One of the reasons I began a degree in composition, aside from loving all the stuff that goes on under the hood of music, was that playing guitar was becoming a difficult and consistently painful thing to do and I wanted to ensure that whatever happened I’d still be able to make music.
By the end of my first year of undergrad I pretty much had to give the guitar up altogether. Luckily (?) I was able to get away with this as performance on my instrument wasn’t a front and centre concern for a composition degree however it was a far from ideal situation.
I had no one to blame but myself, I’d put myself in this situation through bad habits. My practice had been lazy, inefficient, bullish.
I took a year off guitar and in 2009 began a series of attempts to repair my ability to play. I went to a physio for a while, took a class in Alexander Technique at uni, began practicing yoga again, and between the skills I picked up I cobbled together a rehab program for myself.
Within a year I was able to play basic rock guitar a couple of times a week without significant pain, and I’ve been very carefully re-developing my guitar technique since then. In the last couple of months I’ve been able to resume practicing regularly, if I’m sensible with what I do I can practice every day.
What’s the point of me writing all this?
I’d just like to share a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way about playing instruments and about practice, and hopefully whoever reads this might avoid a couple of pitfalls.
Playing an instrument should be easy
That’s not to say it’s not complicated, or challenging. That’s the art of practice, learning to make progressively complicated tasks easy to execute. Amazing instrumentalists, Hendrix, Menuhin, whoever, play complicated music with ease. For you this might be a quick process or it might be a slow process, it depends. You might be lucky and slip naturally into a really efficient technique, or you might be really good at analysing problems of technique and be able to consciously self correct relatively quickly. If this doesn’t happen for you it doesn’t matter, enjoy what you are able to do with ease and look for small ways to refine and improve what you do. The worst thing you can do is force the matter.
For example a lot of people (myself included) get hung up on how fast they can play. A natural thing to do if an increase in speed doesn’t come easily is to tense up and try to force your hands to move faster. This will work for a while. However if the only way you know how to maintain this ability is through tension and force then you WILL burn out sooner or later, that’s guaranteed.
In this example the route to increased speed is smaller movements, with less energy expended.
Pain is your body telling you you’re doing something wrong
If any part of your technique is causing you pain stop, rest it and try something else. If it’s a pain that’s persistent for minutes or more after you stop, rest it for a day and try something else. If it’s a pain that doesn’t go away at all after you stop (this will happen after years of bad practice) rest it for as long as it takes for the pain to ease, in some cases this could be weeks or months. You need to rest anything causing you pain. You have pain for a very good reason, it’s built into your body at a very primal level and it’s a vital survival tool. Anyone who tells you to “play through” pain doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re on the path to disaster themselves. Follow at your peril.
The only instance in which pain is not something to take too seriously is when you first begin playing an instrument and get some stinging on your skin where you need to form a callus. Even in this instance you need to allow the skin sufficient time to toughen up.
Practice how you intend to perform
A lot of people will adopt a different physical posture, tone, volume level, etc. practicing and performing. If you perform playing standing up and with a broad dynamic range then practice playing standing up with a broad dynamic range. If you practice and perform differently then you’re learning to play in two different ways, you’re essentially learning two instruments, doubling your workload. It will take you longer to improve, and any technical gains that you achieve in your practice may take a while to translate across to performance or may not translate at all.
Only play if you really want to
This one may seem a little silly, practicing an instrument takes a lot of energy and time, but I’ve met a lot of people studying an instrument at university level, who are really good at what they do, who play an instrument…because they play an instrument. They get to the end of it and find themselves at a loose end, and not really wanting to play any more. If this is you, save your time and energy for something you really care about. You’re a very capable, intelligent person, and you could be doing something far more satisfying with your time. Inertia is a pretty tawdry form of motivation, find a better reason, or find something better to do with yourself. And don’t beat yourself up over the effort you’ve already put into it, who knows you may come back to it some day with a new perspective, and if you do your insight will probably make it easier and more rewarding.