How To Stop Making Mistakes

Weekly Newsletter #5

September 9, 2021

Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter 

Have you ever noticed that when you record yourself playing guitar you almost always have to take multiple video or audio recordings to get the take you are looking for? 

It seems strange, especially when we practice so much and can play the song or lick really well, but for some reason as soon as that red recording light goes on, something changes and we make all kinds of mistakes. The same is true for many players when they perform in front of a crowd of people, even more so when it’s just solo guitar, with no band members to cover the mistakes. 

Personally I have had this happen many times in my career as a professional. I had practiced hours and hours and gotten extremely good at certain pieces of music, only to have my technique fall apart the moment I needed it most. I’m sure many of you can relate to this. 

What is the cause of this strange collapse in our ability to execute something we are normally so good at? 

The simple answer is anxiety. However anxiety by itself is not the reason our fingers and hands don’t move as fluidly as when we are in the practice room. But rather, it is the effect of anxiety on our bodies that cause the mechanical breakdown. First comes the adrenaline spike followed immediately by a sharp increase in heart rate and shortening of the breath, and possibly even holding the breath altogether. 

Adrenaline is part of the reason I love performing and wouldn’t want to get rid of that, even if I could. But what does need to be gotten rid of is the effect it has on our breathing. The shortening of breath is the result of a natural response to fear or anxiety and is the impetus for the disastrous snowballing effect of making one small mistake, followed by another and another until the entire performance is ruined. 

This runaway freight train of error is something all of us guitarists know well. That feeling when you are performing or recording and a certain difficult lick or passage is coming up so you grit your teeth and dig in. Inevitably you make a mistake and that mistake quickly turns into two and then three and on and on. 

This chain reaction comes entirely from a lack of oxygen. The closer you get to the difficult passage, the shorter and shorter your breath becomes in anticipation of the difficulty. There is always that question in the back of your mind, “Will this go well, or will it be a disaster?” 

That small thought plants a seed of doubt and hesitation, which causes the shortening of your breath. The shortened breath is followed by your heart racing, which in turn causes even more oxygen to be expended. This means that less and less oxygen is getting into your bloodstream, and in turn into your muscles, precisely at the moment when your muscles need as much oxygen as possible. 

Most of the muscle fiber used in guitar playing utilizes oxygen as its fuel source (other fibers use glucose instead). As your muscles receive less and less oxygen, they transition from the oxygen burning muscle fiber to glucose burning fibers. This transition is involuntary and simply a result of the fuel source being depleted. The muscles that utilize glucose have an unfortunately very low rate of duration. Meaning that even with a full store of glucose, they can only last at most about 2 minutes (that is in extreme cases, most last much less than that). 

At this point, your shortened breath (or even worse, holding of the breath) has caused a lack of oxygen, which in turn stops your muscles from functioning properly. As a result, your glucose burning muscles kick in, but they only last a very short time, and once those run out they too start to fail. But you’re in the middle of a performance, you can’t just stop can you? Well that’s not really up to you. Once you have burned through and depleted all the various muscle fibers of their fuel sources, they will simply seize up in a violent cramp to protect the tissue from being injured. 

So how do we stop this altogether? 

The answer sounds simple: just breathe. 

In reality, it is much more difficult than that. In order to provide your muscles with an optimum level of oxygen you must be continually breathing in a way that maximizes the oxygen intake. Either in and out through the nose or in through the nose and out through the mouth. This style of breathing creates a higher level of oxygen in your blood than breathing exclusively through the mouth, which should be avoided. 

In order to breathe optimally while playing you want to time your breathing so that you have a full breath of air as you go into long or challenging passages, rather than starting them on empty lungs. This requires a bit of planning and understanding where you have the opportunity to breathe. Similar to a singer, who must time their breath in accordance with phrasing, we also must time our breath so that we can avoid the chain reaction of mistakes caused by low levels of oxygen. 

In order to time our breath easily, it is essential that we breathe very long and very slow breaths. Think of yoga breathing and the calming effect that has on your body. That is essentially what we are after. If you can achieve that while playing you will instantly see a massive improvement in your performance ability both on stage and in the recording room. 

Take time to focus on breathing slowly and not changing the rhythm of your breath. Do this while playing music that is easy and comfortable for you to play, in the practice room with no pressure. Get used to breathing this way, which is almost certainly different from how you normally breathe while performing. 

Whatever you do, don’t breathe in time with the song. This will lead to near hyperventilation because you will be exhaling and inhaling before you need to. Take time to work on this valuable skill and you will absolutely see results in your recording and live performances. 

Breathing is what fuels our bodies and must therefore be truly mastered if we are to rely on our technique to function under pressure. 

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter. If there are any questions or comments about this subject, or if you’d like to read about any guitar-related subject in the future, please send me an email. I’ll be happy to answer any and all questions. 

Keep on shredding! 

Max Rich