The term “discipline” is tightly connected to the process of practice and development of any demanding skill - be it a sport, the art of calligraphy or playing a musical instrument.
Any serious musician knows how hard it can be to keep up a consistent practice schedule no matter what. Practicing scales, studying theory, writing songs and recording take after take…the time you are on stage with people cheering at you is nothing compared to the amount of time you spend alone with the instrument - and your own mind.
It is therefore crucial to better understand our inner workings, to ensure that our mind is an ally and not an enemy that we fight each day - in addition to our musical challenges.
Let´s start by attempting to understand what discipline is. It is obviously not physical like learning a new guitar technique but instead, it is a state of mind.
Here´s my definition of the term discipline:
Discipline: The application of willpower to overcome inner resistance
It´s important to know that there is another component to discipline: resistance. Discipline and resistance go hand in hand and one is used to overcome the other. Think about it this way: The amount of discipline you need is in direct proportion to the resistance inside you. If you had no resistance - no discipline would be needed. I bet you’ve already discovered this for yourself - there were days when practicing scale patterns for hours was fun and the time just flew by, right?
Then, doing it again the next day, the same routine was torture…How can the same thing be heaven one day and hell the next? It´s all in our state of mind. Let´s examine some common mind games that can cause resistance…
Mental projections about practicing
Think of the time when you had a whole day off, all the time in the world and you wanted to get up early to practice. Instead, you slept in, had an extra cup of coffee and after checking your email, the weather in different countries and social networking sites, you get mad at yourself when you think about your plan to practice the entire day. Almost the whole day passes until you finally sit down and practice and then…it´s fun! You really enjoy it after getting into it for a few minutes! So, what was your problem that day? The actual act of practicing? No. Your problem was just a mental projection ABOUT practicing that influenced and determined your actions for that day and made you procrastinate!It´s very important to distinguish between real and imagined difficulty to not be caught in a mental projection.
Thinking about the whole instead of the present chunk
Another component that easily leads to paralysis through overwhelm is to think about your entire practice schedule for the day. If you practice for multiple hours - just thinking of all the elements you want to tackle can easily weigh you down and cause severe resistance. Even worse is the thought of how many different musical elements there are to practice and how huge music really is! Again, nothing tangible has happened that has created that uncomfortable feeling within you - just some thoughts in your head.
We start to play guitar for various reasons and I can say that I started to play guitar, because I thought it was the coolest instrument in the world! I thought that it would impress people if I could learn to play and maybe even impress my crush. It´s easy to see that this reason has very little to do with musical expression itself - instead it was a simply a means to an end, it a was self-seeking reason. If you play guitar, because you have a subconscious belief that you are not worthy and by becoming a famous player, rockstar or whatever, you can finally attain worthiness - it means you are using music to fill an inner hole.
Of course, if the belief is subconscious you wouldn’t even know it - you´d simply act it out.
I´m not saying that this is bad in any way; it´s just good to be aware of the reasons why we want to attain certain things and the difficulties those reasons might create for us, because such a mindset will make it impossible to love the practicing and you will most likely hate the process.
The process will be just an obstacle not allowing you to get to where you want to go. If you want to somehow “add value” to your self image - there are far easier ways to do this than music.
Bringing in time
One thing that can help you maximize your focus during practice is to be aware of your mind’s tendency to recall the past or daydream about the future. Recalling the past could be remembering how much practice time you’ve put in already, often paired with a disappointment that it didn´t help you to progress as fast as you wanted…
The mind could also jump to the future and daydream about the skills you will have at some point.
That´s good for visualizing, but not ideal to get the most out of your practice time right now. Those mind movements are not bad and you shouldn´t apply any force to “get rid of them” or to “control” them. It´s just what the mind does. Just don´t get lost in the projections and bring your focus back to the one moment that will ever exist: NOW.
You cannot do anything in the past nor in the future, but you can concentrate and strive for the best quality in what you do in this moment and do just that. One pick stroke. One chord change.
Exclusive fixation on results
One huge obstacle is our almost exclusive obsession with results. “You want me to practice without wanting results?” you might ask… No, of course not, but getting results should not be the only point of focus, because it will hinder us to enjoy the process itself. If the result is all that matters and you hate the journey, you will most likely not get very far. Think about planning for a journey, asking yourself mentally: “Ok, I´ll be going to Paris, New York, Tokyo and then I end up…back home. So, why go in the first place if I end up where I am right now?” Stupid, right? We are on the journey for the joy of the journey itself! Even if it could be completed, you´d start out on another journey!We cannot ever get it done! It´s all for the joy of it!
