Boredom & Guitar Practice
Even the most ardent and enthusiastic players and students will at some time or another, find that they must deal with the enemy of forward movement known as “boredom”. The experience can range from feeling a localized loss of enthusiasm with a song or piece that we have been putting a sustained effort into, to not feeling like practicing for long periods of time. It is a multi-faceted subject; boredom will make its appearance at various times, in various ways, and for various reasons. Like its kindred area of concern-practice organization, dealing with it is most properly seen as an essential life skill, one that we will be called upon to exercise in many other areas of life, not just the most important one, our guitar playing!
To Be Or Not To Be-- Bored!
The first thing that any thoughtful consideration of the subject will bring to light is the fact that each of us has a native capacity for enthusiasm, some more, some less. Some people are naturally endowed with a zest for life and all it contains, they tend to go at things with great energy as a rule. Others just kind of shuffle along through life, as if their primary goal was to avoid attracting much attention, hoping no one will notice they are here. They don’t want to have too much of an effect on the world, and are hoping the world will not have too much effect on them.
And so, we have two types of people: the first has an almost natural immunity to boredom; life is too exciting for boredom to ever appear. The other finds life bearable at best, and constantly seeks to escape its pressure. This latter type will rarely, if ever, be found in the ranks of good guitar players, they really don’t have what it takes to find the love of playing within themselves, and then turn the desire to improve into real accomplishment. However, we frequently find this person flirting with the guitar, trying some lessons perhaps, to see if something can be accomplished without paying too high a price in personal energy and commitment.
The challenge to keep our practice exciting and motivating still remains even for those of us not mired in these deeper issues of personal development. Even the most motivated and hardworking student must know how to navigate through the constantly shifting demands of technical development, knowledge of music, and of course, musical enjoyment. We all must discover how to conduct the balancing act between applying ourselves to something long enough to produce results, while still knowing when to move on to new, exciting and motivating challenges.
Boredom With Exercises
Exercises will quickly lead to boredom if we do not know two things: where they are coming from, and where they are going. By this I mean that we must know WHY we are doing an exercise, and we must know HOW to do it so that progress with the skill developed by the exercise is evident. I will categorically state that most guitar students doing exercises do not have the slightest idea of HOW they should really be done, and that is why results are so often minimal, or actually counterproductive; the doing of the exercise actually builds in playing handicaps.
If we are getting nowhere, then nowhere is where we feel like going, and so we naturally fall into a boring acceptance of our present position, and exert no effort to move beyond it. We must see, we must experience, the cause and effect relationship between our efforts with the exercise, and the results those efforts produce, or all motivation to continue will be lost. Unfortunately, teachers will typically hand out exercises with great enthusiasm, while remaining silent on the subject of how that exercise needs to be done, tailored to the individual student sitting in front of them so that success will be experienced.
We must also know WHAT the exercise is going to do for us, and WHERE it is going to take us. We must be able to see its elements and its purpose in the overall context of guitar playing ability, as much as we are able to. We should demand this insight from our teachers, while realizing that our ability to grasp and appreciate this knowledge is slight in the beginning, and grows with time.
Even with this understanding, we will come in time to be bored with a particular exercise, either because it has done all it can for us at this time, or the natural need of the human mind for the excitement of change has come to the fore. We should move on to another exercise, and come back to review the one we are leaving at a later date, at which point it will serve as an interesting barometer of our progress (we should ALWAYS be able to do them to a higher level of skill, if we are consistently engaged in correct practice.). If we find we are bored with all exercises, it will be from one of two reasons: either we truly do not understand anything about any exercise we do, or we are sincerely satisfied with our present level of technical ability, and have no wish to improve upon it.
Boredom With Songs or Pieces
Unlike exercises, which have no point at which they are ultimately “finished”, we must have a point of closure with songs or pieces. We must have an “exit strategy”. So, how do we know we are “finished” with a song or piece? When we can either perform it for others, or make a recording of it for ourselves, then we know we are “finished”. As an important provisional step, being able to sit and play the song or piece from beginning to end is a good indication that we are close to our goal, that we have “got our hands around it”.
So, what if we get bored before reaching that point?
Well, than we have not sufficiently set these endpoints of performing or recording the piece as desirable and necessary goals, and we must reinforce our realization of the necessity for doing so. I am not saying we must do this with every song or piece we come into contact with, but at any given time we should be in the process of raising something to “performance level”. Professionals do not have the luxury of procrastinating about doing this: we live or die (eat or starve) by our ability to deliver the goods. Students should beware of the danger of languishing around with bits and pieces of unfinished music, as it is an easy trap to fall into, and quickly leads to malaise about practice.
The Anatomy Of Boredom
In order to deal effectively with the myriad forms of boredom, we must understand it in its essence. Boredom is the state that results from the suppression of Desire. As a vacuum is there when air is not, Boredom is here when Desire is not.
