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I'm going to try and articulate what I feel about myself when I play guitar, whether it be in front of people or by myself. I'm not sure if its a common thing for musicians to feel or if its just me.

So I've been playing guitar for about 6 years, on and off for the first 4 and have been playing a lot for the past 2 years. I'm in the school band where we play these pretty lame songs, the usual stuff that you'd expect. But whenever I'm playing, its feels like I'm really bad at playing the guitar, whether it be in front of others or just by myself. It's this deep sinking feeling that I sound so bad.

It doesn't seem like I sound bad when I'm actually playing but I still don't believe that I sound decent at all. When I listen to a recording of myself i get the same feeling, but I'm always unimpressed with how I sound. I really don't know if its low self-esteem, a warped perception of how I sound or if I really am just utter trash at playing.

I ask my friends and people I play with if I sound bad and they always say 'no', I ask them to be specific, asking them to explain how they feel, ask them to tell the truth and tell them that I just want to know, you can be as brutal, mean and nasty as you want just tell me if I sound bad or not. But they always just reassure me, going you sound fine. I'm not sure if they just want to spare my feelings or they think I actually sound alright, but this is driving me crazy. I've got a performance coming up soon and I really need to know if I sound awful before hand so I can try and figure out whats wrong.

I don't want to continue playing and having people shudder every time i play. I understand that music is subjective, but I just don't feel like I sound any good and I don't even think all the affirmation in the world would convince me otherwise. I don't know what I should do.

Is there anyway I can really know if I sound alright?

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    You won't know for sure until you start trying out for bands and/or playing gigs. I think most musicians are better than they think they are, except the ones who think they are great. Also, it's more important to find your own sound and expression than to sound "great". Focus on sounding like you and see if people want to hear it and play with you. – Todd Wilcox Oct 11 '15 at 7:39
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    It may be related to low self-esteem and/or perfectionism, or maybe another thing -I am not psychologist or anything-. Listen your own recordings to see how it really sounds and try to fix what you see wrong with them. Also you should accept that you may not be as good as people whose profession is playing guitar several hours a day. Keep that in mind if you compare your playing with the studio recordings of the original song that you cover. – Seyfülislam Özdemir Oct 11 '15 at 9:06
  • Re: comparing to recordings. The best thing to do is look for live recordings/videos of some of your favorite guitar players. Quite a few of the greats often miff notes and wrench chords live. Most audiences are not there to heckle, so not a big deal. If you miff Mary Had a Little Lamb, errors are mystifying. If you are decent and playing at the edge of your ability, they can be breathtaking. And if you incorporate them, they are not even errors anymore. – Yorik Oct 13 '15 at 20:18
  • Do you have decent foldback so you can actually hear what you sound like? – Mr. Boy Oct 14 '15 at 13:35
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    Even the best friends may not give a true opinion if they don't want to upset you: upload the clip to Soundcloud or Youtube and post it on Reddit or similar and you're likely to get a more neutral opinion: especially if you specifically ask for it along with some constructive criticism and feedback – Jon Story Oct 18 '16 at 15:56

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Most musicians constantly fuss over how they sound. It is understandable, given the way we communicate using sound; we want our sound to be the best sound we can create. So, you are not alone here.

It is important for you to learn to separate the sound from your self-worth as a human being. You ask your friends to be specific, but you need to be specific: what exactly are you asking about? Are we talking about timbre? If so, some quick adjustments to your guitar / strings / amp can easily change that. Are we discussing performance confidence? Stage presence? Understanding everything that the music entails and practicing those techniques regularly will mitigate ignorance of the music, thus mitigating performance anxiety.

What is it about your sound you want to change? Timbre? Performance Anxiety? Is it a technique problem? Sloppy playing? Is it a gear / setup issue?

Notice that none of those questions focus on you as a person.

One other thought: don't ask your friends - ask people you don't know; they don't have anything to lose by being honest with you, even if their answers aren't as articulate as you might want them to be.

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    On the final point: I was going to emphasize asking other musicians (who aren't your friends); I believe that some people will say generic positive things because they do not listen as closely and/or cannot find the words to describe what they are hearing. – Dave Oct 12 '15 at 13:31
  • @Dave Yes I agree. I didn't say as much in my answer, but as a composer I find that generally other composers will provide much more specific, insightful comments than other types of musicians. That being said, I have some friends who are instrumentalists with excellent ears for nuance and articulate themselves extremely well; though they can't write a note of music themselves. – jjmusicnotes Oct 13 '15 at 5:03
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Well, you're six years into playing. Your discrimination develops faster than your playing skills and your imagination. Chances are that indeed your playing leaves something to be desired -- to you. If Picasso had shopped around for opinions at age 20, everybody would have told him he was doing great and that his pictures were fine.

