big progress does not seem to come in a short period of time. As a result, time is perceived as an enemy. However, if you are making at least some progress over time and you are patient enough and let accumulated time work for you, then time in fact becomes your biggest advantage. Learning an instrument is much like investing money with a fixed rate of compound interest. In the beginning, the investment seems to grow so slowly that it seems like you are watching grass grow, but over the years, the growth will explode because of the exponential power of compound interest. If you know that time is on your side, you will be sure to feel much better about your musical future.
Tip #7. Do You Want to Entertain, Impress, or Express? – We all have our own reasons about why we play and create music. No matter what your goals may be, ultimately you will either be involved in entertaining people, impressing people, or expressing something to people (or some combination of these things). The good news is that regardless of where your skills are now, you can probably already entertain some people. You can probably already impress some people. And, you also can probably already express some of your thoughts and feelings. Maybe you can not yet do these things as well as you would like, but even an inexperienced guitar player can do these things on some level. Think about this the next time you feel frustrated with yourself… you may already add more value to yourself and others than you realize.
Tip #8. Compare and Copy the Feeling, Not the Music – Very often, guitarists strive to imitate their favorite players and become frustrated when they are unsuccessful in doing so. A very effective way to solve this problem is to focus on imitating the FEELING that you get from a certain player’s music, rather than buying the same gear as them or striving to imitate all the nuances of their playing. Instead, if you concentrate on reproducing the same feeling and evoking the same emotions that you get from the music of others in YOUR own way, you will end up much more fulfilled. Not only will you achieve the level of musical satisfaction you are after, but you will also very often develop your own original guitar playing style in the process.
Tip #9. Turn the Tables - Frustration can help you or hurt you depending on how you deal with it. I’ve told the story in one of my previous articles about how as a teenager, my guitar playing friends and I went to see Yngwie Malmsteen perform in Chicago. After the concert, some of my friends felt depressed after hearing Yngwie. Many didn’t want to play guitar for several days and one actually quit playing completely. My reaction to the concert was quite different. Although I felt just as frustrated as my friends, I used my frustration as a massive positive inspiring force. In the weeks that followed, I practiced much more than I ever had before. The point here is not to seek to avoid frustration, but to use it to your advantage. Always try to turn your own musical frustrations into the biggest source of motivation you have.
Tip #10. You Are Not Alone! - Masters of all types of art have gone through what you are going through. There was a time when Beethoven, Bach, Yngwie, Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimmy Page, Zack Wylde (and many others) all felt just as frustrated as you. Today you are at whatever skill level you achieved up to this point. Through your frustration and motivation, you will drive yourself to eventually reach your current musical goals. As you reach those goals, you will probably still feel frustrated because your desire to improve even further will make you establish new goals for yourself. And so the cycle will go on and on. But you too are progressing and improving more and more.
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