Perfectionism vs Pushing Through

The guitar students that I’ve taught throughout the last 20 years or so all fall into two categories when it comes to their particular style of practicing.

They either ‘push through’, meaning they just keep playing away regardless of the sound/noise they’re making. Or they are perfectionists who spend most of their time NOT playing but doing a lot of ‘stopping’.

Many of us are trained (usually by school) to stop when we make a mistake and try to correct it before continuing. So we spend our learning time looking for mistakes to correct, seeking out what’s ‘wrong’ when we are learning something new. This seems logical enough, yeah? Surely we can’t improve unless we eradicate the mistakes and imperfections?

I’ve observed the opposite to be true. Those who ‘push through’, almost unaware that a string buzzed or a finger landed on the wrong string, always and without exception improve dramatically quicker than those who stop to ‘get it perfect’.

That ‘judge’ we all have inside our mind is quick to say “STOP!… we made a mistake… Start again!” But this judge is hindering a most important process: ‘programming’. Basically, we can’t repeat something if we stop.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people who constantly STOP to perfect something, tend to STOP even when performing a song. Why? Because that’s what they’ve been doing the whole time they’ve been practicing. The brain goes “when I make a mistake, I stop!” Not a great scenario really.

The fact is, most people (including the teacher) don’t even really notice little buzzes or imperfect fingering technique… We are more concerned with the bigger picture. And if we’re stopping, we’re not playing.

Now perfectionism isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the ratio of perfectionism that can be off. It has its place. But that comes AFTER something has been learned. Then perfection can jump in and tweak the piece or riff or chord progression all it wants.

So if you want to get good fast! If you want to achieve guitar mastery! Push through first and perfect it last.

Happy perfecting guitar freaks!

Comments

  1. DeWayne

    Even the very best make an occasional mistake, the trick is to notice those mistakes and make them sound as if they belong.

  2. Eb

    Great advice Mark, I never looked at stopping so much to get it right was the problem with me progressing but it really a bigger problem. Thanks alot

  3. Wild Bill

    I’m a pusher. I’m also 56 yrs old without any musical ability WHATSOEVER. A year ago I decided it finally give the guitar a try. I planned to use only you tube and great teachers like you for a year as an experiment. I play only for myself and dont care if I make mistakes because, frankly at this age I can’t perfect much of anything, don’t remember what I’ve played and only want to do what’s fun. And man is it fun. I’ve enjoyed the last year tremendously because I kept one thing in mind – keep it fun. And you know what, I’ve actually developed a little music ability and play for my family. Thanks for your help Mark (and I’ve started taking lessons and will be building my first guitar this fall)

  4. David privett

    I would like to pose the question about practicing, procrastination, slow progress etc and the the quality of instrument one is using. Electric may be generally ok , but I find the incentive issue can be denied by bad choice of acoustic instruments. Im always looking at how the neck and strings are set up. Ive seen some guitars where the gap at say even the 5th fret is just asking for trouble in playing anything decent. Price I’m sure has something to do with it. So, can we have some comments and pointers on this and perhaps some guidelines on what would need to be a good starting level for either the price , which is hard to qualify and the setting of the strings away from the neck. I’ve heard of some measurements as being 3mm ? gap at the 12th fret, or is that unreal for average price range. Is this forum for beginners ?

  5. Mark Underwood

    I also had problems with procrastination which I cured by taking lessons every week. I find that having expectations put on me is a great motivation to practice.

  6. joseph Dismuke

    Do you ever fool around with playing slide guitar?

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Yeah, but I don’t consider my self a slide guitarist… more of a white belt when it comes to slide guitar. It’s more for fun.

  7. Mitch

    I here what you’re saying, but on the other hand… If you don’t stop to correct yourself, how will you ever get better? I’ve been playing for about 6 months, and am learning a song with a barre chord, G#. If I just keeping playing through the “mangled” barre chord, what is the mechanism for improving?

