By Margaret Jones
I have a confession: When I finished my bachelor's degree in music performance, I put my guitar away and didn't touch it for a year. The intense, competitive work of music school had led to burnout, both mentally and physically. Picking the guitar up again after some time away was a great opportunity to try a different, more holistic approach to playing, which helped with staying motivated, even when I was struggling with difficult passages or entering a dry spell with collaborators. Here are some tips I learned along the way, with the hope it will help you, too.
1. Find What Drives You
First, figure out what motivates you to learn an instrument. Some people want to be as technically proficient as possible, others want to be prolific songwriters, and still others just want a means to connect with friends and family. For me, I realized that instead of being as virtuosic as possible, I preferred to play with pedals, write songs, and play in a band. It's true that if you’re considering a career in music, there are benchmarks that everyone needs to reach -- but knowing what you love to do helps you have clarity about how you want to spend the bulk of your time, as well as what's non-negotiable when you do need to make tough choices.
Sometimes, if you narrow your focus to specific parts of a tough song, you wind up with a deeper understanding that inspires your own creations.
2. Practice Smart, Not Hard
Banish the word “can’t” from your vocabulary when it comes to learning, but don’t push yourself to the breaking point. Instead, take the time to slow down and think through what the problem is if you run into an obstacle. Long hours in the practice room don’t turn into new skills unless you’re thoughtful about what you’re practicing. If you’re struggling with a piece you’re learning, it’s worth the time to slow it down and figure out what the stumbling blocks really are for you, and to take the time to work through them. An hour of slow, methodical work (say, using Riff Repeater in Rocksmith+) is worth as much, if not more, than days of pushing through something difficult. What’s more, spending that time up close with a riff or solo can help you to see its inner workings, which in turn can deepen your appreciation for the part and inspire you for parts of your own.
Focus on one step. Then one more. Then one more. That's progress.
3. Look At Distance You Traveled Today, Not The Distance From The Goal
Practicing is a habit in addition to being a means to an end. Just like working out to stay healthy, practicing is part of a lifestyle, rather than a short-term project. You’ll have greater success if you work on enjoying being in the moment with something difficult instead of just looking forward to the results. Congratulate yourself on the incremental progress you make instead of focusing on the mistakes. You do want to continue working on those mistakes so they don’t become habit, but you will correct them eventually with focus -- so don’t let them overshadow your successes and discourage you from practicing. It’s like climbing a mountain: Some parts of the trail will be steeper than others, but every time you make it past a tough part of the trail, you're rewarded with a better view. Make the time to enjoy those moments.
You'll never know it all. Use what you've learned and apply it – that will help you learn more.
4. Never Stop Learning And Trying New Things
Finally, adopt a mindset where you’re always looking for ways to grow and learn, and always be generous with your knowledge. It's great to be an expert, but there’s no secret club you get into for being one, and worse, it can be toxic to hold yourself back until you’re “ready,” keeping you from opportunities that would expand your horizons. This mindset can help to keep you hungry for more inspiration and keep you from falling into a rut. It’s also a great way to reduce stage fright and impostor syndrome; if mistakes are not a catastrophe for you, you’ll be more likely to take risks with big payoffs. To get started, try playing through something completely new to you. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the artist or the genre, you’ll learn something about the music and yourself. Or, try going to an open mic for the first time and playing something in front of an audience. Getting out into your musical community encourages a kind of intellectual generosity that attracts other great musicians to you. There’s always something more to learn and grow from.
Motivation can be sparked in simple forms -- like practicing at the park on a nice day.
There’s no one recipe for success when it comes to learning an instrument. But there are things that can keep you moving forward even when the going gets tough. More than anything, finding ways to keep joy in what you’re working on can motivate you to keep working at the challenges learning something new can pose, and can set you up for a lifetime of learning and growth. And remember, what motivates you might change over time; don’t be afraid to change course and try something different if things start feeling stale. Happy practicing!
Margaret Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and music teacher living in Oakland, CA. She plays guitar in several local bands including her own songwriting project M Jones and the Melee. She also holds a Ph.D. in Music History from UC Berkeley and has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
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