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Learning Guitar – A No Nonsense Guide to Practicing

The single biggest contributor to lack of progress and frustration while learning to play guitar is lack of consistent practice. The second is practicing the wrong things, or practicing the right things incorrectly. Let’s get this out of the way right now: Yes, you will need to practice. It’s really not a bad thing. In fact, most people’s negative image of practicing comes either from being forced to practice during childhood, or from not practicing and feeling guilty. We’re not going to go back and change your childhood (though I have some ideas about that we can talk about later).

Here’s something I’ll ask you to consider: you can commit to practice and do it. Yes, everyone is busy, and it can seem tedious and even boring. I apologize if you were expecting a compassionate, coddling discussion of how hard it is to make time, etc. Maybe I had a tough childhood myself. The way I look at it is, if you jumped off a fifteen-foot rooftop you wouldn’t make excuses when you hurt yourself. Gravity is a law of nature. We all know that when you jump you’re going to fall, and it hurts. No one argues, no one blames gravity, it just is. Well, I’m going to state another law of nature that may not be quite as apparent. If you practice something over and over, you will get better. If you don’t, you likely won’t. We’ll have to define “better” as easier and faster according to how you practice it. This also means that if you practice something wrong it will become easier and faster to play it wrong. Sounds like an important concept.

I am consistently amazed when I hear fully grown, mature adults tell me some version of this story during a consultation at Starland: “I took lessons on the guitar (or flute, piano, violin, etc.) and never really progressed. I must not be talented. Maybe I should try another instrument or maybe give it up altogether.” I then ask how the practicing went. They tell me they didn’t really practice (I can feel my face flush as I write this). The first time I heard this, I sat speechless for a few minutes. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t think of what to say. You jump off, you fall, it hurts. Since then I’ve found a way to be supportive and explain that they didn’t really give it a fair try. I suggest we pick the instrument they’d really like to play and make a commitment to practice every day for a minimum amount of time.

Here are some ideas on practicing that have worked for me and my students:

Same Place:Try setting up a specific place to practice. Have your guitar and other tools (metronome, picks, etc.) there and ready to go. Set things up so it’s as comfortable and easy as possible to get started. Perhaps put up some inspirational photos (OK guys, I’m thinking favorite guitarists, not pinup girls). Not only will this eliminate the need to decide where to practice, but when you sit down to practice you’ll find it becomes easier and easier to let go of what you were doing and get in the mental space. Most writers know this trick. When they sit at their writing desk or go to their writing corner, the mind shifts to “writing mode.”

Same Time:Another good habit—perhaps a little more difficult, but quite effective—is to practice at the same time each day. You are invoking the power of habit. Do you ever spend much time thinking about whether or not you should brush your teeth in the morning? Most people could be half asleep, but they find themselves at the sink with the brush in their mouth going up and down before they realize what’s going on. For many years you’ve done the same thing (i.e., brushing teeth each morning) and your mind goes to default unless you consciously choose otherwise. I know I’ve been guilty more than once of driving while thinking of something else, only to realize that I’ve taken several turnoffs out of habit. If I’m going somewhere I usually go it works out fine; otherwise I have to backtrack. You can use this tendency to your advantage by scheduling a practice time each day and sticking to the schedule for twenty-one days (some people say a month). You’ll find you begin to naturally shift into practice mode at that time about three to four weeks into it, and the decision to practice becomes easier.

30-Minute Sessions:I recommend that beginners practice for thirty minutes daily, then play more for fun if you have time. Here’s what’s going on. If you decide to practice for forty-five minutes or an hour, and you have a hard time keeping your commitment, it will erode your confidence in yourself and add guilt to the process. Of course if you really can keep a forty-five-minute practice-session schedule with no problem, then knock yourself out. Most people are better off starting with thirty minutes and expanding after they’ve experienced success for a month or more. Less than that thirty minutes and you won’t get much out of the practice—it takes five to ten minutes just to get warmed up. Two fifteen-minute sessions are not the same as one thirty-minute session. Also, remember you’re developing your concentration, focus, and attention-span “muscles.”

My practice sessions are usually forty-five to fifty minutes. I take a short break—walk, stretch, breathe—then start again. I’ve found that if I practice for longer than an hour my concentration goes down. Then the value of my session dwindles quickly.

48-Hour Rule:For the first six months (I prefer a year) do not let forty-eight hours go by without practicing. Your mind is creating new pathways. They are infant seedlings. When you don’t water them with repetition, within forty-eight hours they wither and die. You’ll find yourself going forward and backwards a lot if you regularly let more than forty-eight hours go without practicing. Once your seedlings have developed into strong saplings this particular rule does not apply.

Don’t Look Back:When you miss a day (or two…) of practice, don’t look back. Just get back on the horse and move forward. Don’t get in the habit of justifying a missed day by promising yourself you’ll practicing twice the next. It usually doesn’t work (but if you can practice twice in a day, go for it). Guilt and self-criticism won’t help. In fact, it will probably make it difficult to get going again. Everyone misses some practice time. Success in the long run is more about how quickly you recover.

Have A Plan:Know what you’re going to practice. There’s no absolute one way to do this, but I like to divide a practice session into warm-up, exercises, new material, then something I can play fairly well as a positive ending. It could look something like this:

o    Five minutes: warm-up exercise (speed developer #1)

o    Five minutes: chord change exercise

o    Fifteen minutes: new material

o    Five minutes: a familiar song (end on successful note)

                Total: thirty minutes

The above is just one example, and no plan will stay the same. Be willing to change up when necessary, even in the middle of a practice session. Having a plan will help you get going, and a weak plan is better than no plan.

Play For Fun:After your thirty minute session, play something for fun. Try making up something (that’s how I started as a composer). Try something from a YouTube video. Play some songs you already know. There’s no pressure. You did your practice, which will keep you improving and moving forward. With no progress you would eventually get bored and quit. But if you stick to only your lesson material you will always be working at the level of incompetence. You see, the idea of lessons is that as soon as you get something down it’s your teacher’s duty to move on to something else. By reserving some time to play just for fun you will remember why you wanted to play in the first place.

There’s one last issue I’d like to address, since I’ve been asked about it many times: practicing while doing something else, like watching television. I really enjoy practicing my basic warm-up exercises and routine techniques while watching YouTube videos, software instruction videos, or television shows, while listening to an audio book, or even reading a novel. It’s kind of like how people at gyms read while on the treadmill or work out to music. It makes it fun and passes the time more quickly. I even like certain shows better when I’m practicing because they don’t take much brain power to follow what’s going on and I feel more productive.

That said, I would never recommend practicing something new while doing anything else. In addition, in front of the television should not be the only place you practice. If you do not give new material your full attention you will slow down your progress tremendously. If you are a beginner, most of what you will be practicing is new. In this case you probably should skip practicing while doing something else, or at least do not consider it part of your daily thirty-minute practice session. The mind can’t do two things at once. Multitasking is somewhat of a myth in that your mind actually jumps back and forth between two or more things. It’s not focusing on them simultaneously. If you were really focusing on what you’re learning you couldn’t follow the show, and vice-versa.

The Guitar Student Blessing

May the music flow from your fingers, and may your path be challenging but rewarding. When things get difficult, may you look inside and know you have what it takes, and may all your learning experiences be an incredible adventure worth living.


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