5 things learning guitar has taught me about life

Learning to play an instrument even moderately well takes effort, discipline and focus. I’m learning this all over again as our son tortures us during his first months of violin lessons. Great artists make difficult pieces look effortless. It’s not until you attempt some of these pieces that you realise how much work is required to reach and maintain this level of proficiency.

Tokai Love Rock electric guitar

My mid-80s Tokai Love Rock

Studies have identified many benefits associated with learning an instrument. Playing music is one of my favourite ways to unwind when I get stressed out and it’s been a source of pleasure for me and for audiences alike. Many of the things I’ve learnt through playing guitar have broader relevance. Here’s five lessons that translate to other areas of life:

1. You’re not born with it — magical super-powers can be learned

I had a friend in high school who had a great ear for music. After hearing a tune once, he could fumble through it on his keyboard. By the second or third pass he’d have it nailed. This was nothing short of magic to me. I thought playing by ear was something a gifted few were born with and I unfortunately wasn’t one of them. This false, limiting belief held me back for years. I’d accepted defeat before I’d even started.

Man levitates a timber palet

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Years later I came across the idea that playing by ear was a learnable skill. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but even a faint hope of developing this magical ability motivated me. It was incredibly frustrating at first — more difficult than the first times I tried to contort my fingers into playing a D major or F barre chord. In time I began to recognise patterns and it gradually became easier. I’m still not great at it, but I can usually work out chord progressions, melodies and guitar solos for most of the music I enjoy. What I can do now once seemed like an unattainable dream.

The big lesson for me is that it’s not magic. With access to the right resources, some persistence, and dedicated practice, anything is possible. Even if you’re starting from zero, the right approach will see you doing things in a few months that seem impossible now. I’m not denying that natural ability plays a part. Progress will come faster and with less effort if you’re playing to your strengths. Once you see progress though it motivates you to keep improving.

I wish I’d known this earlier — I’d be much further down the road. But I’m also thankful that the lesson has already been learned. Music, sales, programming, woodworking, business strategy, design, calculus — name any field and you can become competent pretty quickly with the right approach. These are all learnable skills. What have you dreamed of doing but put off because you thought it was impossible? Consider this a challenge to take action and see whether your assumptions are really true.

2. Finding a good teacher pays off

It helps if you can find someone who already understands the path and can guide you along the journey. In life and fiction you don’t have to look far to find examples of mentoring relationships. Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, Neo had Morpheus, Daniel LaRusso had Mr Miyagi, and in the guitar world Steve Vai had Joe Satriani.

There’s nothing wrong with being self-taught. It’s easier than ever to find great information to help you learn new skills. Books, videos, blogs, podcasts, forums, and courses can take you a long way. What these formats can’t do is give you immediate feedback as you practise.

A good coach, mentor or teacher can save a lot of frustration and help guide you through areas of difficulty. They can identify and correct issues before they become bad habits. Once poor technique finds its way into muscle memory, learning better techniques becomes much tougher. A mentor can offer advice in the face of obstacles or unfamiliar situations and keep you accountable. In periods of difficulty they can provide encouragement and remind you of how far you have already travelled.

These relationships don’t have to be long-term. Sometimes you just need someone else to help you with a specific issue. I’ve worked with others in short bursts to learn specific skills, help get me out of a rut, or just to help keep me accountable.

Whatever you’re interested in pursuing, find someone who’s been there before and learn as much as you can from them. Check out Michael Hyatt’s post on options for benefitting the wisdom of others who have already travelled the path you’re on.

3. A little each day is better than a binge on the weekend

Have you ever tried to cram a whole subject’s worth of learning in the night before the exam? Most of us have tried it at some point and realised it’s not a particularly effective approach. Spreading the learning over a longer period helps retention and builds deeper understanding. There’s a limit to how much you can jam into your brain at once.

Hungry hippo bites off more than he can chew

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Life’s responsibilities often make it hard to dedicate time to pursuing the things that most interest us. Work, family and study commitments can force your craft to take a back seat. The result is sporadic bursts of focus where we might have a good session on the weekend and do little through the week.

Daily practice helps burn new techniques into muscle memory. Fifteen minutes each day will usually be more effective than a two-hour session on the weekend. If you can manage both formats, so much the better. When I’ve done this consistently I’ve seen more improvement in less time. Small blocks of time each day can add up to something substantial when practised consistently over a longer period.

4. Practise the things you can’t yet do smoothly and consistently

This might sound like a daft question, but has anyone ever taught you how to practise? Unless you’ve been coached in sport or a performance art, the answer is probably “no”.

A VW Passat on two wheels through a corner in the British Touring Car Championship

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Deliberate practise involves stretching into areas that are currently difficult or challenging. This is the territory where growth and development occurs, but it’s not comfortable and resistance is natural. Once your skills improve it’s easy to fall into the trap of just going through the motions and mindlessly rehearsing the things we can already do well. I’ve been guilty of this many times.

Taking a few minutes to plan the practice session before you begin is the best way I know to avoid falling into the mindless repetition trap. Work out the range of activities you want to cover and use a timer to avoid over-investing in one area. Log what you did and make notes about what went well and what you to work on improving for next time. This helps you incorporate a range of skills over the course of a week and cover areas you haven’t rehearsed in a while. Ideally, find a quantifiable metric that you can use to track progress.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “practice makes perfect”. Practice makes permanent is more accurate. Make the most of your time by practising the right things in the right way.

5. Some days you’re hot, some days you’re not

People are not machines. Everyone has off-days when even the basics feel difficult. There are also days when everything comes together flawlessly and effortlessly. And there are many more days between these two extremes.

Stunt guitarist

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There’s been plenty of times when I’ve been on fire one day and had a huge struggle with the same piece the next. Don’t despair if it’s not clicking today. Take a break and do something else for a while. Chances are that things will be better tomorrow.

Learning an instrument requires the simultaneous application of physical, intellectual and creative skills. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I had no idea the techniques and approaches I learned through music would be just as relevant in other areas of life.

Question: What skills or techniques have you developed through your hobbies that have reaped benefits elsewhere in your life? Leave a comment below.

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