“I Swear, I Was So Good At This Yesterday And Now I Can’t Play It! What Happened?”
Ahh yes, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’re practicing something tricky on guitar in our bedroom (maybe it’s part of a song, or a fancy new lick), it’s giving us trouble, and then we FINALLY get it down a few times. We feel really good about it, we’re on top of the world and we have a huge sense of accomplishment.
Then we try to play it for our friends, family, or teacher, or simply come back the next day, and it all falls apart. All of that technical skill that we worked for just vanishes as if it never existed at all. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? What happened?
The short version of the answer is that you need more practice. Here’s the longer version that’ll shed some light on what’s actually going on:
Everything that you play on guitar requires some level of technical proficiency, some skills more than others – for example, doing a clean scale run at 1000 notes per minute requires more refined skill than switching between your open G and C chords. No matter what we’re trying to play, we need to practice enough so that we can play what we need to play confidently and reliably. We need to hone and refine our technique as we keep practicing the skill, burning in the correct motions more and more with each repetition and improving our technical ability until we’re good enough to play what we need to play, the way we need to play it (whether that’s at the right speed, in the right timing, etc.).
What many people don’t realize though, is that the technical progress they’ve made doesn’t stay where it is once they’re done practicing. It always dips down at least a little bit, and more practicing is needed to remove the dip and bump your skills back to where they were before. What can cause this dip?
Shifting/Losing Focus – Perhaps you can strum while changing between those 2 chords very smoothly, but those skills disappear once you decide to get creative and piece together your own chord progression with them. In this case, it’s likely that you were only able to do it before because your mind was actively focused on the technique. If your technique fails you when you stop actively focusing on it, then it isn’t burnt in enough yet and you need more practice.
Time – unless you literally practice non-stop 24-7, there will always be some amount of time between your practice sessions where you aren’t playing guitar. Depending on how much time has passed, the dip will be hardly noticeable (such as if you practice on a daily basis) and you may just need to warm up your hands and mind again. If you stopped playing for a few months, however, the dip would be steeper and you’d need more diligent practice to build your skills back up. The good news though is that it’ll take less time to build it up again, since you would have done it already before and mainly need to “remind” your muscles rather than teach them a brand-new skill for the first time.
Pressure – This is one of the biggest causes of the biggest dips in your progress. We could be right in the middle of a great practice session, and as soon as we feel a little bit of pressure we get nervous and our technique immediately goes south. The best way to deal with pressure is to identify what conditions are causing you to feel nervous and to practice playing guitar in those conditions.
If you freeze up when you are playing for other people, practice playing guitar with other people in the room, and practice performing for other people so you can get used to that environment and slowly work those jitters out. If your palms get sweaty when the producer hits record, practice recording yourself so that when the time comes to get that perfect take, you’ll know what to do and will have already done it many times before. If you start to hesitate when you have to play to the metronome, practice playing to a metronome so that the clicks don’t bother you (even if you start by playing something super easy for you in order to get used to it). Practice with a light shining in your face, or in the dark, or in really cold or hot rooms to get used to those conditions when playing live.
The moral of the story is that you aren’t done practicing just because you can nail that lick or pull off that chord change once or twice. The reality is that you need to have these skills burned in more deeply so that they can be reliable on a moment’s notice, and the way you accomplish that is to continue practicing so that you’re actually better than what you need to be. This is a mistake I made when recording my band’s first album – I should have invested even more time than I had into making the tricky licks in my solos even tighter, because when our producer hit record, the dip I experienced was more sudden and drastic than I could have imagined at the time.
With all of this in mind, don’t get discouraged by reading this – a time will come where many fundamental skills that we practice will become so deeply ingrained that we won’t need to actively practice them for them to stay reliable, and when that time comes it’ll be easier for us to keep looking forward rather than having to always fall back and plug the holes in our boat.
About The Author:
Ryan Mueller is a guitar teacher and music school owner, dedicated to giving the best guitar lessons in Etobicoke.