What to do when you're "not feeling it"
Have you ever been at the point where you're just "not feeling it" musically?
By "not feeling it", I mean a number of different things:
I mean "not feeling creative",
I mean "not feeling the groove",
I mean "not feeling confident",
I mean "not feeling like you are in sync with your instrument",
I mean "not feeling inspired",
I mean "not feeling like you are improving",
I mean "not feeling positive about your ability"
Generally, these all boil down to "not feeling good about your playing". I go through all of the above emotions on a regular basis, and there's no single approach that gets me to view things differently. BUT doing something totally different is usually a good place to start.
I feel that you either have to
A) throw yourself head-first into music you are unfamiliar with, or
B) impose limitations on what you do already.
Note: As with all my posts, it doesn't matter what instrument you play, you will be able to apply everything I write about to you and your practise!
If you feel like playing, but you are feeling uncreative:
Sometimes I won't feel like I am able to compose, or come up with licks, or a B-part for an idea, etc... When this happens, I take a break from trying to be creative and I dive into learning and practising standards: jazz standards, trad tunes, manouche (gypsy jazz) standards, bluegrass standards, Christmas tunes, whatever at all! I have lists written out in my music room (and on my phone notes) that I can refer to when I want to find something new. Apps like iReal Pro and TunePal are good for finding things to learn too. Or, just turn on the radio / YouTube / Spotify / TV music channels and find a song or tune to jam along to. The important part here is that you play something that gets you using your brain. You can choose to play a piece you already know if you want, but generally playing something you're unfamiliar with is a good move as it will start re-opening the parts of your brain that are closed when you don't feel creative. You will be keeping your hands in action, and your brain active.
Another thing too: most of the time, it takes a while for your creative streak to get up and running! I am rarely creative from the first note I play. If I pick up my guitar first thing in the morning, I might have something in my head that I will want to jam on, but it is through the process of settling into the jam that opens up my creative flow. Flow is a cool concept I learned about in college, and I can personally attest to feeling 'in sync' with the guitar once I achieve a 'state of flow'. (Here's a Ted Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about flow)
Here's something to consider too: What about if you just have too much choice in front of you? If you're looking at the guitar fretboard, or the piano keyboard, or the whole drum kit, or if you're a painter looking at a blank canvas, with every colour you can imagine available to you and in front of you... well that's an overwhelming amount of choice, isn't it? Where do you even start? What about limiting what you can use, and seeing where you can go then? For example, let's say you pick up the guitar and you want to come up with some ideas to play over a blues in F. Rather than play the licks you know, or to play the chords you know, or play a solo you already know, how about you try to play a solo using only three notes? If you were a painter using just red, brown, yellow and white, you probably wouldn't be looking at painting a seaside view, but you might choose to paint a desert landscape. It's the same with music. Using F, Ab, and C only might actually make you think more about where to go with the notes rather than which notes to play. Maybe try to play something using just one string of the guitar. Maybe you could decide not to play any higher than a certain note or range. My point here is that by limiting the amount of options you have to choose from, the moves you can make become a more obvious!
Put it this way: If you had every food you could think of in front of you, how could you decide what to make? It would be too easy to be indecisive. Now imagine if you only had some fresh pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, parmesan cheese.... what are you thinking of already!? There's my point: too many choices inhibit decision-making. Sometimes it's best to narrow your choices down so you can actually begin to make choices. Along the way, you can change things up, the same as in cooking: "I think I'll put some oregano in this", "I think it needs salt", etc... You can do that with music too! Start off on something you can work with and then expand upon it as time goes on.
Another thing I find can be really helpful sometimes is getting really bored with what you are playing. I am writing this on April 1st but this isn't an April Fools. When you are bored, your brain has totally lost interest in what you are doing, and it starts looking for new ways to keep yourself entertained. If I get bored with something it usually means that I have played it to the point where it's automatic and where I feel like I can't improve upon it - I don't have to think about it at all. This is a great time for your bored and disinterested brain to take the reins and to start playing around with it! Put in a new note. Move what you are doing up and down the fretboard. If it's major, make it minor and vice-versa. Being bored is sometimes a signal to me that something good is about happen!!
What about if you're not feeling the groove?
