If You’re Going To Miss, Miss Big

Out of all the things I’ve ever learned about playing the guitar, the most important is that fear will kill you. Fear causes hesitation. Fear causes tension. Fear causes performance anxiety. Fear causes more fear, and the cycle repeats. Fear, then, is the enemy and must therefore be confronted, beaten senseless and left lying in a heap in the corner of your practice room.

Fear manifests itself in strange ways. For example, I used to fear the pick getting “stuck” on the strings. Until recently I had tons of problems with my picking hand. The physical work that I was doing was helping, but I still wasn’t 100% comfortable. Then one day I noticed that my picking hand was actually “afraid” of the strings, which was causing hesitation and tension. The fear turned out to be at least at big a cause of my picking hand problems as the purely physical aspects.

Without fear as part of the equation, mistakes are fairly straightforward things to fix, as long as we approach them in a rational manner. For example:

  • Is this a physical mistake? Do I simply need to spend more time training my muscles to be better coordinated in order to play this properly?
  • Is this a memory mistake? Am I not able to look far enough ahead while playing to know what comes next?
  • Is this a listening mistake? Do I not have a good enough handle on what this is supposed to sound like, and therefore my hands are off on their own without my ear to guide them?

These kinds of mistakes can be fixed. We can ask questions of ourselves, like the ones above, and then put a plan together to attack the problem areas that we identify.

Fear, though, masks solvable problems. There’s no way to analyze problems based on fear because they’re irrational in nature. They’re constantly morphing and impossible to pin down. When fear is part of the equation, it’s possible to practice a piece of music for your entire life and never get it right. The fear is always one step ahead of you, mocking, taunting, laughing… because the very existence of that fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy of certain failure.

So how, exactly, do we confront and beat fear? There’s no one simple way that will work for everyone, but here’s an example of how I went about it: I resolved to never make mistakes based on hesitation while practicing. If I was going to make a mistake, it was going to be a big, honking, show-stopping mistake. A real mistake, not an “oh no I might screw up this next part” mistake.

Try this for yourself. Take a passage in a song that has always gotten the best of you, and resolve to only make the kinds of mistakes that can arise from the certain belief that you will play the passage properly. Start at a tempo that’s comfortable. Swing your fingers and your pick freely, and see what happens. You might hit the wrong frets. You might hit the wrong strings. You might miss the strings completely. It might sound like the worst piece of garbage you’ve ever played. Your family, friends (and any household pets) might steer clear of you while you’re engaging in this experiment, but you will be at the starting point on the path to looking fear in the eye and not blinking.

You will make mistakes, but that’s the idea… to allow yourself to make REAL mistakes (not fear-based mistakes) and then fix them.

Soon enough it will be you mocking fear instead of fear mocking you.