Contrary to what many may think, excellence isn't always consistent. Recently I read an article about a new book, Bounce - How Champions Are Made by Matthew Syed. In it Matthew considered 'choking', where a pro athlete (but it could be another public performer such as a musician) fails at a task in a big demand scenario that should otherwise have been easy. Reason being, what usually would have drawn on automotive skills (with little or no thinking required), had instead drawn on explicit inner dialogue ('put hands here, move this way') due to the stress involved. It is this shift to overload mode that had turned expected excellence into choking.
Automation is a process that starts with the brain fully focused on getting a skill right, repeatedly. Over a period of time the skill is honed and committed to implicit memory. You can test automation by performing the skill while being engaged in something else - say, speak aloud your name and address while performing. If successful, the skill is considered hardwired.
So what can this mean for guitarists? Is good practice enough for consistent excellence? What about experiencing enough 'high demand' scenarios to cope with stress and have automation as the primary mode of physical operation?
In truth, we're all different. Some choke often, others never. But I think some processes for general development are better than others. So here are three topics to consider:
1) Always practice slowly, without distractions. Most students tackle a lick/phrase/song too quickly, demanding 'got to get it right, now!'. Expecting excellence at tempo over a few sessions instils early stages stress. Not good!
2) Have an outcome goal. Go for a one take recording or a performance in front of others. Playing for an audience is often worth 10 or more solitary practice sessions. If you can achieve 80% or more quality when it really matters (the 'red light' moment), you've practiced well and drawing on solid muscle memory.
3) Let yourself off the hook before you play 'an event'. Being stressed over negative 'maybe's' often encourages them to happen! So prepare well and then enjoy playing to those that want you to be 100%.
Happy practicing and performing!