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I love music and I want to create and I have an advanced knowledge of theory. But when it comes to performance, I fall flat.

Whenever I am playing a bass or guitar, I become too overwhelmed and things I have learned seem to disappear. I can not keep time on my instrument consistently. It always seems like my fingers can’t keep up or get tired, and this really discourages me from learning anything. I have tried metronomes and I cannot play consistently to them. Should I just give up? I have been learning music for three years, but what’s the point if I can never play?

  • 5
    You should find a good teacher and take lessons. – Todd Wilcox Feb 3 '18 at 22:46
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    You CAN play consistently to a metronome if you set it slow enough. Practice some simple things, slowly. – Laurence Payne Feb 4 '18 at 14:24
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My late father couldn't carry a tune, but that never stopped him from singing! He had pretty much zero musical talent; I could play a note on the piano and he was generally closer to a tritone off than to the actual note when he tried to sing it.

Nevertheless, he bought himself a recorder and sat around trying to play it, and eventually started taking lessons. I recall that when he started, he had no concept of rhythmic notation to speak of (much to the frustration of his teacher): he would play repeated notes quickly, one right after the other (whew, got the easy ones out of the way), and then take extra time with notes that were more difficult to finger. Never mind that quarter notes have to be held for the same amount of time.

Also, he often forgot the key signature for extended periods of time, and plowed through, say, an F major passage replacing all the B flats with B naturals, entirely unaware that he was playing wrong notes. That is, until one of his kids (six of his seven children had their mother's musical ear), unable to tolerate it any more, would holler "DAAADDD! You're missing a flat" from somewhere in the house. (What? Oh. Oh. Oh yes.) Then he'd stop, go back, and repeat it correctly.

After maybe five years, darned if he couldn't make his way through several songs, and he was deservedly proud of that.

Now, you obviously have more talent than my father. If he got something out of persevering, then you will, too. You may never be a good performer, but you can always be better than you are. And none of us is ever as good as we would like to be. As Horowitz once said, if you want perfect, don't listen to me.

So heck no, you shouldn't just give up. Keep at it. No matter how bad you are (and you're probably better than you think), you'll always get something worthwhile out of it. Also, see how good you can get at writing music. Who knows? Maybe that's your biggest talent.

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No, you should not give up. Playing music is difficult. It sounds like your problem is with confidence, not ability. Anyone with hands can learn to play the guitar very well.

Don't think about theory when you are playing. Put it out of your mind as much as possible. Listen to what you are playing. Play a single note. How long should you hold it? That's for you to decide. Should you play that note again, or should the pitch change? What would sound good to you in context? That's what you need to focus on. Listen, don't think.

I learned to play the guitar by recording chord progressions with a looper pedal and playing over the top of it. Nowadays there are a huge number of backing tracks on youtube you can practice with. Here's one.

Imagine a simple melody to go with the progression. Hum the melody and find the notes on the guitar. It can be two notes. It doesn't have to be complicated. What matters is that you develop the ability to play the music you hear in your head confidently.

If you are overwhelmed, simplify what you're playing and practice until you can do it with ease. Make sure you're stretching your wrists and fingers regularly. Your hands will get stronger and more dexterous the more you play.

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When beginning to learn to play a musical instrument there is a large amount of information your brain is attempting to process simultaneously and it can be overwhelming. Your brain is trying to figure out which fret on which string to play with your fretting hand and which string and which direction to pick with your picking hand all while trying to keep up with the tempo and timing the playing of each note with the metronome or beat.

With enough practice each piece of information will become "automatic". You will instinctively know how to do various aspects of playing a particular passage without really having to consciously think about the information. It's similar to so many things we learn to do that become so automatic we no longer have to think about it (like driving a car).

To confirm that you have a sense of rhythm and ability to keep a beat (essential skill in playing any instrument properly) try humming or singing the bass line or guitar solo along with a metronome or backing track or drum track. If you are able to make the timing work by singing or humming (a skill you have already mastered), then you can be sure that with enough practice you will be able to do the same with your instrument.

Experienced musicians eventually get to a point where playing a particular note on their instrument is as automatic as humming the note - it becomes instinctive. With practice, you will get to that point. But as long as you have to consciously think about how to form a particular note or chord with both your left and right hands, your brain will be attempting to process that information while also trying to process the timing and listen to the metronome and coordinating all of that conscious processing simultaneously will be too much to handle.

Take it one step at a time. First learn to play a particular song without really having to think about how to play each note or chord. It may take a long time to get to that point but you should see some progress with every practice session. As long as you are getting a little better with continual practice, you are getting closer to your goal and should celebrate your accomplishment.

Once you can play a song or passage automatically without really even having to think about how to play each note or chord, then start playing to a click track, metronome or drum track. By this time you are now able to focus strictly on timing since the forming of the notes has become automatic.