    BTW, I just discovered your site and enjoy your’e teaching style which goes beyond the many internet videos that simply show you how to do something without regard for common beginner questions.

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Hi Mitch, yes you still need to do the work of ‘programming’ that G# chord under your fingers, and into the subconscious. And there is an element of ‘pushing through’ to do THAT… making the chord shape, taking your fingers off, making the chords shape again, taking your fingers off, and so on… The point is, if you’ve got it to the point where you have that chord down, but the change between that chord and another isn’t solid, then you need to work on ‘pushing through’ on THAT. It’s later, after the session where you do your analysis, think through the problem areas, break down the mechanics and figure out what you need to practice to fix them. Recording each session (as was suggested in the comments above), listening back, and learning from your mistakes is a good way to do this.

  8. charlie whitaker

    I am a perfectionist, as I do a lot of stopping until I get it right and then move on and come back later to see if I got it down.

  9. Michael Di

    Mark, thanks for posting this. I used to stop and try to fix everything as I went along. Now, when I practice a song or scale. I spend the time doing the task, and I record the session. After, I play the session back, and then I try to isolate the areas of the song or scale that i am working on, then I identify the area that need work. That way I can isolate what I need to work on and spend the time afterwords working on it in isolation.

  10. Louis sperounes

    I do continue but make the same mistake without trying to correct the. Problem light now . I am having. Too much buzzing my string

  11. Sandeep

    Awesome advice, almost at the perfect time. I am an absolute beginner and is tending to be perfecting the FEW cords that I have learned rather than pushing myself to learn MORE cords first. Point noted, Thanks.

  12. Richard Morgan

    Excellent advice. Perfection is often the enemy of authenticity. It’s bound up with the desire to control, which stems from fear of criticism. If we get it absolutely right, nobody can criticise us, right? Trouble is, it frequently stops us from getting started on something at all. It ‘s a major factor in procrastination. Been there, not done that. I think I’m actively fighting that desire for perfection these days, though I don’t suppose it will ever quite go away….

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Totally agree Sandeep. Fear of failure is a huge hurdle to success. Josh Waitzkin, the chess player, talks about the concept of ‘investing in loss’. The idea that we must ‘buy in’ to failing in order to learn and make progress. I firmly believe in this as it matches my own experience with learning the guitar. The trouble is that our ego wants to avoid failure at all costs. Failure = ‘I’m not good’, right? That’s what we’ve been told. It might surprise you to learn just how many times your guitar idol failed before mastering their craft. Perhaps more than we would like to believe.

  13. Peter Dalton

    I get the idea but really conscious of not programming an error to the point where it is hard or impossible to change later. I guess it’s about finding the right balance. That is probably the hardest thing about learning online rather than in front of a guitar teacher.

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Hi Peter, that’s a good point. This can become a real problem when you are learning from someone who is teaching it badly (yes, that happens… sadly, all too often with online guitar lessons). But if you’re following good, clear advice you’re not likely to program something that is out and out wrong. Also, there’s comfort in knowing that the assertion that we CAN’T change the way we do something once we’ve learned it a certain way, is really a myth. To become a great guitarist, you must embrace the fact that you’ll learn things one way, then change them later in order to be a better player. That’s the learning and refining process we must all go through to master the guitar. We all have unique physical attributes and limitations. Banish the thought that we MUST ALL play exactly the same ‘right’ way. I think it’s more about discovering your unique strengths and working with them, and there’s definitely some trial and error with that. A good example of someone who learned the ‘wrong’ way, is Carlos Santana whose ‘improper’ picking technique seems to work… for him. I often take on students who have studied guitar first with my online lessons. Of course, I offer tweeks to help them improve on the techniques they’ve learned from me online. But the tweeks are normally things they would have figured out for themselves with a bit more playing under their belt. I’m yet to have one of my online students come to me with a technique they’ve ‘programmed’ that is clearly wrong. I’m not saying it’s impossible for that to happen, but highly unlikely. Thanks for commenting.