There are many reasons for the suppression of desire, from the casual to the tragic. We may continue to plug away at a piece or a solo, long after we have lost all enthusiasm for it, because we think we are “supposed to” be able to play it. A reassessment, and formation of more appropriate goals may be needed, but we do not allow that. Or, we may continue a certain style of guitar, and avoid learning another, because we are not “supposed to” play rock if we are looked at as classical guitarists
We may not follow the prompting of our heart. We may not finish that song we started writing, because we feel we are not great songwriters, and of course, we must be great before we are allowed to do what we want! This happened in a lesson recently with someone who was bringing “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison to completion. It was 90% done, and his motivation was flagging, not just for the song, but for practice in general. As we looked into it, I asked him what he really wanted to do. “Write my own music” was his reply. We discussed why, then, he wasn’t doing this.
Of course, it was fear, the usual culprit, fear of not being good enough. He played a half finished song for me (half finished for a long time) and I told him I wanted to hear the other half next time. Boredom was setting in as the proper punishment for him not listening to his pure desire. Of course, like pain, it should be seen as a warning signal, that more attention is needed to various neglected parts of ourselves. Whenever we are feeling bored, a lack of will to move, we must ask ourselves if it is because we are afraid to admit where we really want to go.
The voice of desire is within all of us, but it must be listened to, or it will cease to speak, and boredom, and perhaps even apathy, its big brother, will take its place. The voice of desire is within all of us, because there is a purpose that has called each one of us into being, and it calls to us throughout our life. If we are serving our true purpose, chronic boredom cannot exist, because as our voice is listened to, purpose is uncovered, and goals are discovered. The rightness of those goals for us will generate Desire that will pull us toward those goals like iron to a magnet. The congruence of our goals with our true nature, and our true purpose, determines the intensity of our desire.
We must chose worthy goals, goals that we respect, goals that give us self-respect. You will know you have found the goal you need when it gives you this, as well as the energy to pursue it.
If desire is weak, it is sign we are not doing something we would be doing if we were true to ourselves, or we are presently doing something we wouldn’t. And so, if we suffer chronic boredom, we must ask ourselves “How am I not listening to my own inner voice, how am I not seeing, and feeling, my own purpose”. Find the answers, and you will find your Desire, and you will banish boredom forever.
Boredom can be of a more transitory nature, and be the result of less serious concerns. Boredom is often simply the result of the failure to set adequate or appropriate goals, not for any deep reason, but simply because we have not tended to our own internal “housekeeping”. It may arise because the goals we have set are too easy for us. It takes a certain amount of challenge to energize us and compel us to bring out our best. On the other hand, if we have chosen goals that are beyond our present resources to achieve, we will also find our energy and enthusiasm waning. Picking the right goals as we go along is an essential part of the process.
Sometimes, we find ourselves not traveling our path of progress simply because we have not clearly decided where we want to go, or we have not decided in which direction the path lies. We must create “structures” of activity, we must “cut out our work” before we can do it. This is why I always stress creating practice schedules and routines. However, we don’t have to follow them 7 days a week, and we should not turn them into another source of torment by feeling like we are failing to live up to them. We can just fool around for awhile, and even cheat and take days off, but we should have a structure to return to after skipping school!
Some of the more transitory aspects of boredom are natural occurrences, arising out of the natural need to seek balance after one side of a polarity has been experienced to its full, such as the need to get out of the house after being cooped up for so long you feel “stir crazy”. We simply need a change of scenery after awhile. For this reason, I am always working on a number of things at the same time in my practice, each at different stages of development; some for pure technique, some for the music.
When boredom arises, I always listen to it, and I do something to energize my excitement once again. I may be doing a technical workup for anywhere from 10 min to 30 min, and then stop and play some pieces if I feel the need. I may start something new, or find something new in what I am presently doing. I do not recommend working while bored, better to stop and seek the cause and cure of your boredom. Of course, if we have performance obligations, we must learn the material in any case, but we should realize that it is not our responsibility to merely learn the material, but to be excited by it as well, so that excitement can be transferred to others.
Children, when they are bored, think the world is at fault, that the world is boring (what parent hasn’t heard the lamentation “I’m bored, there’s nothing to DOOOOOO!”, which is almost as popular and universal as “Are we there yet!”) Sometimes that is true, because they are forced to live in a limited world of limited choices, but more often, they are simply refusing to make use of the choices they have. Ultimately, being bored is a failure to meet our own responsibility, it is a lack of of involvement, a lack of creativity either in the moment to moment work we do, or in the creation of the structures within which we work, and the goals we are working toward. It is a warning signal to be heeded, it means we must make a change, and recharge our inner battery. As in life, so in guitar, and those who meet the challenges of life with the dedication to express their highest potential will find boredom an infrequent, and fleeting visitor.
People vary in their native capacity for enthusiasm about life.
A high level of enthusiasm is essential to our progress as guitarists.
We all face the challenge of sustaining our motivation by keeping our practice interesting, exciting and productive.
Boredom is the condition that results in the absence of Desire.
Desire may be absent because fear shuts down the voice of our inner callings.
Boredom may occur simply because we lack the skills to set adequate and appropriate goals.
The congruence of our goals with our true nature, and our true purpose, determines the intensity of our desire.
Practice schedules, properly made, maintained, and changed, help prevent boredom.
Ultimately, being bored is a failure to meet our own responsibility to be creatively involved in life, and the moment.