Start with a slower tempo that you can play easily, and continue to get faster and faster until you can play the piece accurately at full tempo.

Learning to play an instrument is a gradual process and as you become competent with one aspect of playing you can focus on another. The skills which must all eventually be mastered build one upon the other.

An analogy for this is when I learned to touch type I used a computer tutorial program that started with just the home keys and gradually added a few keys with each lesson. Soon I could type actual words and the program gave me exercises typing sentences containing words using only the letters and characters I had learned so far. I could keep typing those exercises until I got to a point where my typing speed using the ten letters of the alphabet that I had learned so far was above 60 WPM. Then I could add a couple more letters and repeat the process. Each lesson built upon the previous lesson until eventually I could type paragraphs using all the letters on the keyboard as fast as I could type the sentences using only the first ten characters I learned.

Don't feel like you have to master your instrument in a short period of time. Practice one skill at a time and then add the next. As long as you see continual improvement you should feel a sense of accomplishment and be encouraged by your progress.

You will never stop getting better until you decide you are as good as you want to be. Mastery of any instrument is life long process. Enjoy the journey!

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Whenever I am playing a bass or guitar I become too overwhelmed and things I have learned seem to disappear. I can not keep time on my instrument consistently it always seems like my fingers can’t keep up or get tired, it really discourages me from learning anything.

You haven't given many details about what you are trying to play, but AFAIK, the most common reason that happens is because you are trying to do too much - your brain and ears are way ahead of your fingers and technical ability: You have the music in your mind but can't express it on your instrument, so you get flummoxed and lost.


The solution is to go slowly , step by step - the KISS Principle:

  • Start with simple, familiar material - even if it seems silly and infantile: If you're working on melodies, play things like Happy Birthday, Mary had a Little Lamb, etc. Go slowly and learn to play the melody clearly and cleanly until you've nailed it. Then move on to something else, gradually increasing complexity and difficulty. Never push yourself too hard - just enough to make it a bit challenging.
  • If you're playing chords try this - if the chart says Cmin9, you don't really have to play the 9 - just play a simple Cmin triad - you'll get by and build your confidence. Also stick to simple charts and build up to more complex material. Simple 12 bar I-IV-V blues pieces are always good material for beginners and help to build confidence.

    And since you say you know theory well, analyze your material: Almost all pieces of music, except the most simplistic, have parts that are optional - transitional chords, chords that serve as embellishment etc - you can play the song and it will be recognizable and sound OK even if you skip those parts. Granted, you won't sound like a pro but you'll be playing and building up your confidence.


The problem now of course is,
To simply hold your horses;
To rush would be a crime,
'Cause nice and easy does it every time!

(Nice and Easy, by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, Lew Spence - big hit by recorded by Frank Sinatra.)

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There is always an element of frustration when practicing (or should be) because you should practice things that you are not good at. There is often a tendency to practice things that you can already do because there is the immediate reward of playing something that sounds good, but this makes progress slow. If you practice what you can't do, gradually these new things will make their way into your actual playing. This takes patience and some tolerance for failure. Nobody, except maybe your teacher, should ever want to listen to you practice.

The problems you describe in your playing sound like the result of not knowing the material well enough. You may think that you know it, but not really have the material in your fingers so when you rush ahead at a performance tempo your technical chops can't keep up the pace. Or you may be finding that the stress of performing puts you on the spot, overloading your brain so that you lose focus.

One way to improve the situation is to really get to know the music you want to play. Play through it with a metronome as slowly as needed to get every detail right, before gradually increasing the tempo until you reach a performance tempo.

Another tactic is to visualize the music, without an instrument. Close your eyes and imagine playing your instrument through difficult passages, visualizing the fingerings. Picture the chord symbols in your mind; if you can read music, visualize the notes on the staff.

Spending some time analyzing the pieces that you play may also help you to avoid losing your place when performing. Try to analyze the chord progressions, the melodies, look for how the melody relates to the harmony, look for repeated phrases, identify the song form, etc. The more ways that you have to think about a piece of music, the easier it will be to remember it.

When at the instrument, try to focus more on listening, and less on visual patterns. When in a performance situation, this will help take your mind off of your surroundings; when playing with other musicians, you really need to be listening to the other musicians as well as to your own playing.

One nice way to warm up before a practice session is to work on tremolo picking. Set the metronome to a relaxed tempo, say 60 bpm (or slower if you like; surprisingly very slow tempos can sometimes cause problems). Pick any note, and just play that note using alternate picking. Quarter notes at first, one note per click. When you get locked in to the metronome, switch to eighth notes. When you get locked in again, switch to sixteenth notes. When you get locked in this time, increase the tempo (say, from 60 bpm to 70 bpm), and start over with quarter notes. You can pick a new note for the new tempo if you like. Keep doing this, and increasing the tempo until you find the tempo at which you begin to lose control. This should only take 10 minutes or so, but within a week you should start to notice an improved ability to play with the metronome.

