On Practice: Stuck in a rut,
and you don't like practicing.

By Daniel Roest

"As you ramble on through life, brother,
whatever be your goal,
keep your eyes upon the donut,
and not upon the hole!"
-Murray Banks.

This Mini-Lesson is devoted to one of the most common and frustrating aspects of playing and practicing guitar - getting stuck. Sometimes we call it a plateau, where you're just not progressing, not seeing any improvement, etc.
Sometimes we call it burnout, where you have lost touch with the inspiration that led you to pick up the guitar in the first place. A question and answer I had with a student is excerpted here in hopes of helping.


I can't believe how patient you are with my waffling and me. As you must know by now, I am my own worst enemy. I tried valiantly (well, maybe not exactly valiantly) to learn the B part of "Romance". My fingers got tangled up, I couldn't reach, and when I couldn't do what I wanted to do, I stopped. Cold turkey. I played "Edmund Fitzgerald", and determined it wasn't a song I really want to do, so I stopped. Cold turkey. And haven't picked the guitar up since. Granted, during that time, my father was settling into an assisted living situation and I've been visiting there almost daily. Still, that doesn't really eat up that much time. Yes, I've had two trade shows in the past 5 weeks, but c'mon, that's just part of my job!

Daniel, I get in this cycle of wanting to play, practicing, getting discouraged, stop practicing, and feel guilty (for what? not living up to my own expectations? not going to lessons?), then repeat.

I get fired up when I have a lesson--all two times! and then when I realize my limitations, I wonder what on earth I'm doing.

Everyone who knows I'm struggling with this gives me encouragement, tells me not to quit and not to be so hard on myself. My boss, just a few years younger than I, plays slack key guitar, has similar frustrations. He doesn't take lessons, but doesn't seem to have the stick-to-itiveness problems that I do. He encourages me, my kids do the same, and my friends do the same. And so do you.

So what do I do from here? Continue this cycle? Light a firecracker under my butt and hope that works? Just accept my foibles and play what and when I want?

I am so sorry to lay this on you. None of it is your fault--you have been nothing but encouraging and accepting and helpful. And I want to continue, but I think the bottom line is that I fear I have to prove something to you (really, it's me I fear, not you!).

Am I not the most neurotic student you've ever had?

Some dialogue here might help. Your true thoughts. Do you have expectations for your students, me in particular? How do you suggest keeping myself motivated when I get discouraged? I try to keep my "eye upon the doughnut", but it is not always as easy as it sounds. My goal was to feel more secure in my playing, to learn some new techniques, some theory; maybe some practice reading tablature (it's quite confusing).

Your thoughts?


It is refreshing to hear someone speak clearly about his or her interior experience with music, so thank you for that. At the age of 52 this April, I have seen a parade of personalities since I began teaching at 17. It is a most rewarding career in that sense, and I've made friends with several over the years. So, with that perspective, I can say that you have not captured the "most neurotic" student honor. Keep trying, though, you can always move up the list :-)

Here's the deal for you and your boss, and by extension, your friends and support system:
Life is about trying to maintain balance - homeostasis - and that is a moving target. Likewise, it is a unique challenge for every individual. I have never taught that music is more important than health and family  just important. Music is a window into the soul. Music is a way of communicating. Music expresses what cannot be expressed without melody, harmony and rhythm.
As an individual, wherever your place in life, you have a built-in need for self-expression. Music provides this as well as anything, as you know.
At the same time, you notice patterns of behavior that defeat your aim to enjoy music-making. Here's what I've learned over the years: Expectations need to be flexible, pliant, changing, as you go. Upset comes from unfulfilled expectations. To avoid upset, adjust your expectations. Enjoy the process, the road. so to speak. Leo Brouwer said in a master class that "Two men set out on a journey together - Oriental Man and Occidental Man. At the end of their journey, one was tired and irritable and the other content and in good spirits. What was the difference? Occidental Man kept his eyes on the end of his trip, while Oriental Man noticed and admired the cloud formations, the flowers, the land, all of the natural beauty we are blessed with. Of course, his path was the more nurturing of the two." I paraphrase this lesson shared well over twenty years ago, but it gets to the heart of the matter - stop and smell the roses. You need this to counterbalance modern life in the 21st century, and you are not alone in the least - everyone else does as well. Yet, you are an individual, and your music making is in the context of your individual station in life.
As a guitar teacher, I can help you reach your guitar-playing goals. As a student, you can help me and help yourself exactly as you just did  by communicating your experience so I can respond, and by paying attention to what works and doesn't work in keeping you motivated and in a positive frame of mind..
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