I'll let Victor Wooten explain that one over two great videos!
For live playing: Shifting your focus away from your instrument
The idea here is really simple: if you focus your internal spotlight on your playing, you are taking your attention away from what the groove should sound like, and you'll be more concerned with the technical side of your playing. Putting that internal spotlight back on the rhythm of what you are playing will help you to sit into a groove a lot better. Adam Rafferty wrote about "imaging the drum pattern" of whatever you're about to play before you play it - you will often see me do this live. When you have a piece of music practised to the point that you can play it automatically, focusing on the imaginary drum groove as opposed to your own playing will make you play more in time and with better feel. This is an approach applicable to live performances where you can't stop playing, and also for practise at home.
For practise at home: Intentionally losing the groove
Practising with a metronome is a must, no matter who you are, or what you play. Keeping time is probably the most critical skill to have, and you need to work on internalising your rhythm as much as you humanly can! Watch here how Victor decides to play with a very slow metronome, locks in with it, does his best to lose all concept of where the beat is, and then trains himself back into playing in time with it again. To me, this is a similar process to detuning a guitar string and retuning it relative to another string in order to get it in tune - this process resets our concept of "pitch", which can be very flaky at times! Victor is doing the same thing here with rhythm. By losing the reference point, your ears get a chance to recalibrate, and as you'll see by the end of the video, Victor says that it becomes "the easiest thing" to stay in time. The method behind this is: set your metronome to what you want to practise (e.g. 120bpm), play along, then halve it (i.e. 60bpm), play at the same tempo, then halve it again (i.e. 30bpm) and keep playing at the same tempo. Then, lose it! Distract yourself whatever way necessary, and then come back to it. It's tough, but once you lock in, you'll feel like you can't lose the groove!
If you feel like you don't want to play guitar at all (which happens to me more often that you would think!):
When I feel like this, I don't force myself to play unless I absolutely have to. Ninety percent of the time, I will either switch over to a different instrument, write some music on my laptop, try to learn something new, or try to do something that gets my blood moving around my body. For me, swimming is a great motivator and has untold benefits, such as stretching my tendons and joints and undoing the effects of guitar posture. Swimming allows me to engage in near-meditative thought, and, if nothing else, it freshens me up.
If I feel like I still want to do something musical, I will often load up a YouTube series I am following and go through / revise a video in the series. A great series I am following at the time of writing is a series called Digging Deeper by Jeff Antoniuk, which was recommended to me by a member of my Facebook Music Group (please feel free to join and to share some music!). I love Jeff's videos because his approach to music is refreshing, he does things in bite-sized amounts, and he is really clear about everything he is speaking about. There are so many good YouTube channels you can follow, operated by fantastic musicians who impart their knowledge for free, and whose videos are great to get you thinking differently about your approach to music. I love watching people like Jeff, Julian Bradley, Rick Beato, Adam Neely, Jeff Schneider, and many others, learning what I can from them. Some topics initially go over my head, but with enough time and practise they start to make sense. Some of the above guys aren't always focused on topics I can apply to my own playing, but they do cover other musical phenomena which I find cool to think about.
An important thing for me too: I always find that playing in a clean environment makes me feel better about my playing than a messy/dirty environment does. I can't really explain this. Maybe it's the whole Feng Shui thing, maybe it's something I've conditioned myself into, or maybe there is some logic to it, but often I'll find that moving from a messy area to a clean area helps me to settle into the vibe of a room a lot more and to feel like I'm more in tune with my instrument. I should mention at this point that I am one of the messiest people you will ever come across so there is some degree of irony here. By the way, the same goes for a messy stage - there's nothing I hate more than seeing wires & gear everywhere, and there's nothing as nice as having a clean, well set-up stage. It looks good and it feels good!
