Relaxed Effort

December 19, 2023

Challenging ourselves as Guitarists is an important aspect of practice. By learning certain songs, licks, techniques slightly out of our comfort zone, we open ourselves up to growth. However, in a society which promotes striving and effort, without the right mindset, this muscle based approach can lead to burn out.  

Take the journey of a cyclist as an analogy for the journey of practice. Perhaps if they are novice, they’ll use high gears at slow speeds. They’ll have to put more effort in to move along. In doing so, they push harder on the pedals, making the body sway, turning the handlebars as they move, causing the bike to sway left to right. Not only do they exhaust themselves, but they also make their path less efficient and dangerous depending on surroundings.

They may blame their lack of progress on the circumstances, or themselves. They push harder and get tired. Eventually giving up or not making much progress at all. Simply they could have changed gears appropriate for their speed, smoother movement, equal forces. Less effort, smoother incremental progress, leading to greater speeds where higher gears can be used to maintain inertia.

Same goes for our own mind states in our guitar practice. We often get caught up with our passion and desire to get somewhere, so we then excitedly set about learning a new riff or song. Nothing wrong with this, this is the pure energy, volition which sets the wheels in motion.

But often ‘how to learn and practice this new riff’ isn’t thought out with clear view. We set a giant chunk of a goal, maybe the whole riff in one! We roughly get our stuff together, don’t warm up and proceed with tons of effort. We can then become righteous about our effort, even if the practice isn’t working, we take pride in the effort as it gives us something to stand next to. We forget the bigger picture and context of our learning of the riff, having fun and lightly challenging ourselves for our own improvement.

We  eventually become tired, disillusioned, we take it personally. We think we didn’t work hard enough, or maybe it’s something inherently ‘wrong’ with us as individuals. We start to create beliefs about ourselves that hold no ground in order to feel better about ourselves: “I’m not a real musician”, “I’ll never play fast”, “Theory is complicated, some musicians don’t need it anyway” etc.

What we need to do is set our goal in a clear way. It can be simple; all it takes is clearly seeing what needs to be done. It may be working on just the first section of a phrase, playing it slow. Maybe only working on one page in a guitar book, or just a small section from a tuition video. Small packages.

And if nothing’s clear and its tricky to find out what to practice, taking simple steps to find a way of making a clear, informed first step. Take a breath, then begin. Often the things we need to work on are staring us in the face, but our pride and righteousness can blind us to the what the next step is naturally.

The first step sets the conditions for the second step. The second step happens because of the first step. The second step is also the first step. Each step is a time to recollect and pay attention. To remember what you’re doing. I personally find it helpful to keep a ‘beginners mind’ with every practice session, to take it slow. I also find it helpful to remember, its totally okay to be ‘ordinary’ as a player. As soon as I allow myself to make mistakes or to take smaller steps, I make more progress. Ordinary becomes Extraordinary.

Good luck, Happy Playing!