Patience and Guitar Practice

Imagine a farmer who has planted his field with corn on Sunday. On Monday, he comes to check his field and sees no corn growing. He starts stamping his feet and swearing at the soil, saying it is no good and does not have the potential to grow corn. He decides to give up being a farmer.

I think we would all agree that this farmer, who has lost his patience so completely, is also quite ignorant. He is ignorant of the laws that govern the growing of corn, and does not understand the time frame involved, or the level of consistent care that his fields and crops require in order to grow a successful crop of corn.

We would also agree that this ridiculous example probably does not really ever occur, no farmer is that dumb! But, when it comes to guitar players, I can tell you, it happens all the time!

I have often read comments by guitar players about the value of having “patience” in relation to practicing guitar. Usually, the statement is made in the context of an overall lament that they themselves are sorely lacking in this acknowledged virtue, and, while hoping someday to enjoy its benefits, nonetheless recommend that you yourself do not delay in practicing its lofty tenets.

Most people feel somewhat guilty as they admit they lack patience. They assume that the lack of patience is evidence of some type of character flaw or moral failing, and that he who can bear the ups and downs of life (and guitar practice) with patience is certainly a superior type of person.

Such ruminations are childish, and unenlightened. More importantly, they will not get you any closer to “having patience” yourself, and that is the purpose of me putting my fingers to the keyboard to write this essay – to bring you closer to that necessary but little understood state of having patience. No matter what endeavor of life you find yourself in, when you have patience, you have power.

You Can’t Get Patience, It Just Happens

I am going to show you that there really is no such thing as “having patience.” Patience is something that is there when other things are there. Patience is there when knowledge and understanding are there. If knowledge and understanding is not there, if ignorance is there, as in the case of the farmer above, then patience will not be there either. I say this because I am sick and tired of hearing guitar students say “I get frustrated when I practice. I have no patience.” No, it is not patience they lack, it is knowledge and understanding.

The farmer who wants to grow a crop of corn needs to understand the cause and effect relationship of all the elements involved in doing that. He needs to understand about preparing the soil, watering the seeds, and how, over time, these seeds will germinate and grow into corn. He needs to understand that his job is merely to cooperate intelligently with a set of natural forces that have their own power, work their own magic, and do it on their own timetable for the most part. Of course, there are things he can do to optimize the conditions in which these forces are working so that they are more powerful and produce better and perhaps even somewhat faster results. This is all part of being a good farmer.

It is the same for guitar players. When we sit down to practice, which is the process of building skill on the guitar, we are, whether we know it or not, working with, or against, a set of natural forces, as natural as the ones that grow corn. If we understand these forces, if we know how to work with them, we will always see our skills growing day by day, as a result of the efforts we make. This will happen as surely as the good farmer watching his corn grow over time.

No part of the process will surprise or dismay us. We will not expect things to happen that are impossible to happen, and we will not prevent things from happening by doing the wrong things. We will not have hissy fits because we are not seeing results, because when we know how to practice correctly, we will always see results. We really will not need any patience, because there will be nothing to become impatient about.

Saint Jamie

There is an old saying used to describe particularly obnoxious people. We say “he would try the patience of a saint.” We usually think of saints as extremely patient people – they never “lose it,” no matter how frustrating things get.

Well, when I practice, there are times when I do nothing but fail, over and over, hundreds, even thousands of times. Often, I am trying to do something, and I just can’t do it. I may think I have it down solid, and I go to record it, and it falls apart! Do I start yelling? Do I start crying?

No, I don’t. And believe me, I’m no saint! Except maybe when it comes to guitar. Maybe with guitar I am a saint because I never lose it. Instead, when I have a problem, I study it. Whatever it is, whatever has happened, whatever I have just messed up that I thought I had solid, I study it, objectively, like a scientist.

I try with all my powers to understand the cause and effect relationship of how I am practicing this music, and how I am attempting to do it (including fingering, positioning, etc) and I begin to experiment with new approaches based on my investigations. I do this because I know there is a cause and effect relationship between my efforts and my results. If it’s not working, then there is something I am not seeing yet, and instead of “losing my patience” I simply focus my attention more strongly, I look more closely to see what I am obviously missing.

And I can tell you, I never fail. It may take me weeks, months, or years, but I always get what I want.

My attitude, which looks to others like “patience” is simply a result of my knowledge of the process in which I am engaged, that’s all. And so, we can define “patience” in this way:

Patience is a state of relaxed, alert, and expectant composure that derives from engaging in a goal directed activity of which we have complete knowledge and understanding of the cause and effect dynamics of that process.

That’s it. That is what patience is. To put it in simple language, “patience” is what you get when you are smart, and “impatience” is what you get when you are ignorant!

Patience is characterized by a continuation of effort toward a goal, based on our understanding of what necessary efforts must be made, and impatience is surrender, the ceasing of our efforts because we simply don’t know what to do.

For this reason, I say to all sincere seekers of guitar playing ability: learn the science of correct practice. Empower yourself with the knowledge and understanding of the laws that control how the fingers learn to make the movements called “playing the guitar.”

If you do, you may very well have people tell you they see a halo around your head when you are practicing guitar. After awhile, you will certainly have people tell you that you play like an angel!

Copyright 2010 Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.