You are what you practice…

Have you heard that idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill? It’s an over simplification but I’m convinced that the sentiment is true… you’re only going to get really good at something through repeated practice or/and if your conditions, environment or upbringing play a role in enhancing your skills. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers is worth a read and delves deeply into this subject – I know, it’s debatable etc, but, I also read recently something far more convincing: “You are what you practice”.

You are what you practice. It’s obvious. If you don’t practice electric guitar, then you’re never going to be in a band playing face-melting solos for a Guns & Roses cover. Obvious. But what about refining that idea? If you play acoustic guitar and you want to play jazz in a guitar duo? Well, practicing on your own with your acoustic guitar is not going to fully cut it… you need to practice with another person!

There is also that idea of “performance” versus “ability” which I mentioned in my earlier blog. If you want to perform publicly and entertain people, then you need to… go out and find the public and practice entertaining people. After nearly 30 years of playing the guitar, I have only just learned this concept! You are what you practice… if you learn and practice the odd riff, a snippet of a song, a finger-picking style or whatever, then that’s all you’ll ever be able to do! How are you going to turn that into a performance? or the ability to work with other musicians? Or into a song-writing skill?

Having a goal is really important… I hugely respect Arnie – not as a muscle man, but as a successful person. In this video he’s talking about body building… but read on for why I think this is relevant.

I’m taking a body builder’s approach to improving on the guitar… using this silly guitarist/bodybuilder analogy: I’m already one of the top guys at the local gym. But how am I going to get to a regional or national level? I need a goal…

My goal is to be a well known, acoustic guitarist who specialises in fingerstyle, country, bluegrass, folk and a little bit of jazz. How am I going to do it?

  • I’m going to work-out every day for at least 1 hour – ideally 2. I will make the time.
  • I’m going to increase the weight and resistance of my exercises each time… which means I’m going to learn more technical pieces, I’m going to do more/longer fingerboard strength exercises
  • I’m going to play all my music to a metronome… when you perform you have to play in time… so you are what you practice – practice playing in steady time, all the time
  • I’m going to get my nutrition perfectly matched to my activity. So, in this case, nutrition is knowledge – I need to feed my brain the theory, knowledge, new ideas, etc to support what I’m physically doing
  • I need to be conditioned, supple and train my whole body – I translate this into knowing lots of chords, scales, modes, licks, riffs etc.
  • I need to follow a comprehensive schedule to track all the body parts (or disciplines) that I need to exercise and make sure that not one area gets neglected
  • I need to compete against other people at the same level – so, Arnie, in his hey-day, wouldn’t have competed in the local contests… he climbed up and up to the highest levels. So, I need to find other musicians, doing the stuff that I aspire to – the local open mic where youngsters are strumming Ed Sheeran covers is not the place to hang out. Meeting with a professional musician teacher, or auditioning for a professional band, or a music/jam club or a well respected music venue that pulls in a wider variety of performers is where I need to be… then after that… perhaps session and dep work… then after that… full time musician available for touring band? Who knows – that might not be compatible with my actual life – but there is nothing stopping me from at least trying to carve out that path and see where it leads.
  • I need to review and assess on a regular basis and refocus and create new direction and motivation as required.

You are what you practice… the above concepts are my theories! You might think it’s a silly analogy but, for me, it’s a really useful one. Going to the gym and doing 20 mins of biceps curls, because that’s an exercise you like, is not going to make you look like Arnold Schawzenegger when he was 24 years old. And in the same way, playing 20 mins of your favourite guitar piece a few times a week is not going to turn you into Tommy Emmanuel. This video is a nice way to finish this article where Tommy talks about music for strength, timing and exercise: