by Tom Hess
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Mindless exercises... to practice or not to practice? That is not the question. Below is an email exchange between a young guitar player and myself:
“Tom…I have been practicing boring mindless exercises for almost a year now, yet it does nothing for me. I can do little with what I’ve practiced. The same thing over and over again, my skills are not strong enough to rely on them when it really matters. I mean, I can’t justify my spent time, energy and sanity if I’m only to spin my wheels – I am not getting anywhere. I hoped to experience something more from my labor. My fingers bleed but the playing does not flow. Out of boredom and desire, my fingers practice relentlessly as I only think about how desperately I wish to become a great guitar player. Please allow me to ask you something - Did you have to practice such mindless exercises to reach the level of musicianship you have achieved? And if your answer is yes, did you also experience something similar as I?...”
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The following is an edited excerpt of my reply to him:
“Mike, ….Concerning both your mindset and the term “mindless exercises”, there is no such thing as a mindless guitar exercise, only mindless mindsets exist. Even if you are concentrating on making a single movement or playing a single note, there is nothing “mindless” about that unless you choose to allow it to be mindless. Exercises of any kind should never be mindless, if they are, it only means that you are not mentally focused on while practicing. Often times we can become bored while repeating tedious tasks. It can be quite difficult to sustain concentration on that which is simple. Think about exactly what you are trying to achieve while practicing anything. Is it your intention to merely exercise the physical muscles in your hands? If that's all we care about while practicing, the result will not be very good. What we need to do is train our hands to perform whatever tasks we command them to do. The important part of that phrase is: “whatever tasks we COMMAND them to do”. Your mind and your hands must work together. Exercises are never for the hands alone.
You wrote to me that your skills are not strong enough to rely upon. The key word here is “rely”. After all the time you have invested, your hands are probably in pretty good shape. Your skills are not reliable because you have not practiced the most important part, the synchronization between mind and body. Reliable consistency in your ability to play well depends heavily upon this synchronization. Your brain and fingers won’t learn to work together by accident, you must train them. This only happens under the right conditions of sustained concentration while practicing guitar. It is simply not enough to allow your fingers to go through the motions on autopilot. Let me give you a quick analogy. If you only practiced with your left hand (and neglected to develop your right hand), what would happen? You would be out of balance. Your left hand’s skills would be held hostage by the weaknesses of the right hand. What must you do to solve this problem? Develop the right-hand skills AND develop the synchronization between both hands. Skills in isolation are virtually useless in most playing situations. Only when skills are synchronized do they become both effective and reliable.
I believe this issue is the primary reason why you feel you have been simply “spinning your wheels” despite your hard (physical) work.
My advice to you Mike, is to continue practicing what you have been doing, but do so with consistent mental concentration, even while practicing the most simple of things. This is very simple advice, but I think it is the key to this common problem. As with so many other things, simple advice is not always easily implemented. You may find it challenging to remain highly focused for extended periods of time (this is normal for most people), but over time, it will become easier with some self awareness, self discipline and a continuous faith in yourself.
Remember, nothing is mindless….there exist only choices of possible mindsets.