©2020 by Van Lefan 

Growing Pains: Learning How to Practice

Updated: Mar 25


Growing pains. I was feeling them HARD yesterday. No, not in my joints or body (I haven't grown any taller since I was 13...); but in my heart and my mind. It started with the other night when I shared some new original songs with my parents, and my dad said to me "you know, you should be practicing at least 30 minutes to an hour everyday." I was very triggered by this, not because it was particularly mean or harsh (it's actually a very typical thing for my dad to say) but because it struck a guilty chord in me that I've been suppressing. The truth is I haven't been practicing as much as I would like to due to the fact that my attention is pulled in many different directions between people, hobbies, gigs, and other creative endeavors. With a limited amount of time and energy available, it is inevitable that some areas have to take the backseat periodically.

Nonetheless, this was a wake-up call and reminder to myself that I am not as skilled as I would like to be, which is a pretty hard thing to admit to myself. I sat with these feelings of not being good enough, and acknowledging the ways that I have not honored my true desire to focus, commit, practice, and improve my skills in my crafts. So the next day I sat down with my guitar and flute, and did what I have been neglecting for weeks. I went through warm-ups, scales, played to a metronome, stopped to perfect difficult parts instead of rolling through them with the "close enough" attitude. However, after a couple of hours, my approach backfired a little, resulting in me sinking into an emotional funk of self criticism, spiraling towards self loathing and hopelessness.

Thoughts like "I can't do this", "I'm terrible", "I'm stuck" rolled through my mind, and my motivation dwindled. This is when I took a step back, meditated, and called a supportive friend to vent and reflect.

He listened, empathized, and offered his similar experience of being hard on himself for not doing everything he thinks he should be doing all the time. Then he shared how he flipped the perspective and started to acknowledge all that he is doing, which reminded me to do the same:

  • I have been doing my best in juggling all these passions and projects that are important to me.

  • I have been allowing the flow of life to happen, saying yes to amazing opportunities and experiences as they present themselves.

  • I may have neglected this part of my goals, but in this time I have made miles of progress in many other areas that I am proud of and would not trade for the world.

  • I have improved so much in the last few months, and it's okay that I am not a master guitarist, flautist, circus artist just yet.

  • I know what to do, I am capable of doing it, all I need to do is learn to give it the time, energy, and commitment it requires.

I reflected on examples in the past of when I have learned new skills, the process it took, and the progress that resulted. It's not impossible, it's just not easy or comfortable. It takes patience, hard work, but at the same time it is a journey I love.

With every frustrating practice session of trials and corrections, comes that eventual rewarding ah-ha moment where something clicks.

In these difficult times where I want to give up, and start to question why the hell I am even doing this, it is so

important to take a moment to show myself some kindness and compassion.

To take my eyes off the final destination that I wish I was already at, and focus my attention on where I use to be, where I am now, and how I got here.

At the end of the day, it's not about the 'end'. The 'end' doesn't exist. Even if I perfect this skill that I am working on, there will ALWAYS be the next thing that I want to learn, and this cycle will remain through the entire journey. I have never met a great musician, artist or athlete who truly feels like they are perfect, and there is nothing more they can do.

Everyone, no matter where they are in their journey, is still walking.

It is so important to remember this, and rather than beat yourself up for not being where you think you should be, refocus that energy to where you are now, and the task at hand.

How can I love this process?

For me, although I see the value and importance in drills and scales, I also need to build in some fun, easy, rewarding parts to my practice where I allow myself to flow and be creative.

So whether you are starting to learn something new or somewhere in the middle pushing through a plateau or block, remember to embrace the journey as much as you can.

Here are some methods that I have learned for myself over the years:

  • Balance your practice with structure and flow. Map out the steps you need to take (example: set goals of particular skills listed in progression steps such as learning a scale, perfecting a guitar lick, stretching towards your splits, doing conditioning drills to build muscle strength and memory), and also allow time to PLAY (example: jamming, playing your favorite songs, freestyle dancing)

  • Get to know the learning method that works for you, and stick to it. Do you learn best from group classes? One on one lessons? Online video tutorials? Books? Or many a combination of it all. At first it takes some time to find out what resonates with you, but I found that they key is consistency. This has been one of my biggest blocks in learning the last few years, and is something that I am still actively working on. Especially now in this day and age there is an overwhelming amount of information out there, it's hard to focus on one. But from my experience the learning process is a lot less daunting when you stick to one or two methodologies that work best for you, so whether it's a teacher who's style you like, or a progressive course. This way you only have small chunks of information to digest at a time, that lead into the next skill that build on top of it, rather than be overwhelmed trying to do it all at the same time.

  • Have a realistic commitment. You probably won't be practicing an hour everyday when you start out. So rather than burn yourself out right off the bat, come up with something that is more realistic so you can form a more sustainable habit rather than a short term hobby. Start small, something like taking one class per week, with at least 2-3 days of practice in between. Then if there are days that you have more time, get into a good groove, or feel extra inspired, then by all means extend your practice! But don't set unrealistic expectations on yourself that you can't meet, and let that be the reason you stop trying.

  • Share the journey with others. Experiences are fun alone, but they are usually better when shared with a community! Learning a new skill/hobby a great way to make new friends, and these social groups are a great way to learn together, share ideas, tricks, and make the process more enjoyable. Even the difficult parts get easier when you have others to struggle through it with, and some of these people might be the key to help you get out of a rut. I've found it both rewarding and helpful to get feedback from others when I'm doing something new, and I also learn a lot from teaching others something I use to find challenging. So take a group workshop, join a band, go to an open mic night, social dance, join a Facebook group, share videos of your progress online!

  • Reflect on how far you have come. It's easy to fixate on all the things that we can't do yet. Sometimes it's hard to see the progress and it seems like we've been stuck at the same place FOREVER and we will not get any better. This is when I think about the particular skills that I know now, and think back to a time when this skill was a goal. It could be something small, like a song that I use to struggle to get through, maybe it's bar chords, or even just acknowledging how much more comfortable my fingers feel moving around the frets. Keeping notes on what you are working on week to week, or taking videos are both great visual ways to track progress!

  • Connect with your 'why'. Why do you want to learn this skill? What is the vision? Do you want to perform? Share a message? Have a creative outlet of expression? Connect with what you motivation is, what inspires you, and come back to that on the days that you feel discouraged. For me this helps me so much when I get caught in not being a great technical guitarist who can shred solos effortlessly. I recenter and remind myself that sure, being a great guitarist would benefit my writing and performance quality, help me be more confident and professional, but ultimately what I want to be doing is expressing the emotions I feel, and share and lessons I've learned in my life with others who may benefit from it. In order for me to do either of those things I need to remain loving and passionate about what I am doing.

I hope these help you in some way along your personal learning journey, let me know if you have any other methods you use to help deepen your practice!

Share this with someone who you think could use the reminder, have a fantastic day and happy growing!

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