Playing Guitar - Recovering From A Break

By Tim Gillespie

I try to write about things that affect guitarists. Things we all experience at one time or another. Although everyone is different, we often times react the same way to events that occur in our lives. Sharing this commonality is a good way to see how other people deal with problems. It can reassure you that your efforts are on track too.

Summer is a time of relaxing (if you are lucky) and a time to reflect on leisure and having fun. Most people take their biggest vacations of the year in Summer. My most intense guitar study does not happen in Summer as much as in other seasons.

I think this applies to the majority of people too. This is not a hard trend to see. Music stores, in general, have lower sales in Summer. Web sites may have fewer visitors during the vacation periods. A lot of habits and routines are impacted by the changing of the seasons. Guitar playing is one of the many facets of a person's life that may experience an adjustment due to the time of year. Has this happened to you? It certainly has to me.

When a seasoned guitarist develops a good practice and work routine, the effects of learning smooth out. Regular increases in ability occur on a somewhat regular level and it can be hard to tell if you are improving. Gone are the big single week spurts of growth that mark a beginner's entry into the learning process. This, for me, is similar to experiencing a take off in a big jet. When you are close to the ground, everything seems to be moving fast. But as you climb into the sky, the senses of motion and speed slows. The farther you get off the ground, the harder it is to gauge your speed. The same can be said for playing guitar. The farther you get away from your starting point, the harder it is too see how fast you are learning.

When you a beginner, new abilities come fast. Your hands are developing and building muscles, you gain new abilities quickly and change is quite apparent. But as you move away from the introductory phase of learning to play, it can be harder to see how you are improving. The changes seem to happen more slowly. You are still improving but is can be hard to see just how fast. However the work you must put in to stay on track, does not decrease. The result can be burn out, or the feeling that you are not improving.

If you take some time off and away from your guitar, you may come back to the instrument feeling like you have lost ground. Usually this is not the case, if you have a good practice routine, but at first it can seem this way. This is one of the many mental barriers that will try to block your way.

I like to stick to theory and facts for the most part. But once in while it is important to deal with the unspoken aspects of playing guitar. Aspects like our practice habits. So this month we are going to examine the mental effects of leaving the instrument for a while and then coming back to it. With no further delay, let's go climb into the head of a budding guitar player and see what it is like inside.

Recovering From The Summer

Let's face it. Everyone takes some time off! I even saw Roy Clark admit to a little rust on The Johnny Carson Show (a long time ago). After you spend a decade or two with various playing schedules, you come to realize the amount of time spent on the guitar changes over the course of a week, month or even a year. In fact once you understand that this happens, it actually can take quite a bit of mental stress away from you. It really can. It is a big relief.

I have worried for years that I would quit playing for one reason or another. I would actually get a little insecure about this. However after a long while I came to realize I would play the guitar for my entire life. Even when I have to have extended periods away from it, I always come back to it. Not having to deal with the stress that follows this fear of losing it has been refreshing to say the least. If you are like most people you have at least some difficulty coming up with enough time to give to the instrument.

This may not be the case for someone who is actively playing out regularly. But for those of us that have jobs (other than playing), it has to be part of a schedule and compete for time just like all the other elements in our full lives. But when you really look at this and deal with it, it can be quite liberating. Listen, if you fall into this group, you no doubt have many different demands to balance. There are always family issues, health issues, work issues or something else that comes up demanding time from your day. I have actually had so much stuff scheduled that it threatened to take over the entire work week. It is amazing how many demands show up and try to be front and center.

Let's change up for a minute and talk about students and these hidden effects in the learning process. When you teach someone on a regular basis, it is not very hard to see what they have done since the last lesson. Often times I can tell within the first 20 measures of listening to whatever they are playing. Not always, but quite often any new ability they have accumulated will show up when they play anything. Once a student realizes how transparent they are, they can get a little nervous. After all, there are no secrets at this level. Teachers can usually see for themselves. It is easy to see the plan and judge any new improvement.

I have tried all sorts of things to defuse this tension that comes from this, however, it is best when the tension never occurs in the first place. All it does is tighten the student up and then they have to fight through that too. The tension emanates from a seemingly universal concern of always trying to meet our goals. We are all worried about where we are, what we want to be able to do and how far behind or ahead we are. This competitive stress can cause a person to press a little. A person can mentally tighten up when they play and this can show up in their timing. After all, timing means being where you are suppose to be when you are suppose to be there. A little too soon or a little too late and your timing is off.

