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Friday, November 7, 2014

Don't Perfect Your Mistakes

The notion of practice makes perfect has deeply rooted in our culture. Living in a world that is driven by rewards, it is inevitable to assume that with better performances we should reap greater rewards. Individuals who desired to perform will work hard and smart to get the goals they yearned for. They want to get better in doing their jobs so they learn and practice hard. The reinforcements on this notion has turned it into facts through time. Many people firmly believe that with persistency we can expect results. Or does it?

More than often, people who are driven by rewards get burnt out faster. There is little doubt that these people will learn and practice real hard at the onset. However their fuel just ran out rapidly. With the absence of drive, a.k.a. energy, performing will not be likely and much less getting any rewards. So what will happen to them? They switch jobs in hope to find better or greener pastures "on the other side". I think we know what will be the eventuality.

What about doing it with passion? Learning and practicing with passion as the energy source? It does sound like the answer to today's widespread of disengaged workforce. Passion can drive us to practice consistently thus achieving perfection. The world have us believed that this is the holy grail to success in life, i.e. Practice Makes Perfect.

What has this got to do with guitars? Please read on…

Do you know Dirty Jobs? It is a cool program in Discovery Channel that features professionals doing jobs that are downright dirty and filthy. This program is hosted by Mike Rowe. He is very well respected by the viewers. He has once shared with his viewers about the notion of following your passion. Mike was pragmatic about it. He said, "Don't follow your passion. Bring it to you instead."

Make no mistakes, Mike is crystal clear about the reasons behind his words. He cautioned that passion may be too flicker to follow. He saw many people switching from one job to another. Each job switch was justified by the notion of following your passion. He also met people who stay on course but they still gotten nowhere. So what is Mike thinking?

Firstly, Mike thinks that just because people follow their passion, it doesn't mean they are not going to be suck at it. Secondly, passion with no direction can lead people into the abyss. So does practice makes perfect? Perhaps the argument that practice does make perfect isn't the crux of the matter. We should challenge this deep rooted notion and ask, "Why practice doesn't make perfect?" I will attempt to relate it to guitar making and guitar playing.

It is safe to assume that people who buy guitars will at least like playing it. While there are exceptions, let's stick to those who like playing guitars. I started playing guitar in 1991. With no formal mentoring, I taught myself to play the instrument. After two decades of practices and playing, I thought I could play properly. Moreover, my enthusiasm for playing guitars has never diminished. Instead it was constantly growing. But I have never been more wrong.

Fortunately I was given opportunities to organize guitar festivals in overseas. Through the experiences, I made friends with world-class guitar players. It was during about the same time frame I studied guitar making with Jeffrey Yong. The numerous interactions with them have made me realized that my guitar playing was at best mediocre. It wasn't about lacking in effort and enthusiasm. I was simply oblivious to the rudiments of guitar playing. For two decades it was all but proper guitar playing for me. I have indeed perfected my mistakes.

After the shocking revelation, I began to make conscious effort to unlearn and relearn. This arduous journey was worth it. However it was by no means pleasant. Dismantling my perfected mistakes was indeed tougher than I can imagine. Throughout, I have learnt tremendously from Jeffrey, Shun, Ernest, Don, Grigory. Now I am a lot more discerning in the ways I practice and play.

Without the passion for guitar playing, I would have stopped earlier. Invariably the pure instinctual passion kept me going but it didn't make me a better player. In essence, following your passion doesn't mean you won't suck at whatever you are doing.

It is also time to address why practice doesn't make perfect. Proper guitar playing demands for precise synchronicity of both hands, body posture, sense of rhythm, etc. Without proper guidance, it is so easy to overlook these aspects. I focus only on left hand techniques, a.k.a. fretting hand because I wanted to only play fast. The quest for speed has subordinated the need to build strong foundation. As a result, my past practices were everything but perfect (accurate). This is why practice doesn't make perfect, only PERFECT practice makes perfect.

Arguably the most difficult task is determining what constitutes perfect practice. Since I didn't know enough when I started then how could I have knowledge of perfect practice? It appears to be a paradox especially for novices.

Indeed it wasn't plain sailing. Shun Ng is probably the most talented guitarist ever produced by Singapore. His guitar learning journey wasn't unstructured or unguided. He has very qualified persons who have provided him with proper coaching thus his playing is what it is today, i.e. top notched among the world class players. May I add that on Shun's enthusiasm and energy in practicing guitar was almost tireless. He can practice up to 16hrs a day. With these unique yet matching ingredients, Singapore has a champion guitarist. So use your passion to seek for accurate and proper guidance instead of squandering it all in the pleasure of playing.

Shun Ng

After I have come to terms that my two decades of practice was worthless, I began to observe good players but with a different attitude. Instead of admiring the speedy fingers, my senses were more acute and I was able to pick up many other aspects other than speed. It includes finger placement, finger switching, use of chord voicing, body & arms posture, controlled string attack, musicality, etc. While I have discovered many more aspects, they didn't overwhelm me. They made perfect sense to me.

Gradually I have changed the ways I practice guitar totally. Today I have various set of practices to target on specifics. The most important was probably having the consciousness to adopt practices that are accurate. Also to be cautious of bad habits tendencies. Each practice ought to be accurate and relevant. By doing that, I think it should qualify as PERFECT practice. What do you think?

At this juncture, let me recap the salient points. Passion does provide the energy that keeps us going but it doesn't necessarily point to the correct way(s). Practice doesn't make perfect because we can spend our lives perfecting our mistakes. Make effort to learn from the best, discover the best practices and turn them into your own suite of PERFECT practice.


This notion of only PERFECT practice makes perfect can be applied to many things we do. Especially in expanding our capabilities to undertake demanding tasks or as a personal effectiveness pursuit. Remember don't stifle your passion. Invariably, don't let it run wild as well. Set a GPS to the best course and attached it onto your passion before you let it out.

It isn't easy to sustain the attitude of PERFECT practices. You have to make your mind if you are really hungry for it. I shall conclude with this saying, Mind over matters. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.


  1. Great write up, Bro. Keep in coming. Don't sound anything at Maha-agony! ��

  2. I have been slow in writing this year. I think it is time to pick it up again. May God give me the wisdom and stamina to produce more.