  14. Trevoulin Govender

    You know Mark for a while I’ve been struggling with this and now I realize I’ve been trying to perfect my playing too much whilst I’m still in the learning phase. One of the key things I’ve taken from this is that you must stop. KEEP STRUMMING Push through AND THEN PERFECT. Thank you for your advice.

  15. mitchell scott rosenblatt

    been with your courses since last Sept. I went through the first level and made a lot of Progress. Right now I am too busy with “life” to sit down each night like I did however I do practice each day and “push” on to keep my chops up.

  16. Mitchell Davis

    Mark,I’ve been stuck stopping and starting guitar for a year paralyzed by just what you said trying to be a perfectionist has at times wanted me to give up. I’m not a kid anymore at 57 and consider myself wise at many things . At least from my point of view and situation this may be the single most important article you have or may ever write. Please keep reinforcing this very thing on your site you’ll never realize how many people it will keep at it. Great job kiddo, on my way home to pick back up the guitar. thanks Mitch Davis

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Thanks Mitch. The fact that you said you’re on your way home to pick up the guitar right now makes me immensely happy. Keep at it!

  17. Vincent Sanders

    My problem is nether. It is procrastination. It is my worst nightmare. Once I get going or get what’s keeping me from practicing? I do well. But Procrastination is something I have to figure out. Got any ideas?

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Hi Vincent, welcome to the blog mate! You’ve raised a great point there. I think we all have a tendency to procrastinate at times. Procrastination and perfectionism are actually very closely linked. The perfectionist’s excuse for stopping is that they need to get it perfect. But in reality, this is just another form of procrastination – ie avoiding pushing through. Other forms of procrastination include: facebook, finding ‘important’ jobs to do around the house, re-organizing stuff (your cd collection, music notes, computer desktop), searching for your dream guitar on ebay, doing your accounts. In the moment, all of these things seem much more ‘important’ than picking up the guitar and practicing for an hour. Deep down though, I know what I really ought to do if I want to improve (push through). The reasons why we self-sabotage are murky and complex. But it’s a really important aspect of learning that we need acknowledge and come to terms with if we want to master guitar. Something I’d recommend is that you find daily inspiration that gets you amped about playing. That might be listening to music you love, reading blog posts like this, or just making a commitment to picking it up for 15 minutes a day (which always turns into more). It also helps to remember where NOT practicing your guitar leads… that’s right: NOWHERE. No one will ever be impressed by your guitar playing (yourself included). No one will ever comment on how talented you are at guitar. No one will care if you don’t get better at guitar. That’s where that road leads. Sometimes, remembering this provides the jolt we need to get our s**t sorted so we can start making progress. If you want to go a bit deeper, I’ve actually written a couple of articles specifically about procrastination, because I know a lot of students struggle with it. You can read them here: http://jamorama.com/the-mind-of-a-guitar-student/ and http://jamorama.com/resistance-killing-guitar-playing/.

      1. David privett

        Aiden, I do sympathise with regarding some ‘live’ tutors. My impression is that a lot of them are probably perfectionists or want to impose this trait on their students. It is in their interests to string out, pardon the pun, the process and lengthen the course. The Mark McKenzie course will allow you to go forward as fast as you like and then back again to review and improve something you didn’t pay proper attention to. The other aspect of this progress bit, can be , that some have illusions about their ability which can be shattered quite quickly when success doesn’t come straight away. Now that’s where I think procrastination takes over. Best to be real and just press on and push through. It does happen. By the way I’m not getting any commission from saying all this. I am not a close friend of Mark’s. I just think good on line course should be recognised and then just work away.

  18. jim

    Great advise will try take it as I am a perfectionist

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      I’m sure there’s a little bit of the ‘perfectionist’ in all of us. I know I still fall into that trap of trying to perfect things before they are ‘programmed’ in. Good-luck with it Jim.

    2. Aiden

      My problem is that I go too far ahead of my capabilities, at least that’s what my teacher tells me. I’m just sick of playing the same thing again and again so I started learning things he hadn’t thought me yet

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