Hoping vs Knowing

Weekly Newsletter #80

February 18, 2023

How do you actually improve as a guitarist? 

You might say “practice, learning songs or taking lessons”…but those don’t necessarily lead to improvement. 

You can practice or take lessons and still not get better. 

So what actually makes you improve? 

The answer is objectively seeing your bad habits and working to correct them. 

That is the only path to improvement. 

Sure, practice and instruction will certainly help, but without first finding and correcting bad habits, no amount of practice will improve your playing. 

Like all things, correcting a bad habit takes effort and dedication, especially the longer that habit has been in place. 

But more important, is that you remain objective and honestly look at your own playing. 

Bad Outcomes 

I studied classical guitar at a very competitive music school for my undergraduate degree. 

We had top tier instructors and everyone was trying to maximize their playing and progress. 

I often chose pieces of music that were outside of my ability thinking that it would make me “level up” by forcing my technique to adapt to something more difficult. 

I’d practice and practice for my upcoming lesson to prove to my teacher that I was one of the top players in the class. 

In the practice room I’d nail the fast, challenging passages about 2-3 out of 5 times. 

This proved to me I was capable of playing them, if only I concentrated hard enough while playing. 

Then when I got into my lesson I would completely blow those very same parts. 

This happened over and over again…and was humiliating for me. 

Why would I fall apart during a lesson but play well in the practice room? 

Because I wasn’t actually playing well in the practice room, I only thought I was. 

Hoping vs. Knowing 

Looking back, I was just hoping for a good outcome. 

I was expecting one of those good repetitions from the practice room to come out while I was playing for my teacher. 

Instead of knowing what would happen, I went into that lesson unsure of the outcome and hoping I’d nail it “this time”. 

That puts your mind in a defensive position to begin with, one that guarantees failure. 

You know deep down that you don’t really have that lick under your fingers and so, of course, that’s what emerges when you’re desperate for a good outcome. 

Instead of being humble enough to acknowledge I didn’t have it, I lied to myself to stroke my own ego. 

I did that because of the false positives from the practice room. 

False Positives 

Those few times I would nail that difficult passage were actually false positives. 

These are positive results while practicing, despite not actually having the problem truly corrected. 

There was a fundamental bad habit and technical problem that was causing my mistakes, and by getting it correct every now and then I told myself I was better than I actually was. 

I was lying to myself, so I could feel more accomplished. 

I know, for certain, that every guitarist reading this has done the same thing…it’s inevitable. 

But the greatest thing I ever learned from my teacher was that day in the lesson. 

“You’re not as good as you think you are”, I was told. 

It hit me hard. 

But I took it as a challenge to prove him wrong, and he knew that I would do that…that’s why he said it. 

I stopped learning the rest of the piece of music and focused solely on analyzing my technique so I could finally master that passage. 

I tried to be as objective as possible while analyzing my own playing. 

Eventually, I realized I was making a mistake in my finger picking. 

It was an old bad habit from years earlier that I never noticed because of so many false positives. 

Once I was able to get past my own ego I could objectively see what was holding me back. 

I fixed the technique problem and within a few weeks played that piece in a concert and truly nailed it. 

I wasn’t getting 3 out 5 repetitions correct anymore. 

I was now getting 5 out of 5 correct. 

Instead of hoping for a certain outcome, I knew what the outcome would be. 

It became as certain as playing a C chord. There was no way I’d miss. 

But it took the destruction of my ego and some humiliation for me to learn that lesson. 

Don’t lie to yourself about your playing. 

Don’t obscure your bad habits or flaws. 

Embrace the fact that you have them and take up the challenge to find and fix them. 

That’s the path to improvement. 

-Max Rich