First, let’s define success on guitar. Success to me is practicing 5 to 7 days a week with a record of doing it for at least 254 days which I will explain below. The practice must be quality practice, not simply noodling or doing what you can already do. You should be working on challenging skills or at least, be refining your current skills to consider it real practice. The term ‘deliberate practice’ is often used to describe this approach. Even if you are not very good after 254 days don’t worry. Its only a matter of time.
What do you need to succeed on guitar?
In a word, ‘habit’. Most people don’t actually decide to suddenly quit guitar. What usually happens is they lose motivation to practice. For some this loss of motivation happens within the first few weeks whereas for others it may take months. Either way the result is the same. The habit of practice never takes hold. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology a team of researchers surveyed 96 people over a 12 weeks to work out how long it would take to develop a new habit. Participants had to choose a new habit and report daily. The conclusion was it took on average of 66 days. Note that 66 is not a magical number. Some people can develop the habit of practice faster and others may take longer but it was found sometimes a habit could be form in as little as 18 days or it may take as much as 254 days. In my experience, guitar students take around 6 months to develop the habit of practice.
Would you like to know now if you’ll fail?
It would certainly save you a lot of time and money right? An experienced guitar teacher can generally spot a potential failure in just the first few weeks of lessons. The reason we can spot such students is because future success and failure are preceded by distinct behaviours in their approach to practice. Its the behaviour I believe that dictates the inevitable outcome for the student. Present human behaviour is often a strong predictor of future outcomes. For example, there was a study in the UK that showed bus drivers were much more likely to suffer heart disease and therefore die at a younger aged compared to bus conductors. The drivers sat all day while the conductors stood and walked up and down stairs all day. In the beginning, both were probably much the same health wise but, their choice of job (behaviour) made their long term outcome in terms of health predictable. Guitar students also make choices early which dictate their long term outcomes.
What is the right behaviour for success?
The behavioural difference is related to what drives their decision to practice. The successful student chooses to practice based on a set schedule. Their choice is not affected by mood or emotion. The decision to practice at 4pm each day for 30 minutes has been made and, regardless of what else is going on in their life they will begin their practice at this time each day. The student who is destined to fail exhibits a very different behaviour. They instead allow their emotions to decide when and if they will practice. If they are not in the mood they simply don’t practice. Habits are formed through repetition. If you are inconsistent with your practice, the habit is much less likely to form.
Why success is all about the way you react
The answer lies in the difference between being ‘proactive’ verses ‘reactive’. The successful student is proactive in their choices whereas the failed student tends to be reactive to situations. A proactive student commits in advance. They know their future self will want to give in to their emotions. By committing in advance they remove any future decision making. For example they decide that they will practice at 4pm everyday for 30 mins regardless of whether they feel like it or not. Now the reactive student makes no such commitment. They might even say to themselves that they are going to practice each day at 4pm but its not a commitment. Its just a nice idea. Teachers can spot the difference early based on what students do rather than what they say.
How do the best teachers spot future failures?
Its actually quite simple. The proactive student does not make excuses. Even if the proactive student misses a few practice sessions they will usually take personal responsibility with statements like “It was my fault. I failed to organise my schedule but I have now fixed the problem.” There are a few odd cases where the problem does not get fixed but in most cases the reactive student speaks a different language. The reactive student is more likely to say “I was too busy this week so I wasn’t able to practice.” The difference between the proactive and the reactive statement is this. The proactive is taking personal responsibility whereas the reactive is passing the buck. When someone says they were ‘too busy’ they are shifting blame. They are implying that things were out of their control so they are not to blame. The difference, as you can see is the proactive student is in control of their practice whereas the reactive student is not in control. Its a case of perception of course but perception is everything.
‘Too busy’ is the language of failure
If you want to be successful on guitar start with being proactive. Saying you are ‘too busy’ is not a legitimate excuse. Its code for ‘I am preparing to fail’. Eliminate this excuse from your vocabulary and you will dramatically increase your chances of success on guitar. Being consistent about your practice will get you to the habit formation stage eventually and then practice will no longer be forced. You will want to practice everyday. If you doubt this statement ask any long term guitarist.
Guitar practice challenge
The research showed that the longest it took to establish a habit was 254 days so why not make that your challenge? If you are a parent do the same with your child. Don’t allow your emotions to decide whether or not you or your child will practice each day. Set a time each day to practice and don’t worry if you miss an occasional day. Just try to avoid missing two days in a row. Good luck and let me know how you go.