If you feel like you are playing badly:
This depends on whether:
1) You feel that you are not nailing what you know you want to play, or
2) You fell that you are nailing what you know you want to play, but you don't like what you are playing
The first thing I will do in either case, if possible, play what I'm trying to play slowly, and lightly. If I can do that without a problem, my playing is the problem. If there's still a problem, maybe it isn't me (although nine times out of ten, it is me). If you feel like you're not nailing what you want to play, it's the time-old thing of slowing it down and playing it over and over and over again, and eventually it will fall into place. It might take longer than you would like, but I know what it feels like to play something hundreds of times to make sure that I get it every time. What took me forever to get down cleanly was the riff going into the bridge of Avenue (it's a little Eminor - A7 riff up around the 7th fret, and I had never played a sweep passage like it when I came up with it) so I played it over, and over, and over, and over... and eventually, I got it! Then when I got it, I played it over, and over, and over... until I got it every time.
Remember: you don't practise until you get something right, you practise until you can't get it wrong!
If I'm playing what I want to play, but I don't like it, it's a case of changing my thinking until I come across something I do like. If I dislike my lead playing, I'll try a George Van Eps style approach playing three-note voice leading phrases. I might try to play octave lines to see if I like them more. I might try to think like a different instrument or musician: "If Chris Botti played trumpet over this, what would it sound like?", or "What would Beyoncé do if she were singing over this?" - changing your mindset can open up a lot of doors!
If you feel like you're getting nowhere, or if you are getting frustrated
I would take a break. Getting confused and/or frustrated is a negative feeling. For me, trying to persevere through it doesn't work, but if it works for you, great! My advice is to take your mind off whatever it is that's getting at you, and distract yourself for a while before returning to it.
Don't forget that your hands can get tired. During the recording of my album Marrakech, I remember getting the track Quentão so badly wrong on each take I recorded, not realising that my hands were really tired. I thought I was just playing badly because of pressure. I was actually playing as well as I could at that point fighting against tired and weakened hands, having played non-stop for about three or four hours at that point. The hour break for lunch was the best thing that could have happened - I came back and did it in one take, because my hands had regained strength.
One more thing to remember: if you don't feel good in general, it comes out in your playing. I've had my share of ups-and-downs, and I can tell when listening to myself playing in the past when I was feeling good and not feeling good. There is no easy way around this, it's just who we are as humans. The more you get into music and the more you learn to block out everything else around you, the more of yourself will be in the music - the more feeling and emotion will be in your music because you will be "in the moment". Music is a special force: it is healing, it is constructive, it brings people together, and it can tell stories that words can't. Music flows from you through your instrument and into other people, and becoming so in tune with your instrument that you feel like you can play it as well as you can speak your native language is the pinnacle of musicianship - there is no feeling like it! So take care of yourself, because if you feel good, your music will feel good too!
If you think negatively about your ability:
"I'm so bad", "I'll never be able to play like _____", "I feel stupid because I don't understand _____".....
Everyone gets into this mind-frame at some point or another. One day you feel like you can play anything you like, and the next you feel like you couldn't play one chord after another. When this happens, I flip the guitar upside down, and try to play it as a left-handed guitarist would. Doing that helps me to remember how far I have come since starting. Doing what I do now is so hard, and it requires constant work and practise. You might not believe me when I say this but I find it very easy to forget how hard I have worked! Reversing the guitar in my hands makes me remember how it felt to be a beginner, watching Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee on YouTube aged fourteen and thinking "Oh my god, I'll never be able to do that. How does anyone do that?".
So why does this help? It helps because it breaks down the barriers of familiarity. To expand on this point, here's something that might sound odd but it's true - being a bad pianist probably makes me more creative than I would be if I could play piano to a better standard. My reasoning behind this is that when I sit down at the piano, I don't have the tactile knowledge of the layout of the piano, nor the required motor skills (i.e. I have no familiarity with the piano), but I do have an internal musical knowledge which supersedes my lack of tactile knowledge, I feel. In this case, I feel like my musicality wins over my prior knowledge of the piano as it is the stronger faculty to draw from in that situation. Granted, I can't play anything "impressive" and I can't think as quickly as I can on the guitar, which in itself can be frustrating, but the big advantage I have here is that my musicality is in the driver's seat as opposed to my tactile knowledge.
Applying this concept to the guitar, it is regularly the opposite: my knowledge of the fretboard - and mainly, my knowledge of other tunes and songs - can often take precedence over my own musicality. Think about how many times you have felt like you are "playing the same licks, the same chords, the same everything".... This phenomenon is essentially your hands doing the thinking! I've written in a previous article that I feel that musicians should play their music through their instrument rather than be influenced by the instrument, but it's almost impossible to ignore your familiarity of your primary instrument.
