How to Practise Your Guitar Wisely

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“Did you PRACTICE this week?” “Gee, I think that section could use a little more PRACTICE.” “No, you can’t go out with your friends, not until you have PRACTICED.” “We did not buy you that guitar for it to collect dust. Go PRACTICE.”

Noticing a common trend here? Yes, this is all about practice. I have noticed a rather intriguing trend among my fellow musicians, even some of my Conservatory-educated, regularly performing musicians. Far too many of them don’t know how to practice. Some of them don’t even really know what “practice” is. Do you? Maybe we should find out.

My first year at university, I learnt a whole lot about what “practice” was. In fact, I had several major epiphanies about what practice was, and how to control my practice time to get the best results.

Epiphany #1: Practicing is different than performing. Practice is different than “playing.” Playing you do for fun. Practice is work.

Epiphany #2: Quantity does not equal quality in the practice room. Not by a long shot.

Epiphany #3: Practicing is a whole lot like working out.

Oh, there were quite a few more, and we’ll hit on them, but those are the big ones, and the ones we need to think about the most, and by doing these big things, the little ones will fall into place.

Number 1, Practicing is different than performing. You have to divorce the two. When you hold yourself to some ridiculous standard in which you cannot make mistakes, you are never going to get better. Practicing is where you make yourself a better musician. You practice the right ways to do things, so that you can eventually transfer them into your performance. The two do not have to happen simultaneously. For example, say I notice that my fingers do not curve over the fretboard, and I am fretting with the flat of my finger instead of the tip. Great! I have something to work at. While I PRACTICE, I can work hard to make sure my fingers do not flatten out. Does this mean I am going to make more mistakes? Probably. You have to be patient with yourself. Sometimes you’ll make major changes to the way you play, and it’s going to feel like you’re learning your instrument all over again. In the practice room, this is fine. You are allowed to make the mistakes, you’re allowed to sound terrible, as long as you’re getting something out of it, and focusing on the correct technique. Its more about the process than the results.

However, until I have mastered the art of playing with my fingers arched, I am certainly not going to take that out into my performance. Performing is where you make your money, you have to be on your game. There, we focus more on results than process. If I have to play with my fingers flat, so be it. Its okay for now. Eventually, through correct practice, we’ll phase that bad habit out, and we’ll end up playing the correct way, which will make us a better player. But until then, we have got a livelihood to maintain, and we cannot afford to become worse trying to get better.

To summarize, in the practice room, process > results. We focus on the right WAY to play things, not necessarily on playing the right THINGS. Of course, when we make a mistake, we correct it, but we embrace that mistake as part of the learning process. In performance, however results > process. Play the right notes, in the way that currently sounds the best. Over time, we will continue to enforce correct technique, and it’ll appear in our performance, but until then, just play.

This is where the second part of Epiphany #1 comes in. When you practice, you practice with a distinct goal in mind. You have to find the problems in your playing, and correct them. You can’t just continually play. If I just “play” my lit in the practice room, then I’ve probably continued to make the same mistakes I made in performance, and I am continuing to reinforce bad habits. Remember, we emphasize the process. What is WRONG with what I am playing? How can I fix my mistakes? What exercises can I do to fix the problems? Again, this has nothing to do with performance. In performance, we just play. When we practice, we troubleshoot.

Epiphany No. 2: Quality over quantity. I hear so many people complain about their practicing, “Dude, I practice 4 hours a day but I am not getting any better!” Well, good for you for being dedicated. But I would bet you’re not really PRACTICING four hours a day. When you practice, you have to focus. And I mean FOCUS. No distractions. No TV, no visitors. No food. No computer. Getting the point? When I practice at school, I like to go into the smallest practice room possible, face away from the window, and turn off my phone, or at least put it on silent. The more time I have with just me and my guitar, the more I’m gonna get accomplished.

Once you’ve isolated yourself to the point at which you can focus, you have to think about what exactly you’re doing in the practice room. Here’s how my practice session works.

1. Warm Up 15-20 minutes.

2. Technique: Things I can’t do – 15 minutes. Things I can do but would like to do better. 15 minutes.

3. Etude #1 10-15 minutes. Etude #2 10-15 minutes, etc.

4. Literature, piece 1 20-30 minutes. Piece 2 20-30 minutes, etc.

5. Cool Down 10-15 minutes.

Notice, I have compartmentalized, micromanaged, and detailed my practice time. And what’s most important, I have timed it. And make no mistake, those numbers are not vague. I literally set an egg timer, and when it goes off, its off, and I’m done. If I’m in the middle of a rep, I will finish the thought, but that’s it. Do not keep going. You have to force yourself to keep to the schedule. Because I know me, if I do not force myself to stop, I’ll beat my head against the same wall for 2 and a half hours and not get any better, plus I’ve just affected the time I can spend on everything else. Now, what I haven’t put on here is the real nitty gritty details of what I need to do. Why am I playing Etude #1? What’s it for? What should I focus on, what is it going to make me do better? What’s wrong with my lit piece #2? What should I try to fix?

** Please note that the practice schedule there is for an entire day. Nothing says you have to do all of this at once. Note that you only need to warm up once per day. You only need to cool down once per day. If my first practice of the day is at 8:30, I am going to give that 8:30 slot the full warm up. If I go again at 2, I might play a few notes, but I don’t need to spend the time to completely re-warm up. Its unnecessary.

Epiphany No. 3, Practicing is like working out. Am I going to get more out of working out once a week for 2 hours, or every day for 30 minutes? The second one, of course. Usually, if you practice every day for a little, you will end up racking up more time over the week than if you go for one long chunk. Plus, in those little bursts, you’ll be more focused, and you’ll get more done.

Parallel number two: If I am working out with the wrong technique, is it going to be as effective? Of course not. If I do crunches, but I use my back muscles, then of course my abs aren’t going to get more toned. If I practice my left thumb placement, but let it slide into the wrong place, well then its not going to get any better. Emphasize the correct technique. It is a pain the butt now, but its going to yield faster and more noticeable results.

Parallel number three: They are both hard, and they both take a lot of willpower to stick to. If I want to lose weight, I have to keep forcing myself to the gym, and I have to keep pushing myself. If I want to play better, I have to keep forcing myself into the practice room, and I have to constantly listen and be vigilant to make sure I am not letting myself cheat. You won’t do yourself any good by giving up. It is easier, but not better. So, that covers the three main things you need to know about practicing. But wait! There is more! Here are some additional quick little tips for more effective practice.

1. Find yourself a regular place to practice. If you use the same spot over and over again, your mind will subconsciously adjust and be more alert and better focused at that spot, meaning more effective practice . 2. When introducing yourself to a new technique, really strive to get it right the first time. Once you have it right, ALWAYS force yourself to play it the exact same way every time. No steps backward, always forward.

3. Know what you are looking for. Ultimately, what do you want to sound like? Always practice with that ideal in mind, and constantly strive to get closer to it.

4. If you are one of those who is difficult to motivate, find a practice buddy. It really helps to have somebody to push you to keep going. Keep yourselves honest, don’t let the other slip.

5. If you feel yourself getting irritated, fuzzy, or whatever, take 5. Stop the clock, walk around, drink some water, shake it out. Then come back fresh.

Well, there you go. The crash course to effective practice. Hope it helps, and, for goodness sake, GO PRACTICE AND GET GOOD AT GUITAR!


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