You're Not Worse, Your Ear Is Better!
"I've practiced exactly what you told me and I'm going backwards; it seems like the more I practice the worse I get!"
I hear this from students often, and I can relate.
My response usually involves telling this story:
In 1977 I enrolled at the University of Missouri Kansas City as a classical guitar performance major. My degree program required 6 hours a day of practice on my instrument.
In my first lesson with Douglas Niedt, I was instructed to pick the 1st string open with my index and then my middle finger. The goal was to get the two fingers to sound exactly the same.
That was it; that was the lesson. If there was more to the first lesson I can't remember what it was.
Six. Freakin'. Hours. A. Day.
Dutifully I started in.
The more I tried to get them to sound the same the worse it got. I drove myself crazy for hours a day trying to get them equal in tone and volume. I never did get them to consistently sound the same.
I went in the following week depressed, thinking I was an abject failure; here I was, fortunate enough to study with one of the best classical guitarists in the world and I was going to have to demonstrate my inability to get even the first lesson right.
I took a deep breath and did the best I could.
"Ok" said Doug, "that was fine; let's move on."
"What the hell!" I thought to myself. "That was not fine! Those two fingers didn't sound the same at all!"
But I kept my mouth shut and moved on.
Later, I had a flash of insight; the point was not to get them to sound the same. The point was to open up my ears.
The more I tried to get them to sound the same, the more I would hear tiny differences that I had never noticed before. So the better I got, the worse it sounded; because my ears kept "growing." It's easy to get lost in the minutia and lose all perspective.
I was actually getting better - a lot better.
Was this really the point? Did Doug actually have this in mind? I don't know, I've never asked him, but that's what I got out of it.
This illustrates something I've written about before; I am the least qualified to judge my own playing while I am playing because, by definition, it is impossible for me to be objective.
The same holds true as far as judging my own progress as a student.
In philosophy something like that is called a conceptual impossibility. It's like your eyeball trying to see itself; it's impossible because your eyeball is the thing that's doing the looking.
There is a statistic in the medical field: The patient does not perceive that he's getting better until he's 80% better. He could be 50% better but his perception is that he's not any better - at all. Only at 80% better does the patient perceive progress.
I think this same phenomenon happens to students. They come in saying they're no better than they were last week and I can see they are better; maybe even 50 or 60% better, but because it's not 80% better, they can't see it.
So don't believe your own perception.
You ARE getting better. It only seems worse (to you) because your ear is opening up.