Speed only helps in getting you there on time. It does not help to play a piece too fast. It is a goal to play the piece right on time. So speed needs to be managed. But there is a perception that speedier is better. Lots of people want to play a little faster. Some bands even play their songs faster in concert than when they are recording them in a studio. Hey, its exciting to play a guitar in front of people.

But for a beginner to push a little too hard will usually affect their recital. The net effect is for things to be a little too tight or jerky. The song can be full of tension when none should be present. Keep in mind that most of this tension can be eliminated. When less of the stress comes through, more of the song will. Taking away tension is usually a good thing. It is one less thing to get in the way.

When a beginner inwardly questions their commitment of time, a lot of tension can be inserted. In this case it is the stress of how much time is spent practicing. Is it enough? I have experienced this myself. You can get to the point that you are wringing your hands over it. There is an underlying concept that "you are not good enough." And it is usually self imposed. Guilt can enter the picture here too. And no one likes to talk about this either because it is so personal, so it stays hidden.

But if you deal with it, it can set you free. I have heard the little nervous laugh when people get comfortable with the idea that the amount of time they are practicing is okay.

In this instance, if the beginner can get secure that she is experiencing normal level of musical growth, then this stress can be eliminated. And remember stress in the right amount can keep you from picking my your guitar. So stressing out about how much you are not playing, can cause you to stop playing. It really can!

It is an insidious trap that can derail your efforts to be a guitar player. It is one of the many mental barriers that the successful guitarist must overcome. And it can show up in many different ways. One of the ways it shows up is when a person puts the guitar down for a week or longer due to a commitment or vacation and feels like they lost ground when they came back.

Moving Beyond This

Don't get me wrong! Practice and time spent on the instrument is how you get better! There is no way around it. If you practice for three hours a day, you will be better than a more talented person that plays for only one hour a day. Work will do that for you.

But you can work hard for awhile and cycle down for a while too. What makes this work is the intense quality time you spend on the guitar. But that does not have to be ALL THE TIME!

When you have been playing hard for several months and you take some time off, some remarkable things occur. Many of the effects of this time off are misunderstood. You might think that you would be a little rusty from this, but in fact many times you return being slightly better than when you left.

This is one of the effects of incubation.

When you play hard, your body is constantly aligning everything and building up strength, conditioning and endurance. Your hand positions continue to get more exact. Your stamina increases and difficult passages come more easily. In general you keep getting better and better. But when you take some time off, your muscles do not get the workout and mentally you do not revisit the musical pathways and concepts. Everything just sits there.

But your body can really benefit from a little break. Your muscles have worked hard and will not soon forget. This means you have developed some muscle memory. Just like when working out with weights, your body repairs your muscles during off times and your body recovers a little bit. And it is usually stronger when it does come back. When you return, you may be fresher or your muscles may react in a more exact way.

Your mind, I am convinced, will continue to work on the many facets to understanding music when you are away from it, even though it might not be on a conscious level.

When you return to the instrument, wham! Everything connects and it creates the impression you are farther along. If you experience this, it is quite refreshing. You will get a little charge out of it and playing guitar may have slightly more meaning or become slightly easier. This is a very serious BI-product from practicing hard. I find that it happens at every level too. It does not stop when you get more advanced. The effects of incubation and hard work continue to happen and pay off.

When you play scales, you get about a 65% immediate pay back. I mean that you can see an improvement in abilities right away. After years of experiencing this, I believe this represents about 65% of the total value received for doing the work.

The remaining 35% benefits trickle in over a period of months. Little by little you get the remaining benefits. When you take some time off, the delivery of these benefits does not stop. It accrues and is stored up in your muscles and mind.

When you return to the guitar, these new abilities show up right away. I have sat there playing around and noticed this has happened many times. It continues to happen even when you are not playing. This is a very hidden and very big secret and it is quite simple.

It is a secondary benefit from playing scales.