To get back to flipping the guitar the opposite way around: it works because it breaks down all the barriers of your familiarity: your motor skills, your chord shape knowledge, your mental layout of the guitar fretboard - all gone! You are a beginner again. The guitarists among you might be thinking "well, you could also do that with an alternate tuning?" Not really. Alternate tunings are almost as bad as tunings you do already know, because more often than not the alternate tuning you choose will influence the sound of your musical output more than you may realise! While you might depend on your ear to find things that sound good to you, you'll also go down the road of leaving the newly-tuned strings open and playing on the ones you left in standard tuning (e.g. Being tuned to DADGAD, and playing chords you already know from standard tuning on strings 5 (A), 4 (D) and 3 (G), leaving the others open and ringing). You are also not taking into account the you are still using your left hand motor skills to fret the guitar and your right hand motor skills to strum or pick the guitar. I can't even get the guitar to feel comfortable on myself if I hold it left-handed, which drives home the point: I have come a long way!
For me, flipping the guitar around makes me remember that what I do is hard, and more importantly how hard I work to keep it up - not only on a playing level, but also on a meta-level. The reason that it's easy to forget how hard I have worked is that all the hard work happens behind-the-scenes. Performing the music I have prepared in advance is actually what I think of as the easier part now (although by no means easy!) once I have prepared myself properly. The hard part is the practise, the agonising over fingerings, developing technique, note choice, dynamics, touch, etc... and putting the time into practising all of that is tough. Training and re-training your hands is tough. Writing music can be tough. Learning music can be tough. Keeping your instruments in good playable condition can be tough. Being your own manager, booking agent, web admin, publisher, and publicist is tough. Preparing yourself for a gig, a tour, or a media appearance is tough. Remembering why I am doing what I'm doing can sometimes be tough! In spite of all this, the feeling you get when you play music that you feel represents your spirit on stage is like no other. Getting to meet people and getting to see places you would never otherwise experience is an amazing feeling. Connecting instantly with people who don't even speak the same language is an unbelievable feeling. For me, flipping the guitar around reminds me of how far along the road I have come since I decided to take up the guitar!
Here's something I want you to ask yourself:
"What are my goals in terms of my musicianship?"
Usually if I ask someone what their musical goals are, they will reply with "I want to get better at improvising", or "I want to be able to pick up songs by ear at a sing-song and play along", or "I want to be able to write songs", or something similar.
Okay, grand. Now: When was the last time you wrote them down and put them on the wall?
Here is a picture of my two whiteboards that I use regularly:
This is how I get stuff done! If it's not in front of me, I won't do it - "Out of sight, out of mind". Break down your musicianship into goals, and then subdivide those goals as much as you can. 'Better improvising' is a good place to start, but it is ill-defined. "Improvising over 'How High The Moon' and 'Limehouse Blues'" is much better. "Improvising over 1-6m-2m-5 and modulate chromatically over all 12 keys starting on B flat" is even better again. Doing that at 4:30pm next Tuesday is as good a plan as you can get. The point here is that by breaking down the goal comprehensively and scheduling it in, you'll be on the way to achieving it! Writing things down is great, but seeing lists pile up will put you off. Putting your goals in your calendar is even more effective. I use an iCloud calendar and I have a specific calendar for "Practise", where I write down what I'm going to practise.
To take a step back from there, maybe you want to improve your instrumental skills to back yourself singing, or to play at a session. In this case, write down all the songs/tunes you would like to learn, and put them up on the wall where you most often practise. Go through each one and tick them off when you have them learned to your satisfaction. Then, go back over them again! There is a reason that most great musicians walk out onto the stage with their instruments in hand: before they come onto the stage, they are warming up and getting "in the zone". Most great musicians never stop practising their own tunes, even after playing them thousands of times over the course of their life. Why is that? It's because doing this leads to consistency! Great musicians know that they won't play properly unless they keep up their practise. Footballers don't learn how to take a free kick once and then leave it at that until the match comes around - they practise free kicks over and over and over so that they are as consistent as they can be!