Chip Conley on the Reality of Emotions in Guitar Practice

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar.  Find more here. Enjoy!

“The fact is that the biological life span of a particular emotion is about ninety seconds. It’s the afterlife of that emotion that we mortals constantly revive and bathe in.” 

Chip Conley (in Emotional Equations)

Many emotions arise surrounding our guitar practice.  Beforehand, we may feel excitement, dread, peace, or resignation.  And after a practice, we may feel pride, disappointment, connection, or humility.

And in the course of the practice itself, we may experience each of these and more.  

Perhaps the most avoided and most promising emotion is frustration.  Feelings of frustration may make us want to flee as if chased by bees. But this is also one of the most beneficial states in learning.  

After about 25 years old, the brain only changes in certain situations.  Before this, the brain can rewire with little effort.  After, it takes specific cocktails of brain chemistry to activate change.  

To create brain change (neuroplasticity), we need three main chemicals, or neurotransmitters.  Each of these has a specific function.  

First, we need alertness.  And a brain drug called epinephrine offers this.  

This is the equivalent of adrenaline but produced in the brain instead of the body. When we put our attention on something specific with the goal of learning it, we create this.  

And as we try to do something new, we make errors.  This is a key moment.  

As we make errors, we begin to feel frustrated.  This is normal.  And this feeling of frustration at the errors tells the brain that something is wrong.  Something needs to change so we can stop making the errors.  

So the brain intensifies focus.  And focus is amplified by acetylcholine, the next neuro-transmitter.  Now we have both alertness and focus.  We “zoom in” on the problem and begin to learn something new.  

With this extra focus, we start to have small successes.  This feels good.  And even a very small success or improvement triggers our reward chemical – dopamine.  

Dopamine is sometimes called “The Molecule of More.”  It makes us want to do more of whatever triggered it.  

So when we get a shot of dopamine for our small success, we’re motivated to try again.  We want another go at the problem.  

And with each small, incremental improvement, We become even more alert and focused.  We enjoy more wins and feel better about the whole affair.

This learning scenario is present in much of our guitar practice.  

And a main ingredient is frustration.  We need it.  We should recognize it as a critical component of learning, regardless of how we react…

If we feel frustrated and stop, we then wire the brain with whatever follows.  If we have given up and stopped, this may be negative self-talk and feelings of failure.  And this will make future practices even more difficult.  

So when we feel frustration, it’s extremely important that we keep going.  It doesn’t have to be for long.  Another 7-30 minutes is ideal.  But with the feeling, we can know that the ground is fertile for new learning and musical growth.  

Emotions, as Chip Conley notes in his book, Emotional Equations, only last about 90 seconds.  From this point, our thoughts may trigger more of the same or different emotions.  But genuine emotions come and go.  

When we embrace error and frustration, we’ll learn faster.  We’ll finish each practice knowing we have done the good work.  As we rest or sleep the brain changes will become permanent.  And what used to be so hard will become effortless.  

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Hi Allen,
Greetings from the UK. I would like to thank you for providing such an excellent resource. The effort and skill which has gone into creating this program is very evident. I started classical guitar a year or so ago with a teacher but was unable to commit to same time regular slots each week.

The Woodshed Program was exactly what I was looking for. I have found the site very intuitive and well structured and have taken your advice and started from the very beginning of the program whilst still practising some of the pieces I was already working on. It is clear that I will benefit greatly from these early technical studies. There were clearly weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge even though I am still at an early stage. Once again many thanks for the program and very best wishes.


~ Rodger Paylor

-Rodger Paylor

Hi, Allen! I am so excited to have gotten started on your program! I just upgraded to a yearly membership. Thank you very much! You do such great work!


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-Linda Hansen

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