We saw that our own mind, with its repeating thought patterns and mental projections can quickly become an obstacle to keeping a consistent practice routine. Now we will learn to observe our thoughts, diminish inner resistance, and avoid feeling overwhelmed to increase the joy in our guitar practice.
Awareness of your inner processes
The first task is to build the foundation: awareness of our thoughts. Most of us are completely unaware of our thoughts; we “are” our thoughts and instantly act them out, until we develop a higher degree of awareness that enables us to witness them as an observer that has a conscious choice. Notice how the emotion you feel in your body directly relates to your thoughts:
Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions which in turn lead to “negative action” - which mostly manifests as “no action at all”. How then, do we develop awareness of our thoughts? A music related approach could be the following:
• Sit down in your practice space and take your guitar
• If your amp has “reverb” built in, turn it up all the way
• Choose a single note and play it
• Listen to it from it´s attack to it´s complete decay into silence
• Do this for a few minutes, take your time listening to each note and really pay attention to it´s life cycle
• It comes up, rings out and decays
• Now put your guitar down and listen to the thoughts that come up in your mind, just like we previously did with the note
• When you observe your thoughts for the first time, you will notice that there´s a lot going on in your mind - don´t try to push anything away and don´t try to control - just witness what happens
• Observe how thoughts are quite similar to sounds - they also come up, stay for a moment and fade into silence
If you play this game right before your practice, witness thoughts ABOUT practice that create resistance within you, like: “I´m never going to get this down…” or “person xyz is much more talented, I just don´t have what it takes…”
Notice that your level of identification with these thoughts equals your feeling of corresponding negative emotion. If you instead observe them as “repeating thought forms”, like a neutral observer with no emotional attachment, it takes the emotional energy out of them.
• They are just an old record
• They arise and fade like sounds
• They are not you
• They appear in your consciousness
Practicing this for a couple of minutes before you start playing the instrument will greatly increase the awareness of your inner processes over time and make it much easier to not get identified with negative thoughts about the progress of your practice.
Focus on this step
One big challenge we face as practicing musicians is paralysis due to overwhelm. We´re not lazy, and we´re passionate about music - still, in many cases just the thought of practice bogs us down…
Here´s an important strategy to avoid overwhelm:
Choose a few elements that you like, bring them to the level of mastery and then alter those elements by creating more and more variations from that basic foundation. Try to get as much mileage out of a single idea instead of constantly looking for “new” things to practice.
If we switch back and forth between learning flamenco guitar, jazz guitar, classical guitar and various styles of rock guitar at the same time - we´ll end up feeling frustrated, because we are not focusing our efforts. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, it is crucial to first notice our thought patterns. In many cases we might uncover the unconscious idea of WANTING TO FINISH a task as the underlying current that creates the feeling of stress.
Remind yourself regularly that music is infinite, that it is nothing that we can ever “get done” or “finish”.
A single musical system, like the one we use in the western world, is huge in itself, but we don´t have to be bogged down by it and know the whole system inside and out before we are able to create music! A system is just a way to categorize infinite combinations of musical elements into a usable framework. We can see it as a buffet to which we can always come back to get more, but we don´t have to devour everything in one evening! If we eat too much food we will feel bloated - so, we choose a delicious dish and really savor the meal!
Think about it: This wonderful “buffet” called music never ceases to offer new possibilities, tastes and varieties! Isn´t that great?
You are as worthy as it gets - there´s nothing to add
Many human beings are probably familiar with sensing a feeling of emptiness at a certain point in their lives. Whatever your thoughts might be on the reason for your own existence; we often have a buried belief that we are here to perform, to pass tests, to attain a “state of worthiness” and that someday, when we reach the end of the rainbow, we will finally feel good about ourselves.
I don´t think happiness and inner peace are possible with such a concept as a foundation, because it´s basis is a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling of “not being enough” or being “less” than somebody else.