Now to quote Shakespeare: "'So so' is good, very good, very excellent good; and yet it is not; it is but so so."

There is a whole lot you can do with reasonable skills. At the same time, you should work on being able to better put a finger on what is disturbing you with regard to your playing and work on getting better.

At some point in that process, it might be a good idea looking for a teacher who either understands your problem with your playing and work targeted on it, or (and of course that's the more tedious options) who can solidify your basics and perspectives to a degree where you have a better chance yourself to move forward.

This does not need to mean weekly lessons: some people derive a lot of inspiration from an occasional master class or (depending on their skills level) more generic courses and session work.

Developing a plan and trying to make progress on it, preferably under supervision of more experiences players, may end up less frustrating than just screwing around without aim, but even screwing around without aim is better than doing nothing.

4

First, ask yourself what you do well when you play. When you are listening to yourself, it's very easy to get caught up in what you are doing wrong. You missed a chord in the third measure, or you lost the rhythm for a moment somewhere. But if you only pay attention to those things, you miss everything else. You missed a chord or two, but you played 30 or 40 chords correctly. You lost the rhythm for a full second, but if the song is 3 minutes, that means you held the rhythm for 179 seconds. Every time you play a song, make a point of noting to yourself one thing you did right for every thing you do wrong. It not only helps you feel better, but it helps you see what you are honestly doing well.

If you feel like you sound terrible, but other people say you don't, you need to learn to hear yourself like others do. An easy way to do this is to record yourself, then don't listen to the recording for at least a week or two. A month is even better. By giving yourself time before you listen, you'll forget exactly what you did wrong, and it feels more like it isn't your own. Then when you do listen, make an effort to listen like it's a stranger playing. Listen to the overall sound, like you would if it was another person. Maybe try humming along, just paying attention to the overall melody and rhythm. Don't try to pick out the mistakes.

And finally, you are going to make mistakes. I've listened to concerts by professionals whose musicianship I'll never match, and heard them screw up badly. They still sounded great. If you want to become a good musician, you need to be able to recover from mistakes, and part of that is learning to move on quickly when you make them. If you consider yourself trash, you'll never get any better.

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I picked up on one thing that doesn't appear to be mentioned and I think plays into the "Flow" post made above as well.

Your second paragraph, second sentence starts "I'm in the school band where we play these pretty lame songs...." and I think part of the problem is right there.

Music has energy, pulse, a life of it's own, if you don't like what you are playing, and are just going through the motions trying to get to the end of the song then your lack of energy and drive can translate into the music sounding flat and boring (not flat as in b just flat as in no dynamic).

I realize this is a sort of intangible thing I am describing but I think that if you can find something inside these "lame" songs to grab onto and use to push yourself you will find some energy and enthusiasm slipping back into your playing.

Maybe it's pushing yourself to be perfectly in time every time on every beat 4 to a bar, maybe it's pushing yourself to be able to accent the "and of 2" every bar. If you are allowed to make artistic choices maybe it is trying to find and use a different voicing for one of the boring chords you have to play over and over.

Make it a game to try and take every last bit of knowledge a song can offer and stretch it as far as it can go.

Odds are good that in band in school you are learning some good old Jazz standards. Look up players that have come before you and see what they did with it, find inspiration in the small things!

Maybe that is useful, maybe it isn't, but I really think if you can find a way to stop thinking of the songs as "lame" and find something interesting about them to focus on, you can find something you feel like you are missing!

Thanks!

Steve

2

First of all, if you've been actively working on it and playing for six years, I doubt you're really bad. The worst case is that you're mediocre.

These are the top three torments of the amateur musician:

  1. You're so used to hearing yourself and micro-analyzing your playing that your ears go numb and it's almost impossible to judge your own skill.
  2. You can't ask your friends because everyone is going to tell you that you're good no matter what.
  3. Even if you're actually pretty good, you'll never sound anywhere near as good as your heroes, or even necessarily good enough that you'd listen to your own stuff for fun.

And these are the top three consolations:

  1. If you're even halfway decent, you still get lots of the perks that come with being a musician. Playing music is seen as an almost magical power by a lot of people. It automatically makes you more interesting and--yes--a bit more attractive.
  2. It's not a job. If you're not enjoying yourself or can't get out of your own head about whether you're any good or not, you can put it down whenever you want and return to music when it feels right.
  3. Playing music is really fun, especially with friends, even if you're just so-so. There was a time when music was a major pastime, when families would gather after dinner and play music the way we now watch TV and play games. People had a great time. Were most of them all that good? Probably not, but who cares?
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Playing a musical instrument is basically about "performance". Whether it is in front of an audience or the audience is just yourself alone, it is still about performance.

