(Don’t) Finish One Thing Before Starting Another

“I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”
Frederick Nietzsche

Face it – some of the well-worn lessons that are taught both in and out of school are ineffective when it comes to learning guitar. At the top of the list of aphorisms I reject is “finish one thing before starting another.” It’s true that a lot of goals, both small and large, are best achieved through a methodical and sequential approach. It is also the case that many people feel that their success in learning is dependent on mastering one concept or skill before considering the next. Enjoying and playing music, however, is predominantly a right-brain function, and as such, often calls us to embrace a squirming, out-of-focus and unfinished picture. Clinging to a linear or graded approach invariably results in sluggish progress and a lack of musical vitality. If your default learning style requires you to feel confident and secure through each step of new territory, maybe it’s time to try something new. Be adventuresome! Jump off the cliff!

What Can Be Finished?

In the musical world, many things are impossible to finish. For example, even when a song is performance or recording-ready, the elements it contains may never be fully explored. When you have “mastered” the fretboard, music theory or composition, there will still be new relationships to encounter and songs waiting to be born. So, the question in study and practice often comes down to: should I stay or should I go?

Music Theory: A Puzzle

Because music comprehension is best obtained by studying numerous musical elements and concepts simultaneously, it is important to be willing to surrender to chaos when learning theory. Know that with time and patience, the elements come together like the seemingly unrelated pieces of a puzzle. If you are tenacious in placing the pieces, you will see how each area feeds an understanding of the others and you will be rewarded with a picture even before the project is completed.

In order to practice ear trainingfor example, you need a language to describe aural relationships in music. That language is provided by the study of music theory. If you postponed ear training until you finished studying theory, however, you would never get to ear training! Likewise, it would be both unsatisfying and unrealistic to postpone playing your guitar until you had memorized all the notes on the fretboard or saturated your knowledge of theory and ear training. Even if you managed to persist on such a miserable course, your progress would suffer, as the act of playing is itself instructive and using musical knowledge as you acquire it deepens that knowledge.

Songs: When It’s Okay to Move On (and When It’s Not)

While some people resist starting a new song before they have “finished” the old one, others barely start a song before becoming distracted by another. Both of these tendencies can inhibit learning and cause frustration in the long-term. In order to determine the optimum time to spend on learning a song, take an honest look at your personal style and habits. Are you easily bored or distracted or are you a perfectionist? Do you shy away from challenges or do you relish them?

It is natural to lose motivation and consider dropping a piece when, in spite of diligent practice, you find yourself making little or no progress. If this is a common problem, it’s important to discover how to become unstuck.  If, however, the “stuck” is a result of burnout or of attempting a piece that is beyond your level, it’s best to set it aside. Sometimes it’s just not possible to push through problems in a song until you progress beyond them. Develop your skills systematically through playing fresh material and you will find that when you return to the problematic piece, you will take those skills with you.

Even when you don’t feel stuck, it’s a good idea to overlap songs as you are learning, as opposed to perfecting one song before beginning another. Striving for perfection can create stress and sabotage your efforts – and, after all, your idea of perfection is subjective. Strive instead for correctness.

Playing a piece correctly means that you can play the correct notes and/or chords and that you play them in time. Finished tempo isn’t necessary, nor is satisfying expression or tone, but stay committed to your process and maximize your learning by conquering the basics of a song before leaving it –and don’t forget to return when the time is right!

Practice Well to Finish Well

Although you may never completely finish your exploration of music, when you look back over a period of time, you probably want to feel good about your playing. You can make that happen by cultivating good practice habits. Choose a broad course of study, but make and meet small goals on a daily basis. Be present, persistent and patient during your practice time. And remember that while becoming the musician you want to become takes logging in plenty of intelligent practice, it helps if you get comfortable with juggling!