There are many examples of how this mind pattern manifests in our lives and the tricky thing is to recognize it, because it´s not necessarily the external activity, but the underlying motif and mindset behind it that leads to pain. If we get into music as a means to add value to ourselves, to be recognized as talented, special, valuable or intelligent - we will always be frustrated, because our feeling of self-worth will always depend on external confirmation.
Let me propose this idea:
• There is nothing to add in terms of your value as a being.
• You are as worthy as it gets!
• Nothing you will ever learn will change your inherent value!
That does not mean that you will cease to learn, grow and expand - No. It simply means that you´ll proceed from an understanding of your value and then the journey can be really fun, because now you don´t do things to be recognized - You do things, because you love music and the process of developing your inherent potential!
Coming back to the present moment
We often hear about the amount of hours certain well known players practice each day - the length of time. Interestingly we almost never hear about the depth of time - the QUALITY of time invested to achieve the best possible outcome. The key ingredients to quality time are focus and concentrated effort, i.e. focusing intensely on the one element you are practicing in this moment and practicing the critical element(s) that are most relevant for what you want to be able to play.
The challenge in developing the ability to focus intensely, is the mind´s tendency to constantly jump to imagined future scenarios, dwell on past memories or get lost in repetitive thought patterns…if you don´t know what I´m talking about right now – it is due to a lack of awareness about your thought processes.
To get out of the minds tendency to jump, we first have to be aware of what our mind is doing, otherwise we will simply be dragged along and won’t even realize it. We have to practice to witness our thoughts without getting identified with them all the time.
This leads us to two steps to deepen the quality of our practice:
1. Develop and expand the awareness of our thoughts
2. Practice “Re-focusing”, i.e. constantly bringing our mind/concentration back to the present moment whenever we notice that our minds have drifted
Don´t see it as a another item to practice, but simply as another layer, which ensures your practice gets deeper over time - as it does, you will get better results. At first it will be a constant switch between being focused for a short while, getting lost in thought and bringing our awareness back, but you´ll get better from day to day.
Don´t be discouraged if it varies depending on your mood, lack of sleep, etc…
This is normal, so don´t beat yourself up. Just strive to do your best each time to increase the quality of your practice. Periods of high focus have certain characteristics that help us gauge the quality of our practice.
Here are some signs that you can check for:
• Loosing track of time and a feeling of total immersion
• Feeling of ease, quiet and relaxation
• Absence of boredom
• A deep but subtle joy
• Sense of heightened physical and mental awareness
These feelings are highly pleasurable and the more you experience and thereby unconsciously link them to your “thoughts about practice”, the less discipline you will need. In time you will associate practice with a joyous feeling and be looking forward to it instead of resisting it.
Set a goal AND fall in love with the process
I´ve learned a lot about goal setting and constantly use it myself, but when I do some research on the topic, I often get the feeling that many people fall for the assumption that you can either:
A. Set goals and work hard each day to reach them
B. Enjoy your life
You don’t have to choose. You can have both! In fact, you NEED both or you´ll become burned out and hate the process. Here´s the best definition of goal setting that I found so far:
Goals: An organized way to enjoy my day!
Isn´t that wonderful? Goals are great because they give you a sense of direction - you don´t set them to stress you out! Without a goal you might dabble with something for a while then dabble with something else, never getting the results you want and wondering why you are not getting better…
The more clearly you can define the technique(s) you want on the instrument, the better, because you can then set a goal as a flag on the horizon, you can determine the steps you need to take to get there and - measure your progress on the way to fuel you! I once heard Zig Ziglar bring up a great example in relation to goal setting: Suppose you could speak to Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who was the first to climb Mount Everest and ask him: “Mr. Hillary, how come you made it up to Mount Everest as the first human being in history?”How likely would this reply be? “Well, you know, I was just strolling around, taking a walk and suddenly - Damn! I was on top of that thing!”
It makes us laugh, still we often behave like that. We don´t have a specific outcome in mind - thus can´t create a path leading to that outcome - and then we wonder why we ended up in some random place, labeling ourselves untalented, failures etc…It makes no sense.
Clearly defined goals are a huge help, because without a compelling goal it is difficult to stay inspired. Setting a goal is like planning the destination of a journey, but we also need is appreciation of each step of the journey itself.
If you´re constantly focusing on “getting there”, dismissing and using the present moment only as a means to an end - you´re missing your life and you´ll never be content. So, I encourage you to have both, a goal and joy in the present moment!