The Practice Guilt

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Last November I finally achieved a dream of mine by buying a really nice acoustic guitar. While providing me with a musical outlet that was a break from the electronic-inspired songs I work with all day, it also was a chance for me to finally spend some quality time improving my guitar chops. Something I hadn’t done much since I first started playing over 20 years ago.

So I made a pact with myself that I would at least pick up the guitar and play SOMETHING every single day. Even if it was only 5 minutes of exercises to keep my fingers in shape, such as the excellent “Finger Gym” by Justin Sandercoe.  Probably one of the simplest and best practice routines for finger independence and strength that I’ve found yet.

For months I was successful at my goal, every single day I played my guitar, sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes. As you would expect, it didn’t take long for me to see some pretty dramatic improvements (even considering I was also finger-picking for the first time). If nothing else I FELT like I was playing better than ever before, and when you’ve been playing as long as I have, that’s a great feeling.

Then something unexpected happened that threw a wrench in my works, I went on vacation.

Specifically to Europe for two weeks, which meant I would have no access to a guitar the whole time (and I did attempt to find local shops on our travels). I was in a panic, not only was I about to break my vow of daily practice, but I felt like it was going to be a step backward in my progress too. But, at the same time I knew I had to be practical and that life was bound to throw me obstacles that would make daily practice impossible eventually.

When I returned from that vacation, one of the first things I did was pick up the guitar, fearfully expecting it to feel a bit clumsy again. I was more than a little shocked to discover that my playing actually felt better than before I left by a little bit. My fingers hadn’t forgotten everything, and they weren’t weak little sausages that couldn’t play for more than a couple minutes without getting tired.

I was happy, but convinced it was a weird fluke. However, as I’ve had the chance to take a few more days off for other various trips this fall, I keep experiencing the same thing. After a couple of days break from the guitar, I wasn’t struggling to return to the level I was at before. If anything, my fingers felt more confident, and my muscles felt stronger for the break too. A couple minutes of warmup and I was feeling better than ever.

This got me thinking about how I’ve noticed a similar thing when I come out of long bouts of writer’s block. I might go months without any solid ideas, feeling like my skills are slipping and things are going to be harder once the muse revisits my studio. But in each case, I’ve come out of these long periods of rest with my music being stronger than ever (I think anyway).

As I’ve looked into this some more, it seems this is a common phenomenon among musicians. Players say that after having troubles learning a difficult passage in songs, sometimes taking a break for a day and then trying again means they nail it first time. Or producers who struggle all day to achieve a balance in their mixdown come back to it after a good night’s sleep and suddenly the issues are obvious.

I think our brains need time to adapt and learn, and sometimes trying to force yourself to achieve a goal backfires, and we just end up making the same mistakes over and over. By taking a break, and especially sleeping for one night, we allow our brains a chance to process the new information we’re trying to learn at it’s own pace. The neural connections we need can form properly, and often we can suddenly achieve what we wanted the next time we try.

I don’t dread long times away from my studio like I used to anymore. I accept it’s a natural part of any learning curve, not just for something specific like the guitar. Sometimes trying to push through a problem doesn’t actually solve the problem, and you either never conquer it, or it takes way longer than it should.

It seems counterintuitive, but I guess sometimes you need to take a break from something to get better at it!

  1. InnerPortal10-10-2014

    Here’s a great article my friend Stas just passed on to me that explains a similar situation:

    http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/why-the-progress-in-the-practice-room-seems-to-disappear-overnight/

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