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Why Mistakes Matter (What Real Practice Looks Like)

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Watch any Youtube or Instagram video of somebody playing guitar, or doing anything else for that matter, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you lived in a world entirely populated by amazingly talented people. These people can do anything they set their minds to instantly, and with an apparent lack of effort that only serves to prove just how big of a giant, clumsy idiot you are for ever daring to attempt to do anything good or interesting or difficult.

Obviously that’s not true.

What you don’t see are all the mistakes these people make. There are loads of them, just like when you practice. In fact they probably make more.

That’s not to say that they aren’t good at what they do, clearly they are. The thing these people understand that others don’t is that the mistakes aren’t asomething that happen before you improve, or a reason to pack in and give up. The mistakes ARE the improvement. When people who are good guitarists hit upon something they can’t do, they don’t give up, they get excited about it.

Earlier this year I went to a guitar clinic held by acclaimed guitarist Robben Ford. Obviously there were lots of great tips in there, but the one that stuck with me the most was, when asked what his advice was to someone who wanted to improve their playing, "just get up on stage and suck! Nothing will drive you to work harder than messing up in front of a room full of people."

I recently started a project on Instagram inspired by that thought, partly for my own benefit in pushing myself on the guitar, but also for the benefit of my students, called Progress is Boring. It’s a way of showing the stages of learning that you don’t normally see in online videos. Over time I’ll be attempting new songs that challenge me, and doing my best to show the process I go through in improving my ability to play them. I’m hoping that people will recognise certain aspects of their own practices in there, (frustration, failed attempts, times where you can play something one minute and then royally mess it up the next) and then also see how taking a methodical and patient approach at the point where many of us would want to give up can eventually start leading to noticeable improvement.

As part of this I’ve linked an extended practice video here, which shows me going from struggling to play a piece at a faster speed than I am used to, to playing it successfully. The actual practice itself is about eight minutes long, but over that time you see substantial improvement in my ability to play it. I have already learned the piece at a slower speed, so the mistakes I make here and the strategies I employ to improve upon them are all geared towards helping me relax and weed out inefficiencies in my technique and mental blocks that are stopping me from playing the phrases as well as I can at a slower pace. You will hear a lot of mistakes in this video, eventually culminating in a successful playthrough of the entire melody, so it’s not necessarily easy to listen to, but then that is kind of the point.

A couple of things to think about when you’re watching the video.

1) The 10,000 hour rule.

It’s a common and attractive belief that spending 10,000 hours on a given discipline is what it takes to become a master at it. The originator of the theory states that this is partly true, but that people are over-simplifying it. What it actually takes is 10,000 hours of focused, attentive practice. Link here. This is much harder to achieve. This kind of practice involves looking at the mistakes you make when you attempt something, analysing why you made those mistakes and then applying strategies to stop those mistakes at the source. 10,000 hours of this is far more mentally exhausting than 10,000 hours sat in front of the television playing the intro to Sweet Child O’ Mine over and over again. As you watch the video you’ll notice that I repeatedly zone in on areas of imperfection and run through them several times, mostly with positive results. But you may be asking at this point what difference the way you practice really makes? Surely as long as you’re playing guitar everything is good right?

2) How Practice works.

This one is the subject of a great many books all in itself. There are lots of factors at play here, but one of the most important things I think guitar students should be aware of is myelin. There’s a more in depth article on it here if you’re interested, but fundamentally myelin is a fatty substance that insulates the pathways in your brain like rubber around an electrical wire. The more myelin a particular pathway has the more insulated it is, and so the more quickly information is transmitted. As with everything in your body, myelin is a finite resource, and so your brain develops more of it along the most frequently used pathways, assuming those to be of greatest importance. What does this mean for learning guitar? Well firstly it means that, as we all know, doing something a great many times makes you better at it. But it also means that you have to practice slowly, deliberately and pay attention to the mistakes you make. If you frequently make the same mistake over and over and leave it unchecked, all you’re doing is further reinforcing the neural pathway that leads you to make it, and doubling the workload required to learn the easier way later on. Make mistakes early and weed them out early, you’ll see quicker improvement that way. Getting someone to point out your mistakes to you can also be helpful for rooting out the ones you don’t even know you’re making.

I don’t claim to be the best guitarist in the world, or to know everything there is to know about practicing, but I do do it well enough to make a living from it. Hopefully this video gives you something of an insight in to the day to day effort that goes in to doing something well.

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