Becoming Unstuck

Whether you have just started to play guitar or are a seasoned player, you may become “stuck” at some point. Finding yourself unable to progress beyond a particular level, caught in tiresome playing patterns or battling frozen creativity is no fun, but don’t despair – there are solutions!

If you feel that you are only temporarily frustrated or uninspired, check the list of suggestions at the end of this article for ways to get moving again. If, however, you have been stuck at a certain level of playing for a period of time, you will want to look more deeply into the reasons and solutions for your dissatisfaction.

Although a guitarist’s progress can become immobilized at any stage of playing, people often become stuck in one or more of the following stages.

 

Stuck in the Beginning Stage

I have taught countless people who have spent thousands of dollars on instruments, instructional books and videos and lessons – many of whom have taken lessons from a number of teachers – and still cannot play a single song. My heart really goes out to these people, and I am amazed at their determination and commitment! It is a real thrill to help them break through to being a guitar player.

Most people who are stuck at this level need help with basic technique, such as hand and finger positions or how to hold the guitar or the pick. Other common problems for people in this group include inability to keep a steady rhythm or to sing along with their playing, faulty practice methods and tension in the hands and arms. These people may also need to learn a new style of thinking to use during their practice and playing time.

All of these issues, as well as other difficulties that beginners face, require the help of someone who not only can spot the problem, but also can help the student to solve it and move into the next level of playing. I do this for my students by first carefully observing the details of their perceptions and mental processes, as well as the way they physically handle the guitar and then creating specific, individualized approaches and exercises that open the door to comprehension and mechanical facility. My motto is “Do what’s called for”, which means that I come up with what you need in the moment as opposed to teaching from a rigid, one-size-fits-all plan. (For more on this teaching style, read “Lessons With Charlotte.”)

Here is an email I received from an Austin-based actor, Kevin Karwoski, describing how his guitar lessons with me helped him out of a painfully long beginning stage:

You taught me that there’s a difference between guitar lessons and guitar study. I’ve been wanting to learn guitar all my life, and went through five teachers over a lot of years before I found you. Those teachers were nice people and good guitar players, but they were poor instructors, compared to you. The last one came right out and told me that we had gone as far as we could go. That pattern of trying and quitting continued until I met you. You took me under your wing and with a LOT of patience, helped me recognize my bad habits. For example, I couldn’t play in time, but didn’t even know what a metronome was until I studied with you. Now I’m playing songs that I’ve always wanted to learn (and classical songs, too!) and I’m enjoying the instrument more than ever.

Kevin’s is a great success story. The things we did that helped him the most in becoming unstuck were improving his rhythmic skills, increasing his level of attention to the sound and making use of efficient and effective practice methods. He’s a guitar player now!

 

Stuck in or Around the First Position

The next place that guitarists get stuck is in the first position. It is common for guitar players to spend years avoiding songs that require barre chords or soloing up the neck of the guitar. Although it’s true that it is wise to gain facility with first position chords before moving up the fretboard, once you have that facility, it’s time to move! You may actually play some barre chords and still be stuck in this category if you don’t know how to find chords easily and quickly in the upper positions or if you haven’t ventured into single note playing in the upper positions. A logical, organic approach combined with genuine support will help you to eliminate the pain and fear and start having more fun!

The experience that former student Anthony Toprac described – having played guitar for over thirty years, yet being “stuck at a modest level for many of those years” – is common to a great number of guitar players. In Anthony’s testimonial, he goes on to say that after studying with me, he was able to “break free to a higher plane of understanding and a level of playing skill (he) was never before able to reach.” The information that enabled Anthony to break free to that higher plane was gathered in a single, one-day workshop!

Stuck as a Competent and Respected Musician

Another place that is common for guitarists to become stuck is after years of competent playing. Guitar players who are working with a set library of chord voicings or scales may feel dissatisfied with their limited vocabulary. People who suffer this sort of dissatisfaction usually feel confident in the areas of finger strength and dexterity, but are bored by what they play.

If you fall into this category, you are a prime candidate for receiving empowering information! While you may be aware of the benefits of expanding your knowledge base, you may also be concerned about wasting precious time with endless or irrelevant study. It will be important for you to learn from someone who is sensitive to your goals and honest in guiding you towards those goals in the most efficient way possible.

Here is what Austin singer-songwriter Tanya Winch reported about her lessons:

Before I started taking lessons from Charlotte, I would practice and practice my songs and never really seem to get any better.  However, after practicing and learning the exercises Charlotte suggested (and not yet even mastering them!), I have noticed a DRAMATIC difference in my playing.  Not only am I more relaxed and efficient, I am much more comfortable with moving on the fretboard.  It has really surprised me.  I have not noticed that with any of the other teachers I worked with.

 

Stuck Creatively

Many musically educated guitarists reach a point where they feel dissatisfied with their ability to express creatively. Members of this group may have studied music formally and may read standard notation, know theory or even teach music, yet are locked up when attempting to improvise, arrange or compose. I help these players to climb out of their box by giving them the tools they need to generate ideas, redirect established playing patterns and facilitate access to the right brain.

The following description of discovering and trusting the right brain is excerpted from an email I received from Marty Brickley:

I remember when you taught me how to find tonic. It reawakened in me the part that knows that not everything comes to us through reasoning thought – ahhh, a window pointing to the way of freedom! I remember that it was kind of like jumping off a cliff and trusting that my feet were going to find ground. I remember trying to reason it at first, and realizing I couldn’t, I just had to trust that something inside me would find it, and I was so surprised when I did. I know that may seem like a small thing. But, at that time in my life, it was a very important moment for me to begin retrieving a part of me that had been a source of pain and so I’d become afraid of it….so thanks!

 

How I Can Help

Regardless of whether you are stuck in one of the stages I’ve described or are bogged down in some other way, I can help. When we meet (in person or by Skype), I will diagnose and address the issues that are holding you back. I may determine that we need to increase your music literacy or pump up your aural skills in order to help you connect the sounds you hear in your head to your fingers – or, you might possess sufficient information, but need help putting it together in a way that will serve your music. I may observe that your technique or posture is inhibiting your dexterity, strength or speed. You may be a victim of faulty practice habits or a limiting style of thinking, either of which can slow or halt your progress. (Don’t worry – helping people to access both sides of the brain is my specialty!) There are countless reasons for being stuck, but the good news is that there are more solutions than there are reasons!

If you are interested in having me help you, email me to set up one or a series of lessons. Tell me about your playing history and your musical goals and we can take it from there!

 

Quick-Fixes for a Temporary Slump

Here is a list of things that you can do to put some fresh energy into your guitar playing. These practices will benefit your playing, even if you’re not stuck, so give them a try!

Create new technical or theory exercises on the fretboard.

Move (gently!) into an area of your playing where you have diagnosed chronic resistance.

Take a song you’ve played the same way for a long time and do 5 different things with it. Try changing the tempo, chord voicings or the
picking or strumming pattern. Create new fills or leads. Add or rework an introduction or ending. You get the idea.

If you don’t already play with other people, start now! Join a jam, throw a music party, sign up for open mic night, or book a gig.

Jam with some music that is completely foreign to your usual style of playing.

Record yourself

Teach someone else what you know.

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Look inside this book
For details or purchase, click here

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To inquire about private lessons or workshops with Charlotte, contact us.

For dates of upcoming workshops, retreats, and performances, click here.

Please check out my blog for more thoughts on learning and performing guitar…and follow me on Twitter!