Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Avoiding mental blocks

Practicing an instrument, in my case the guitar, is a funny thing. There are times where things seem to just go your way and you seem to lift yourself to a higher plateau. Unfortunately, just as often practicing can be a frustrating thing where you struggle and can't deliver up to your own expectations. In these times it is important to not get mentally stuck.

Based on my experience reading guitar forums, getting mental blocks often relates to a certain technique: right hand speed, left hand speed, inside picking, outside picking, sweep picking, left/right hand synchronization, ascending licks, descending licks, etc. In ones attempt to overcome a certain shortcoming, he or she would practice so hard that it would lead to the point where practicing didn't seem productive any more or even counterproductive.

Now, not in any way I can or should discourage you from improving a weaker part of your playing. But, sometimes it is good to take a step back and realize what it is that you actually want to achieve. Let me clarify that.

For me, it has always been my picking hand that I struggled with. My left hand seems fine to pretty much do whatever it wants do to and I feel confident that practicing actually leads to improvement. My right hand, however, at some speed just tenses up and doesn't want to go any faster. Many hours I spend trying to 'break the barrier'. Unlike my left hand, I lost confidence that practicing actually leads to improvement.

Getting frustrated, I started to wonder if I wasn't overthinking this. What is it that I actually want to achieve. Although I like the intense staccato sound of picking it's only one aspect of playing. So, let's give this a different perspective.

Let's say I am able to pick 16th notes at around 130-140 bpm, which would be an achievable moderate speed. Left hand can do a bit more when needed. What given these circumstances should I theoretically be able to play? Well, let's take a very wild guess and say that probably 65% of rock music falls comfortably within these limits (yes, I realize this is an extreme oversimplification of the problem, but that's the point). Now, I used to like Metallica a lot when I was younger. Let's say about 50+% of at least the rhythm parts are within reach there as well. Cool. Since my problem area is in straight up alternate picking I should be able to pull off (no pun intended) some of Satriani's legato orientated solos and some Yngwie sweep picked arpeggio's, right? Perhaps throw some Vai stuff in there? What if I would join a cover band and play these artist's songs in front of a crowd? How cool would that be? That would just be off the charts. See? My limitations aren't so bad after all.

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. This quick analysis puts my inability to pick at high speeds into perspective. My point being, whenever you feel you're not progressing, do this analysis yourself and get your priorities straight.

Very nice, but this is just the beginning.

Recently I actually went through this getting stuck phase and rethought my approach. I was going to test my hypothesis: practice, record and perform some of the 'easy' songs first and work from there. So that's what I did... and failed.

Several songs I recorded and when playing back they made me cringe. I found many mistakes and the hypothesis of being able to play x and y based on totally fell apart.

In my case, the biggest issue I found was my timing. I realized that for about a decade now I was playing with beyond terrible timing. I took the challenge and started working on it and studying it. This gave me a totally different perspective and made me appreciate the incredible timing many musicians have. Great timing = sexy, and in many cases can distinguish great playing from lousy playing, great dancing from your average party-floor dancing, etc.

Other than that, I found that I:
- struggle playing in front of an audience
- have trouble being relaxed while playing
- struggle playing while standing up

Now I ask you, how does 140+ bpm 16th note picking fit into this picture? Right, it doesn't. Not even close.

Anyways, it felt like I was back to square one, but in a good way. A new start but now with the emphasis on the right things. To me this was the perfect reality check. I started working on my timing, which resulted in a few clips I recorded some months ago that I felt confident enough to share, although still far from perfect :)

And now the beauty of it all. Although I'm definitely not the next Yngwie or Lane, I'm actually quite certain that the first steps of getting there would be to work on the aforementioned basics: timing, being extremely relaxed when playing, playing in tune, being able to record songs in one take, etc., ..not trying to break the 140 barrier itself. This will follow in time. Aaannddd.. this makes the circle complete.

Now to end on an different thought and question: are the ideas described here applicable to other things in life, like work, relationships, etc.?

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