But sometimes it does not give you the lift it does at other times. Sometimes you do not feel better and maybe you do not even see any changes. This is when the mental games really kick in. We all want to be good at what we do. We feel good when we see progress. This may not matter so much when you can play well at any time, whenever you choose. But until then, most people want to see improvement. Even if it is not spoken.

The effect will still be present and the mental head games will show up. The more a person tries to hide it, the bigger the head games they will face. This is life as a guitar player in the intermediate stages.

So coming back from vacation and facing the guitar can be a difficult experience. After all it means putting in the effort and cranking up the music machine again. So when that happens, let me give you a few things to think about.

1. Realize that all schedules change no matter what! Lots of people that are on a hard core schedule start to feel like they will have to work hard the rest of their lives! This is just not true. Eventually you will have amassed enough training that you can vary your schedule to give other parts of your life more time. Finding three hours a day is difficult. Even one hour a day is hard. If you have made a commitment to the instrument, then don't worry. You know you will get back into it, so don't worry. Just make sure that you do.

2. Your teacher knows you have a life too! Providing they have one! Once you get comfortable with how much you can really give to music, your relationship with your teacher may become less stressful too. Believe me it builds up. Sometimes it is in the background to such a degree that the only way you realize it is there, is when it dissipates. Then it becomes obvious.

3. Get right back on track as soon as possible. Rev up the scales and start to regain any technical edge you had before. Usually after an hour or more of work, you have left that stress behind. Re connecting with the guitar can be reassuring. As soon as you do it, your skills kick in and take over. At this point, almost everyone who has played hard, sees a little benefit from being away.

These initial feelings of dread do not accurately reflect reality! They seem like they do at the time, but they don't.

Try this mental exercise when you pick up the guitar. Play for five minutes and take a reading on how you feel. See how many times you feel bad or negative and compare it to how many times you feel upbeat and great, maybe even emotional.

Keep track and I think you will find you feel really good when you play. This is a great benefit from playing and sometimes the value statement is not clear. This can help you see what the instrument does for you.

Try going through a technical workout for the first few days.

Examples include,

a. Right hand technique exercises, finger picking or flat picking dexterity drills.

b. Intense scale work, revisiting all scales of a certain type.

c. Chord exercises leading up to more complex fingerings as you go.

d. Breaking down difficult song passages and intermixing them with technique exercises. I love this one. When you break down difficult material, it is gratifying because you can see how to play something you previously could not play. That feels good.

4. Sometimes I get psyched up to start a new program right after I come back to the guitar. I am working on one right now which I am going to call, 10 Days To Better Barre Chords. The idea is to take a ten day period and immerse yourself into the act of playing something specific and exacting. You drill down so deep that you cannot help but reconnect with the guitar. So taking on a special short term project when you get back, can be a great idea.

Don't just do enough to get by, immerse yourself and put out the effort. It will pay you back.

5. If you have been focusing on technique at the expense of songs, then try this. Play songs primarily for the next 20-30 days. Focus on applying what you have already learned. The reason we gain high levels of proficiency is to play songs better. So go see what has been happening with your ability to play songs better.

Sometimes it is really helpful to focus on the end result. When you invest in technique time, you are really saying I am going to turn away from immediate gratification to work on something that will help me later. Sometimes it is better to just work on immediate gratification. If you see the benefits from practicing technique, it may supercharge you to go back and try even harder. This can be a vicious cycle of improving and playing more and getting it to sink in even deeper. A good viscous cycle.

6. The period of coming back can also be a great time of corrections. The time away may give you some personal insight into where your music is going. Maybe you need to reapply yourself or change your focus. Maybe slight modifications to the overall vision are needed. Things change and when you come back from being away, you may be able to see things a little better or make a little adjustment that makes this more rewarding.

That little voice in your head will probably give you some ideas about this. Take the time to listen and see what your experience is telling you. Then react.

Above all else do not quit playing. That is the trap! That is the threat to your relationship with this guitar. At almost any cost, take the time to sit down and play. Head games show up all the time and at every level. Sometimes they are trivial and sometimes they are overwhelming. All of them must be managed. Some can be dismissed. So as you come back from an excellent Summer, now is the time to reevaluate, adjust and recommit. The northern hemisphere will start to cool down now and with that comes an opportunity to spend time with your instrument in your own home. Pick something interesting and get involved. The rewards are all waiting for you.