Balancing technical challenges and musical satisfaction.

April 30, 2018
Balancing technical challenges and musical satisfaction.

Taking on new musical challenges is essential if you want to be a better player.

Just how much challenge you need depends on your musical circumstances right now. Those circumstances will change over the course of your playing life, and both the strength of your overall abilities and the satisfaction you get from playing depend on your sensitivity to those changing needs.

A beginner is constantly challenged. If you’re working with a teacher, part of their role is to challenge you consistently. But if the experience of playing is all challenge and no joy, you’ll get frustrated quickly.

Once you’ve been playing for a while, challenges keep you from getting stagnant. An absence of new challenges is one of the root causes of the perpetual beginner effect. Many people find it harder to push themselves into learning new things once they’ve developed a comfort zone. That effect is magnified if you perform, because the strength of your performance rests on your confidence. Returning to a place of challenge and uncertainty can feel like it undermines the authority you’ve worked so hard to develop.

Pushing yourself to grow doesn’t have to take anything away from where you are right now.

What it requires most of all is perspective. Recognize that you’ll never know everything, and that no matter how accomplished you become there will always be room for improvement. This might not make the challenges any less frustrating, but when you accept them as a matter of course you’ll be more willing to see them through and tackle new ones.

It’s helpful to make a clear distinction between practicing and playing. Practice is working on things you want to do better. Playing is doing what you know how to do. One feeds your skills, the other your spirit. We need both to keep our musical life dynamic and satisfying.

Organizing your practice time into different areas is also helpful. Develop a practice hierarchy: material that’s brand new, material that’s in process, and material that’s comfortable. This way you tackle different things at different points in your practice routine. This keeps things from getting stale, but also lets you move on when you’ve reached a saturation point. When one area starts to get frustrating, change things up and try another.

Remember, some skills need to be developed while others need to be kept in shape.

Some have to do with technique and chops, but others have to do with your ears and mind. An effective practice routine should include some pure technical work to warm up, some focused time on trouble spots in music you’re learning, and some time devoted to learning new music. Some of that music should be building your skills and vocabulary, but it’s equally helpful to work on building your repertoire.

How long does it take for you to comfortably learn a new song? What about memorizing a song? Are you able to maintain your performance even when there are distractions? These are all mental skills that can be developed to higher and higher degrees, even if the songs are easy to play.

It really is important to do at least some pure technical work. Exercises help us warm up and focus our attention on controlling the hands. You should have several go-to patterns or exercises at any given time that address different aspects of technique. Change up the areas of focus as well as the specific exercises as well. In other words, you might spend some time in a practice session on scale fingerings and then move to a strumming pattern. Once you have the pattern memorized accurately, move on to a different scale and strum. Work the same areas, but using different material. This keeps your technical practice more engaging. Also, be aware of your level of focus. When you reach a point where you’re having trouble concentrating, it’s time to do something else.


You can organize your song practice too.

Try looking at one easy song a week and just strumming through it. You might only spend a day or two on a very simple song, but give it as much time as it needs. Learn the form and try to memorize the chord sequence. If it’s too much to memorize, pick something simpler. Concentrate on flow and feel: make sure the rhythm flows the way it needs to. The skill you’re practicing here is the ability to mentally absorb the song, and to perform it with the right amount of drive and energy.

Then move to a song with a more complicated chord structure. This might be something with chord transitions you struggle with, or play inconsistently. Taking a step back to pure technique can be helpful here, but don’t spend too much time struggling. If you tune in properly and isolate the specific challenge, repeated attention over a period of days or weeks will absolutely improve it. Attack the specific problem in each practice session: be sure of what you’re trying to do, and be able to execute it accurately before you put it aside. But do this slowly, and as before, move on to something else if you feel like you’re losing ground instead of gaining.

There’s really no big secret.

Do the work diligently, but always have something else to move to. Rotate your material to keep things fresh. Finish your session with something familiar and satisfying, and really dig in and enjoy it. Remind yourself every day why you play, and you will continue to keep playing better.

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