Improvement vs. Maintenance, Part 2

Alright. If you’ve been following along, we’ve discussed the basic differences between practicing for the sake of improvement and practicing with the intent of keeping what we already have (otherwise known as the improvement and maintenance models) in a previous installment.

Every well-oiled machine needs routine maintenance.

As mentioned before, the maintenance model is also driven by motivation, and although the same motivators are often present for both models, they’re usually less obvious when working to maintain what we’ve already built.

This is completely the domain of doing it for its own sake, and doing it because you “have” to or are “supposed” to. While this isn’t always the most fun, and it’s not always what we dream of when formulating ideas of ruling the world with a guitar, it is necessary.

It’s absolutely necessary, and contrary to what others might tell you, doing this stuff for real isn’t always “fun”, or even moderately appealing. And, doing it for its own sake never ends either, regardless of how long you’ve been playing or what level of experience you have.

So, does this mean that we just resign ourselves to the fact that it’s gonna suck sometimes?


Well, yes. It kinda does. Most things worth doing fall under the category of doing just for its own sake, at least sometimes. But, this doesn’t mean that guitar maintenance work itself sucks, or that it’s unproductive. In fact, we’ll often make bigger gains and get more results from the maintenance model than by practicing for improvement, at least in terms of physical technique.

Why is this? Well, my theory is that because we’re basically going on “autopilot” with the maintenance model, and effectively getting our conscious mind out of the way, we’re able to work on technical aspects that we already have without as much hindrance or interruption. We’ve all got those “voices” in our heads (some of us more than others) that tell us  we’re doing something wrong, we need to do something else, we need to stop wasting time with certain things, we need to quit altogether, and so forth.

One of the most effective ways to tell that voice to shut up is by tuning it out, just like you would with anyone else who you’ve chosen to ignore because they’ve gotten on your last nerve with their incessant, distracting bullshit. How do we do this?

There are many ways, but one of the best is to go against the stock advice that most people give you about effective guitar practice (big surprise there.) Turn on the TV, listen to something else, or whatever else you can do to “zap out” for a bit and put your conscious attention elsewhere. That’s pretty much it.

In short: you get the hell out of your own way and just do it.

Also, doing this elicits a slight sort of trance state, and by putting conscious attention elsewhere, the work we do may sink deeper into the unconscious mind, making it more automatic and permanent. In reality, the majority of what we do as guitarists is unconscious, yet so many players focus on the conscious, intellect-driven side of things while ignoring the unconscious side altogether.

Since most of what happens goes on “behind the scenes”, it makes sense to work with those mechanisms directly, rather than taking a haphazard approach to what we’ve already established, as well as new input.

What it comes down to is this: we want to use the maintenance model when drilling techniques and ideas we’re already familiar with, and the improvement model for new things. Do NOT use the maintenance model when working on new material or things you’re still struggling with: these areas need more conscious attention, and we want to establish a degree of competence with them before they become automatic.

Once you’ve nailed that, though, turn on the TV and that “Gilligan’s Island” marathon or whatever else happens to be on, and perform your maintenance without a hassle. Not only does this help to embed and improve what you’ve attained on a deeper level, it also can help take the boredom and “I hate to practice” sting out of whatever you’re working on. Try it, do it, and make it work for you.

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