I recently had a really great trip back to Australia for two weeks and had the opportunity to meet with about 8 members of Classical Guitar Corner Academy, to hang out and talk and eat and drink beers and take photos — it was a really fun time. I also was able to reconnect with the Sydney Classical Guitar Society and heard Karin Schaupp, who will be coming to the podcast in an upcoming episode, give a great concert. It was a wonderful experience but when I got back, besides the jet lag, I had a great sense of overwhelm at all the little things to do, not being sure where to start or what order to do them. I would guess we’ve all felt this with a number of things, including with studying classical guitar.
What I’m really talking about here with “information overload” is what I call “Shiny Object Syndrome” or distraction or taking on too much material, or scattered attention. I would say this is the number 2 problem that I come across teaching adult students. It’s specifically an adult problem and also a passion problem. That is, people with a particular passion will more easily get distracted by things because they love them so much and they’ll want to study this or that even if it takes away from other things we might better focus on.
A Passion Problem
This is the case with classical guitar as well. And we hear this sort of story from those joining Classical Guitar Corner Academy often. We hear the story that many are coming back to the guitar after a number of years not playing because now they have time to pursue their passion and so that passion has been allowed to gain strength and there can be a big urge to get somewhere quickly in terms of progress. This is usually not as much of a problem for younger people because their world is just so much more prescriptive, with school and their parents telling them what to do and so on, whereas adults can do what they want to do on their own schedule, generally. But this approach can leave us with diminished results as we take on too many things and we don’t make progress as fast. And, you know, a common observation by guitar adult amateurs is that they see young children playing instruments and they watch on with awe and fascination, but I don’t believe this phenomenon has to do so much with the sponge-like brain of a child as it does with the fact that they are so much more receptive to an orderly form of education.
The Readiness of Information
Starting out with that adult and passion problem we also compound that problem with a great readiness of information. You might get emails, for instance, from me or Bradford Werner about all sorts of things about classical guitar. And that’s great . . . sort of, because it can really come to a point where it can be a great negative because it’s really going to distract you from that path. So let’s take an analogy. Let’s say that the path we want to be on is train tracks going straight off into the distance, there are tunnels through mountains, it’s a fast train…all is good. Leading away from these train tracks are little windy paths and at certain points we’re going to jump off the train and on to one of these paths. Let’s say one of the paths is fear. Perhaps you are going to perform for others at Classical Guitar Corner Academy at a live session, but it can be fear-inducing to do this. And so you start a new piece to work on in hopes it will come along faster or work better than the one you’ve been preparing and this leads to a familiar cycle. First, we hit information overload: it’s a new piece, you’re not focused, you get distracted, and you don’t make progress. So you either get back on the train or you end up just meandering around this path.
Another little path that leads off from the train tracks is frustration. Tied in with the number 1 problem I often talk about, which is taking on repertoire that is too difficult, is frustration when taking on something that is too difficult for you, which makes you hit a wall. And instead of perhaps reassessing what you need to do or doubling down and approaching this more analytically, your frustration stems from not making enough progress and so you get distracted by Shiny Object Syndrome, changing track, lack of progress, and frustration. This leads again to the option of either hopping back on the train or meandering this frustrating path.
Boredom is something you should recognize when it happens. It should be a really good thing, because it should signal that you’re hitting a threshold and about to overcome it to reach a new depth of ability or knowledge with that piece or study. But, instead of moving through the barrier of boredom and either properly memorizing the piece or starting to get into further details or nuances of the piece or what have you, you set off on a path that once again starts the cycle of information overload, distraction, and lack of progress.
This is a common adult problem because we are passionate about what we do: you’re playing along, working on a piece that you’ve been practicing, but then you hear a great performance or recording in a concert or a YouTube video, or a new publication that comes out — and, bang, you’re off on that path of information overload, distraction, and lack of progress. That Shiny Object Syndrome can be a very powerful pull.