At a young age (you play in a school band) it can be very easy to develop a negative outlook of ones own musical ability (or any other ability for that matter).

Moving from a negative to a positive mindset is no easy matter. This short article may help ...The psychology of performance:

"A lot of people get really scared just getting up in front of a school and addressing an assembly. Times that by a million and put an instrument in your hands, and [add] the abstracted nature of music, and then you've got a taste of what it's like standing in front of an audience". http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/musicshow/richard-tognetti-and-the-psychology-of-performance/6838670

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Having played instruments for over 30 years, having been in a band with real gigs, and having a visual arts degree, I will say: you are not alone.

However, aside from the basic self-loathing and impostor syndrome that all artists suffer from, there is a concept in psychology called flow. Which is similar to but different from "hyperfocus."

In my experience, when I become conscious of my playing in an analytic sort of way that you seem to describe in your question, especially when I think of how cool I ought to look and how much everyone must be enjoying my obvious genius (/sarcasm), my playing suffers for it.

Some people speak about right-brain/left-brain duality and it seems like there is some science to it. I always thought of flow as that state where my left brain just shuts the hell up and lets me work.

There is no easy way to get into a flow except to "feel it" and no easy way to get back in it once you "break it." You just need to know what to do, how to hear, and where to go (even when you stumble). These come from practice and positive attitude towards imperfection.

Flow is (from Flow (phychology)):

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

and

Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety.

Oddly enough, mundane practice and self-critiques which are both critical long-term for creativity are also counterindicated for flow.

1

You are describing the internal state that leads musicians to seek guidance from a really good teacher.

You will be amazed how much more satisfaction you can get from playing your instrument if you are being guided to make improvements in your playing.

Assemble a list of candidate teachers. Ask to observe a lesson. Cross off your list anyone who is uncomfortable with this request. Keep looking until you find the right fit.

1

I think it may be a good thing what's happening to you. You are aware that you're not sounding like you would like. From my experience I get that too. When I hear great musicians, and experience what they make me feel; I see how amazing they are, and wonder how can I, or would I even be able to be great at music.

When I play, I find weak points, or things I would like to improve. And I even hear how I want it to sound, but there's a gap. And sometimes, a big one, between how I know it should sound, or how I want it to sound, and how I sound when I'm playing.

And it's no easy task. It's not easy to play countless times to get a little closer to how I want to sound. And sometimes it feels like I'm going nowhere, like it doesn't get better.

But hard work it's worth it. One day you are playing yet another time the same piece, and it magically comes together.

One of the things that made me get in this journey of music deeper, was the teacher I have. He is teaching me how to build my own sound, how to think about music, how to interpret. How to give each single note you play a meaning. All notes make music. And that's the difficult part, every single note you play has a meaning, it's all part of a big speech. And that's part of what makes great musicians, able to give life to every note they play.

One of the important things he taught me is to have some solid base. Things that you can reliably depend on when you are stuck. This elements, technique elements, make up the ground where you build up music. How you position your body to play, how do you move your muscles to produce sound. What do you need to do to make some sound, be it a legato, or a staccato for example, how is it played, and how do you play it with your body.

The point is, the foundations you build make up for the music you'll make. If you can build a solid ground, you can make great music. It's a tough path. But I'm working on the tools that allow me to paint the music, it's like preparing a color palette to use later. You can play 'easy' / 'beginner' music, and still make it sound amazing if you have the tools.

1

I know the feeling. As a violinist, I used to have an over-inflated opinion of my sound. The violin is right up against your chin, and vibrates your skull which makes the instrument sound much better to the one who's playing it... (much like how people's voices sound better to themselves than to others or on a recording.)

If you've been playing for that long, then you probably sound just as good as you could be expected to. I record myself practicing so that I can get a better idea of how I really sound, and of course it horrifies me. But it's important (me being a violinist... violinists have big heads...) to have an adequate idea of how I sound. What I discovered is that when I compare how I sound now to how I sounded when I first started, I sound like I've improved. You never stop learning. You never sound perfect, but you always improve.

To most people who never stuck with an instrument, you probably sound like something incredible. Don't think that people give out praise for nothing. It's not that you sound as good as a guitar legend, it's that you sound better than you used to, and better than people who haven't played as long as you have. Being able to play at all takes dedication. That's what people notice. Not the perfection.

You sound like a rather young person. How usual is it to have a person your age who's stuck with any instrument for as long as you have? Most people your age don't know the first thing about guitar.

So what can you do? Practice. Record yourself. Don't beat yourself up when you don't sound like a master. Remember that you've improved.

When you can't seem to move forward, remember where you've been.

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