Practice With Feeling!
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
A student recently asked me for recommendations on practicing. The Covid19 shutdown had disrupted his routine and motivation; he was having trouble re-establishing his enthusiasm. He didn't feel like he was making any progress.
There are many scientific studies that establish optimum practice schedules - length, quantity, time-of-day and so on (here's one).
However, I'm using a different approach to answer the question:
I have written extensively elsewhere (I Trust Myself and Keep Playing) about one's own perceptions/feeling being an untrustworthy basis for judging one's progress or skill. I have made the argument that “talent” is 99.9% mechanical, i.e. cause-and-effect; do the work and the result will happen. Guaranteed.
So how you feel at any given time is not a sustainable basis for judgment. If you do the work, you are making progress whether you feel like it or not (see Grunt-Work).
Having said that, we are emotional creatures and our decisions and motivations are emotionally-based. If you are “intellectual” you're that way because you like the way it makes you feel. Ultimately, emotion is the driving force behind our activity and decisions.
So emotional gratification has to be inculcated into your daily practice because it's the feeling that actually creates motivation.
Intellectually reminding yourself that feelings aren't a trustworthy standard and that you just need to buckle down and do the work no matter how you feel may get you through an acute lack of motivation for a day or two but for any kind of consistent and sustainable practice routine to happen you must get emotional gratification day-by-day from it.
So how can you do that?
First of all, you can't do it by deriving your feelings from a judgment about your progress towards some far-off goal. Inevitably, you will flip that sequence and your feelings will be caused by your judgment which is affected by your feelings – a vicious cycle - and the result is a downward spiral into lost motivation and just not being interested anymore.
You have to come up with some way to get emotional gratification out of the daily grunt-work irrespective of any perception about whether you are making progress or not. Perception is emotionally-based and emotions are the result of all kinds of variables most of which are not quantifiable and have nothing to do with your actual, objective progress.
Many times the emotions that you perceive to be related to your lack of progress or a specific performance are transferred; they originate elsewhere (food, sleep, frustration with your finances, a fight with your wife, body/brain chemistry, a butterfly in China flapping its wings etc).
I hesitate to project my own approach to this onto anyone else. On the other hand, my approach is the only way I can address this issue. But ultimately, it's up to you to figure it out for yourself; here's my take:
Practicing the guitar is meditation. It has a ritual quality. It's grounding. It's centering. It's prayer. It's aligning bio-electromagnetic frequencies. It's therapeutic. It's spiritual.
This makes it an end in itself, regardless of perceived progress on the instrument; how good – or not - I think I sound at any given moment or whether I can finally consistently play that lick I've been working on.
The benefits of this paradigm have little to do with “getting better” on the instrument and have everything to do with “being” in the here-and now. In other words, personal and spiritual growth.
Getting better on the instrument is merely a side-effect.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” - Matthew 6:33
"When one hears an artist, a singer of Hindu music, the first thing he does is to tune his tampura to give one chord, and while he tunes his tampura he tunes his own soul." - The Mysticism of Sound and Music: the Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan.
"The music to us is religion. The quickest way to reach godliness is through music." - Ravi Shankar
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author, Robert M. Pirsig, endeavors to show that the mundane and the transcendent are not to be dichotomized, but that the transcendent can actually be achieved and experienced through the mundane. Personal growth and spiritual enlightenment can occur as a result of learning to maintain a motorcycle - or more to the point at hand, through practicing the guitar.
So you see what's happening here? I am tying my feelings to something other than a self-judgement about whether I'm progressing on the guitar or not. I am not linking my emotions to my perception of progress, or the lack of it. I am tying my emotions to a meditative, spiritual activity.
For instance, if I am on a gig, having a bad day and I feel like I suck, I ignore that perception and just keep playing. I trust myself.
If I'm having a good day and am happy with what I'm playing, I revel in that emotion and let it satisfy and fulfill me. The emotion serves me; I am not controlled by it.
I use gigs as meditation, prayer and grounding in the same way as I do practice.
I use teaching guitar in the same way.
If I have a guitar in my hand in any capacity all this is going on at some level.
Mastering any instrument consequently becomes infinitely more than just mastering an instrument – it turns into a huge picture that relates to all aspects of life, being, personal growth and spiritual fulfillment.
It's a lifestyle.
It's not necessarily easy; nothing of value ever is. It's as easy &/or as difficult as any other disciplined practice of meditation, but as one pursues this activity, holographic-like, music and the guitar expand and contain personal and spiritual growth, which then expands and contains music and the guitar – and so on; it turns into a progressive, self-reinforcing, self-sustaining cycle of personal growth and progressive mastery of the instrument and of music.
The one contains the other, and the other contains the one.
Like holographic reality, all pieces contain the whole. Music and the guitar can lead one to this illumination and this illumination can lead one to musical and guitaristic growth.
Everything is everything, but you have to start somewhere;
So why not practice your guitar today? 🙂 🎸 🎶
Related: Shakti: My India Connection
A four-part blog series starting with, Grow the Matrix!
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