I really do think this is a problem: scattered attention, having too much material, getting distracted by Shiny Objects — all of these can really stunt your progress. And the virtuous cycle of focus, goal-setting, and true progress is all found on those train tracks, which is great but it can be really hard. We all have digital devices that are built to distract us, and I even find I have much less focus than I used to. I think we’re at greater odds than we were in the past. So I’m going to give you six solutions to this problem.
#1: A Good Teacher
Good needs to be underlined here. I can speak from my own experience that, when a student turns up for a lesson and is heading down one of these distracting paths, it can be very hard for a teacher to say No to a student, especially with adults. But it is in the best interest of the student for the teacher to lay down the reality of the situation and to let them know it is quite possible to get frustrated by going down this path. There does need to be a balance since adults are doing this for joy, but it can’t be that way all the time. There does need to be a concerted effort into what might feel like work — it can’t all be fun and games. A good teacher should know what material is best for you to work on and in what order.
#2: A Good Curriculum
While you can get lots of information from places like YouTube, it can often feel random, like you’re getting all this information from a variety of sources but it’s very hard to know where to put your time and effort, let alone were you to go down the rabbit hole of YouTube or Facebook and just not practice at all. A good program or curriculum is going to be essential. At Classical Guitar Corner Academy, all of the lessons are mapped out in order that’s effective and yields results. It’s laid out in one single path, like those train tracks. And even if it’s not exactly the right order for you, it’s a good order and will keep you going down that path, which leads to a good sense of progress. There are other great programs out there as well, like AMEB, ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall, Royal Conservatory (Bridges) — any of those, coupled with a good teacher, are going to be really good for you.
The only thing about dealing with a curriculum is that you need to stick with it. If you’re working on one curriculum but then you get distracted by another one, you will start finding information out of order or different from how you’ve been doing it and it can lead to Shiny Object Syndrome. The reality is you probably have become bored or frustrated and possibly have some fear in your approach so you look to other material to find a golden key. The Golden Key is something I’ve talked about with a lot of teachers, seeking a single answer that will touch you with a magical wand to get wonderful results, when in fact it’s all about perseverance and hard work. There will always be times when you hit a wall, so the answer is not suddenly looking for other curricula or teachers, but sticking with it.
#3: Setting Goals
Goals lay the destination for those train tracks. If you don’t plot a destination you’re guaranteed not to get there. Setting goals help you stay focused when you come across boredom, frustration, and fear. At Classical Guitar Corner Academy we have goals in the form of Grade Exam Submissions, which are like the train stations, where we give the green light to move on to new, more challenging material.
Accountability is all about having people asking, Have you done what you said what you would do? A teacher would ask you, Did you practice what we agreed on last week? Little nudges that keep you going down that track that you laid the goal and destination for. The way we hold accountability at Classical Guitar Corner Academy is through Progress Journals, live sessions, Coaching Calls — dealing directly with one another to help members stick with their goals. Setting goals and accountability are thus deeply intertwined.
#5: Will Power
Some people have a skill with will power, but it can still be difficult, for instance, if you’re tired after a day of work or taking care of the kids, or whatever — it’s going to be much harder to focus and have energy to put in more work to practice. We often have more productive practice for this reason in the morning, which is a great time to stay on track. But another thing to simply help with your will power is to turn off the phone, turn off the router on your Internet, or turn off notifications on your phone, which are big distractions for us. If you’re one of those people who have iron will power, then great, but for most of the rest of us this can be a real challenge.
Habit is a wonderful asset we can all acquire, but we have to be diligent about it. But it can take somewhere around up to 3 months for an average human to acquire a habit. So, the idea of waking up that 30 minutes early before work to practice in the morning or staying on one piece for two weeks without starting something new takes a concerted effort and it also takes time. But once you have instilled those habits, they can become a great ally.
I hope that this is a good wake-up call and might inspire you to write down some goals, or to ask your teacher to be a bit harder on you, or to find someone to hold you accountable like a practice partner, or to join a curriculum. Inspiration is what it’s all about.