Avoiding Common Pitfalls as a Student


The learning process can often present challenges. All too often, these challenges can be seen as obstacles that cannot be overcome; a conclusion is then made by student decides to quit his or her musical journey entirely. Here are some of the most common pitfalls students encounter and ways to surpass them:

Don't Worry About Being "Good"

Ever notice when children play for the sake of playing that they have the most fun? The nature of playing when playing has no purpose and no goal is very much different to playing that has such attachments. Ever observe what happens when one of the kids or an adult judges the playing qualitatively? 

Now more than ever, the notion that one has to be particularly good at an activity pervades our society. In turn, the pressure we end up placing on ourselves to be seen as accomplished can slowly turn an activity that we love into something an unpleasant experience. 

Some students start out already feeling pressure to be good, while others (e.g. yours truly) are carefree but change perspectives later on.

When I decided that I wanted to play the guitar at 11 years old, I never considered being good or bad at it. Such an estimation never even crossed my mind. I found playing the guitar fun, intriguing, and exciting. By approaching music this way, it never became a chore, nor was I constantly wondering what others thought of my playing. 

Not until later on did I find out how much pressure I was eventually putting on myself. By 19, I decided to become a perfectionist; this alone nearly caused me to quit what I loved entirely. Never was I satisfied with anything I played. How could I be? I was holding a giant club over my head just waiting for the chance to clobber myself whenever a "mistake" was made.

Fortunately, I managed to give up on this and began to question whatever made me decide to become a perfectionist in the first place. (I had read that one of my favorite guitarists was a perfectionist, so I should be, too.) 

When I reached the point of either quitting or continuing, I recalled how the fun had vanished from when I was a kid first starting out. I decided to return to that approach where I was not concerned with any type of validation whether it was from my ego or the judgment of others; this lifted all of the pressure and the enjoyment came back immediately.

Whether you are a beginner or longtime musician, keep in mind the enjoyment you experience playing. We generally want to improve. And this will happen without having to worry about sounding good. In fact, the youngest students tend to advance faster because they avoid this pitfall; they delight in just playing and naturally become more proficient over time.

No Need to Compare: You Are Already the Best You

Another source of consternation for students that may (and does) lead to quitting is when they realize that they do not play as well as others they know or will never sound exactly like their favorite guitarist(s).  

Many a student has expressed to me how frustrated he or she feels because some personal friend or acquaintance is so much more advanced. Often these comparisons are unreasonable at best. For example, a student recently told me she felt she will never be as good as her friend who plays.  This student has been playing for about six months; the person to whom she compared herself has played for several years.

She took little comfort when I pointed this giant difference in playing between her and her friend. When I asked if she got into playing the guitar so she could outplay her friend, she said, "No, I have always wanted to learn to play." Have you largely enjoyed learning how to play the guitar?" I asked. "Yes, I would have stopped if I didn't," she responded. "So are enjoying playing and learning not enough? Does playing have to also be a competition?" She laughed and said, "Yes, it is enough."

We are always comparing this to that so making comparisons to others is very understandable. When the aforementioned student realized the impact her comparison had on enjoying learning music, she was relieved and could allow for the fun to return. Music is an art, not a competition. If anything, it is about communication, expression, and sharing. 

Your greatest strength is that you are one of a kind; no one is better at being you than you. By simply being yourself, you will avoid the discouragement that presents itself whenever you hear another guitarist who you feel is so much better than you will ever be. Focus on learning how to play so the guitar can best express you. After all, no one can better express you, not even the greatest technically accomplished guitarist in the universe.

Look at other guitarists as sources of inspiration, not in a competitive or adversarial sense. 

"i am such slow learner"

One of the most common remarks I hear from students is that they feel they are learning at a slower-than-usual rate. This is especially common for adults with at least 75% expressing this within the first month of lessons.

99% of the time, the student's growth is average or above average. Surprise is the most common reaction to my assurances to them that they are not deficient or slow learners. When I ask how they determined that they are learning at such a slow rate, they almost always mention an accomplished guitarist who has been playing for many years. 

I point out that those guitarists have been put in many thousands of hours into the instrument. All of these countless hours are not considered by most listeners.

Observing one's own progress is not often all that reasonable because the student uses unreasonable or fictional measuring sticks. This is one reason a competent and honest teacher may be so helpful: the teacher gives you a perspective and feedback that is virtually impossible to obtain from the student's viewpoint.

Students actually learn at a faster rate and with far more enjoyment when not worrying about the rate of learning. Much of this is due to the fact that they are more relaxed when they practice. Stress and anxiety not only takes the fun out of playing the guitar, it creates a counterproductive condition.

"I Thought Playing the Guitar Would Be Much Easier"

Another element I never considered when I began playing is how easy or difficult it would be to learn. All I knew is that I wanted to play, and I did what I felt necessary to eventually get the guitar to speak the way in which I wanted. Had I concerned myself with how easy or difficult it was going to be, I almost surely would have quit.

Certainly, I was inspired by other guitarists and many things did not come easily to me; they required tons of practice, but the thrill of being able to slowly get the guitar to sound as I wanted was more than enough to keep me interested. I did not want to be a carbon copy of those guitarists who inspired me. I felt I wanted to be able to understand and execute what those guitarists had mastered because I felt these were ways in which I could hear myself playing.

Do not get caught in thinking how easy or difficult it is to play. If you keep thinking, "Wow, playing the guitar is so difficult," you will feel exactly that. I guarantee that it will be much easier to learn if you are not constantly opposing yourself. The player needs to assimilate the guitar, to unify the instrument and not treat it as something to conquer. 

"mistakes" are your friend; in fact, they are absolutely necessary

Know anyone who learned how to walk without having ever losing balance and falling down? (If you do, please send me documented footage.)

Do we know how to balance when we stand without having experienced a failure to balance properly? 

The greatest, most accomplished musicians of all time have not only made many mistakes, they continued to make technical mistakes even when they were at the virtuoso level. 

Rather than fear making mistakes, embrace them for your accuracy and skills will not improve without them.

play for fun, not for validation from others

Any student I have ever encountered whose primary motivation behind learning the guitar is to impress others has quit within the first year. This comes as no surprise. After all, who can avoid the ever-increasing pressure created when your music hinges entirely on the hope of receiving favorable reactions from others? 

Instead of trying to impress others, play for sheer enjoyment. A large pitfall forms whenever other conditions are attached to an activity. If the level of fun is not sufficient enough on its own to continue, then you may want to reconsider playing music.

Everything in Moderation

As students begin learning, many eventually become overwhelmed by just how much there is to develop and practice. Some reach the point where the possibilities leave them daunted. Such apprehension can bring much frustration and pressure, making the learning process an intimidating one.

Keep in mind that students fare much better when they practice fewer things more thoroughly than many things haphazardly. By approaching practice from more of a qualitative rather than a quantitative angle, the student can save his or herself from anxiety.

Shortly after I began studying with one of my music mentors, I began to realize that there were hardly enough hours of practice in a day to go through every single concept. As concepts were combined, the number of possibilities rose exponentially. 

When I shared how stressed I felt in not being able to practice every single concept, he told me that it is better to take one concept at a time. Eventually, I would be able to work through all of the concepts and maintain a relaxed approach to practicing. 

A traveler who sets out to walk 100,000 steps can become quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number, especially if each step is counted one-by-one. If a traveler simply walks and takes one step at a time, the 100,000 steps will be covered; the journey will be far more enjoyable and feel much quicker. 

Dr. Seth Greenberg