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Inner Game of Practice: Release Guilt and Accept Reality

There’s a lot involved in playing classical guitar beautifully. It takes a technique nurtured over time. It takes ongoing musical study. It takes regular attention and focus to realize the results we all want.

And being an “optional” endeavor, it’s easy to let guitar practice slide to the back burner at times.

If we don’t have a consistent schedule around guitar practice, it’s easy to skip a day, then two. Then it’s a matter of starting up all over again, without the momentum of recent successes.

When this happens, it’s easy to fall prey to unproductive thoughts.

The Trance of Unworthiness

Tara Brach teaches meditation and has coined the phrase “the trance of unworthiness”.

This is the idea (quite prevalent) that we should be different than we are. That we should have done things differently, made different choices, been stronger/smarter/better, and that we should do more/different/better in the future.

Of course this is a breed of perfectionism. We see some ideal, and assume that we would be at that ideal, had we not messed it up in some way. Or that we’ll be at that ideal if only we scratch and claw our way up to it.

By falling into this unproductive thought pattern, we can easily become demotivated and create guilt. Not just in guitar practice, of course, but in all facets of life.

The Reasons Behind the Reasons

We play guitar for personal reasons. We want the intellectual, physical and emotional stimulation that comes with progressing on a musical path.

We create a guitar practice for the intrinsic rewards.

We want to connect with the deep humanity that expresses itself so well through music. And we want a daily practice that’s motivated not by external demands (like money or relationships), but by our own personal explorations and experiences. Intrinsic reward.

When we then impose “shoulds” on our practice, it erodes and inhibits the very experiences we seek. Self-critical thoughts that we “should” be doing more or better practice are a distraction, and can suck the fun right out it.

Embrace Reality (It’s real, after all…)

Instead of berating ourselves for not practicing enough, or for not already being better than we are, we can choose to accept reality.

Reality is the simple fact, without moral judgement, of how things are.

Negative self-talk says, “I practiced only 15 minutes today.”
Reality says, “I practiced 15 minutes today.”

It may seem a subtle difference, but it carries enormous power.   Putting a negative judgement on something creates feelings of stress and worry.  After a personal assault, it’s no wonder we don’t feel like practicing the next day.

Putting a negative judgement on something creates feelings of stress and worry.

If the real goals are the reasons for learning mentioned above, then any work to nurture those feelings and discoveries is work well done.

When we suspend judgement and critique, we’re open to enjoy our practice time, in whatever amount or capacity. This enjoyment creates the motivation for more practice, in a virtuous cycle.

No One Likes to Be Scolded

If we have a concrete musical goal, such as to learn a specific piece in a given time frame, or practice X minutes per day, we can technically succeed or fail at that goal.

And it’s very easy to fall into the trap of scolding ourselves for not succeeding.

Scolding is a guilt-based, short-term solution that undermines a joyful daily music practice.

If scolding were motivational, then it would be worthwhile. It would help create the impetus to sit down and practice more (and thereby help to achieve our ultimate goals of a life of music and exploration).

And while personal scolding may work occasionally, it ultimately sabotages our musical practice, because no one likes to get scolded.

Scolding is a guilt-based, short-term solution that undermines a joyful daily music practice.

The Inner Game of Guitar Practice

While we focus on scales, pieces, and the rest, the real practice of guitar practice is managing our own thoughts, states, and focus.

Guitar is a wonderful tool in which to work on ourselves, because learning is such a personal endeavor. We have to sit down with ourselves day in and day out and contend with all the baggage we bring with us.

One of the most useful exercises surrounding guitar practice is that of releasing guilt and accepting reality.

We have the opportunity to be gentle to ourselves. We get to choose how to frame the current state of affairs.

“I haven’t practiced in X days.” We could berate ourselves, or we could welcome the chance to sit down and reconnect with our guitars and music. The choice is ours, in each moment.

Experiment: Guitar as “Fuss-Free Zone”

What would happen if you made your guitar practice a “fuss-free zone”, where any personal fussing was off limits?  What would practice be like if everything was already exactly as it should be?

You’re still free to fuss as much as you like the rest of the day, but not about anything surrounding your guitar, guitar practice, or the music you play.   And ideally, no fussing in your practice space, anytime.

What would practice be like if everything was already exactly as it should be?

If you want to change something or do things differently, great! That’s wonderful. And let the changes come with acceptance and appreciation for what you’re currently doing, or previously did.

We’re constantly tweaking and improving our practices as we learn more and as we ride the waves of motivation, other interests, and external constraints.

We’ll get the most enjoyment and satisfaction from our time on guitar when we accept our practice and abilities as they are and remain grateful to have this time in our days and lives.

Guitar practice is a glorious part of life. Let’s accept that!

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6 Responses to Inner Game of Practice: Release Guilt and Accept Reality

  1. wendy December 24, 2016 at 7:24 am #

    Your email of 10th December ( The Inner Game of Practice: Release Guilt and Accept Reality ) brought such pleasure to me sitting in my attic playing somewhat ineffectually plink, plonk on my guitar

    So much so that I copied your thoughts and sent them via cleft stick as a Christmas present to another 80 or so year old granny sitting in her attic playing squeak, squawk on her accordion in the wilds of wet and windy western Scotland beyond the scope of internet

    Two very happy grannies, accepting and enjoying Reality.

    Thank you very much for this, and for your other emails.

    Please will you sometime collect them all and put them into a book for us as next year’s Christmas present

    • Allen December 24, 2016 at 7:39 am #

      Thank you so much, Wendy! I’m honored that you passed along the thoughts. And I’m glad you’re enjoying the emails!

      Thanks again for this lovely note,

  2. Janan December 12, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Allen, your message resonates, thank you.

    • Allen December 12, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

      Thank you, Janan.

  3. James Sedwick December 10, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Thank you, Allen, for the thoughtful discussion of accepting the struggles of practice and moving on. Thomas Merton’s words (which can be found in The Pocket Thomas Merton) on humility have been helpful to me over the years and, especially, with guitar practice; the chapter on humility starts: “The value of our activity depends almost entirely on the humility to accept ourselves as we are”.

    • Allen December 10, 2016 at 8:18 am #

      Thanks James,
      That’s a wonderful quote.

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