You should do this in different locations around the neck; you don't have to do it everywhere during each practice session, just don't always practice this (or anything, for that matter) in the same location. Use open strings sometimes; the strings respond differently to the pick depending on where they are fretted, and practicing tremolo picking on different strings with different notes helps you develop a feel for this. When you gain some proficiency with the original exercise, you can add triplets or sextuplets, pick groups of five or seven notes, add 32nd notes or 64th notes, or expand the exercise in any way that seems helpful.

Above all, don't give up. The road to mastery has no end and there is no clock to punch. If you need to play music, then do it.

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From what you posted it seems that you have some experience with music theory but don’t have a lot of experience physically playing an instrument yet. Head knowledge of music and theory and the physical ability to make your fingers move to play an instrument are two very different things. Just because your brain knows the theory of how chords are constructed doesn’t mean your fingers know how to play them. Your body needs to learn the mechanics of playing the instrument and this is known as muscle memory:

From Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_memory

“Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, typing in a PIN, playing a musical instrument, poker, martial arts or even dancing.”

When first learning to play an instrument it is significantly more difficult because your body has not yet developed the muscle memory needed to make the mechanics effortless. Every new musician goes through this same process. When I first started to play guitar at age 15 I played for about 3 weeks before quitting because I thought I would never be able to do it. Forming chords seemed impossible, let alone being able to switch chords fast enough to play a song. So I quit playing for about 3-4 months and then decided to pick it up again and stick to it...now I’ve been playing for over 20 years.

Being very frustrated and wanting to quit in the beginning stages is not uncommon at all. But just realize that once you get over that initial hurdle of developing muscle memory playing will get a lot easier. If you have a love for music and a strong desire to create it, then you should definitely NOT quit.

If you haven't already done so, I highly recommend checking out some music lesson channels on youtube. Here are a couple of my favorites for guitar and bass:

Justin Guitar: https://www.youtube.com/user/JustinSandercoe/playlists?view=1&shelf_id=0&sort=dd

Scott’s Bass Lessons: https://www.youtube.com/user/devinebass/playlists

Both of them have playlists dedicated to different styles, techniques, and level of playing. Start out with the Beginner playlists and branch out from there.

It’s also a good idea to get private one-on-one lessons so that the instructor can check your technique to make sure you’re not doing anything seriously incorrectly that is hindering your ability to get better and/or that could potentially cause physical health problems down the line. I’m self taught myself and I picked up a lot of bad habits in the beginning so I can say from experience that it’s no fun to have to correct bad technique after years of playing incorrectly. The sooner you can learn proper technique and how to play relaxed the better.

On the metronome, by saying that you’ve “tried” a metronome indicates that you haven’t put a whole lot of time into practicing with metronomes yet. This is a skill that will take practice just like anything else. Simply “trying” it won’t really change much in your ability to keep good time.

For more info on keeping time, Benny Greb did an amazing lesson on Drumeo about timing and groove based off of his DVD “The Art and Science of Groove”. Benny is a drummer, but the information and exercises he presents can be applied to any instrument of your choosing. For example, the very first exercise he mentions is keeping time vocally by making a “click” sound with your mouth as you play. Practice this for a while BEFORE trying to practice to a metronome because this will allow you to feel the pulse yourself internally. Then you will be better able to align your playing to a metronome. He also gives exercises for practicing subdivisions and all kinds of stuff.

You can watch the full lesson Benny did with Drumeo on youtube here (I cued it up to when the actual lesson starts):

His DVD goes more in depth and I would highly recommend it even for non-drummers as timing and groove is an essential part to playing any instrument.

  • Thank you for the advice, my biggest pitfall is timing whenever I put a metronome on I always feel like i’m Playing slightly behind or too fast and when I practiced bass it was terrible because timing is such an important part. Also my technique crumbles I mean I’ve learned classical guitar pieces and bass lines and played them slowly then confidently, then when it comes to playing along with them it’s as if I haven’t practiced at all. – Tom Feb 4 '18 at 13:41
  • Try the verbal "click" exercise that Benny Greb mentions in the video I posted (starting at 16:16). Start slow and really focus on making sure what you're playing on the bass or guitar fits in time with your verbal click. Also focus on keeping your verbal click as even as you can without speeding up or slowing down very much. After practicing to your own internal pulse like this for a while it will be easier to align your playing to an external pulse like a metronome, a drummer, etc. – Tekkerue Feb 4 '18 at 23:00
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After 25 years of primarily playing alone I recently played with some (very kind) friends with years of experience playing live. I am much like you, lots of knowledge, not enough practice. I really was totally blown away by how lost I got at times, even my good moments in the songs I was comfortable with I found myself falling behind and getting lost in the collaboration.
I have been focusing on simple finger strength and speed exercises since, both hands, very simple. Along with the metronome and practice tracks it seems to be helping.

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