A Guitar Lesson for My Sister, Or A Paean to Practice.

My sister asked me for tips on teaching herself to strum basic chords on guitar while she sings. Since I taught myself to strum basic chords while I sing, I’m a reasonable person to ask.  The most simple answer—which I gave her, and which is hardly a surprise, I expect—is to practice.  We were texting and she put her “sigh” into words. 

But when I say “practice,” I want her to see that idea in the same light as I do—as something good.  That’s why I’m writing a “paean”—a song of praise—though it’s not really a song, but an essay.  And, I suppose, it’s not really to my sister, or not only to my sister, because these are the fundamental ideas that I think lie at the heart of good writing, or even, good living.

Practice, I must admit, is a central idea in how I approach life. It’s not a concern that rises to the level of obsession, but it is something that I think about and preach for.  (And, naturally, I try to practice what I preach on this subject.) Practice, I believe, leads to a better life—not just for me but for people in general. But I don’t want to digress too much into talking about practice because this is ostensibly a guitar lesson for my sister. 

Practice is difficult

If I were singing a song of praise for practice, it would be easier to ignore or leave aside the manifest difficulties of practice, but an essay making an argument for practice should deal with the complexities of the issue.

There are good reasons to sigh if someone tells you that you need to practice to accomplish your goal.  Practice is difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. It can be painful. To ignore these aspects of practice would be to ignore reality.

To practice the guitar as a beginner means making unmusical noises. It means fingers that hurt from pressing on fine, taut wires (nylon strings can make fingers sore; steel strings are worse). And it means the frustrations of trying to get untrained fingers to make precise motions.  These frustrations may be exacerbated by the fact that for the beginner, it the less competent hand that requires the necessary fine motor control to properly fret the strings.  (In the long run, this makes sense for the guitar, because it is the picking that is the more difficult part, which is why right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand, and left-handed guitarists—Hendrix, McCartney, e.g.,—put the fret board in their right hand.  This is, I think, counter=intuitive because the fretboard, with all the multiple frets and multiple strings, appears complicated, while the strumming/picking appears simpler—as just the sweeping of the pick across the strings.)

Failure is frustrating, and practice begins with a lot of failure.  My sister, for all her musicality, and for all her manual dexterity, will probably do more noise making than music making in her practice, at least to start.

And even once she’s practiced enough that she spends more time making music than noise, there will still be difficulties. Practice tends to bump up against limitations. 

Practice can be boring

To do something right—especially something musical—repetition helps.  You want your fingers to go to the right strings and the right frets at the right speed? Repeat the motion, over and over, and you’ll get better.  

Repetition gets boring, though. Boring and frustrating. When you switch between those two chords for the 100th time, you may well be bored. Bored and frustrated—it’s not out of the question that you get bored of the  simple task you’re practicing even before you can do it well.  That’s both boring and frustrating. Practices are like that.  The habits/skills/abilities that support a strong, competent practice don’t develop without repetition.  Trying to play a song? Keep working through it until you play it well. Trying to write a document? Keep writing and revising!

Practice is often frustrating

The anodyne to boredom is to try something new. But, in practice, trying something new means trying something that you haven’t practiced before, and that means that you’re likely to come up against your own limitations again.

Once you have mastered that first simple song—at which point you may well be sick of it from having played it so many times—you will be tempted to learn something new. But, since you won’t have practiced that new song, playing it will be difficult and frustrating, and may have a low reward/frustration ratio.

Practice tends to be like this, in whatever arena.  To avoid boredom, we try new things, but those new things are difficult and frustrating, and the way to master them is to practice, which can wind back to boredom (while including a healthy dose of frustration).

The key, I think, is to find the balance between these two areas—where there is sufficient challenge that it’s not boring, and sufficient competence that it’s not too frustrating.  If we can find that balance, we can possibly find some of the best moments of our lives.

Practice can be rewarding

Practice isn’t always unpleasant. It is not just a move from boredom to frustration and back.  Practice is also exhilarating and often enjoyable.  It carries rewards both in the long run and in the immediate present.

The long-run rewards of practice are, I think, the most obvious.  The expectation is that the frustration and difficulty of practice will payoff with a long-term accomplishment. If you work hard enough, then you have he satisfaction of a job well done.  To be sure, this is a very real and very worthy aspect of practice: there is a lot of long-term comfort in being able to look back at a job well done.

At the same time, there’s another kind of pleasure that can accompany practice, and this is the sense, in the moment, that you’re doing something well.  This is distinct from retrospective pride, though it is certainly related.  But the sense of pleasure in the moment of practice is not so much, I think, pride at an accomplishment, but rather a sense of personal power and ability. And it’s not just satisfaction with self, as it can be absorption into the act.

A very large part of why I learned to play guitar was because I love music, and although my musicianship isn’t nearly up to the standards of the recording stars whose work I love, it is enough to spark my own appreciation of music. I may not play that two-chord song as well as my heroes, but I can play it well enough that I enjoy the song.  Similarly, there are times when I’m writing when I’m entirely caught up in an idea that I think is interesting, and the interest in the idea I’m trying to convey is itself a form a pleasure.

In short, I think practice offers three kinds of reward: the long-term accomplishments; the short-term sense of power/ability; and the absorption into something of interest.


My main point here, I suppose, is not so much to dispel negativity about practicing as to balance than negativity with the positive side, especially the positive aspect that gets overlooked: the pleasure in practice.

Yes, practice is difficult and frustrating.  But that is not the only face of practice.  Practice is also pleasurable and uplifting.  There are times when practice is difficult, perhaps even painful.  But in a good, healthy practice, there should also be times when you feel your strength and ability, and times when you can celebrate accomplishments. 

Perhaps this is all a product of my personal experience: the best things in my life have grown out of practice and effort and working through problems. There are good things that I’ve enjoyed–movies, books, television–that didn’t require effort or investment. But those were small things compared to the satisfactions I’ve felt when my writing, or my music, were going well. And that is why, I write this paean to practice.