How To Practice

I am frequently asked by my students why they seem to accomplish more during our short 30-60 minute lessons each week than during all of their other practice days combined. What can they do at home that I'm simply coaching them through during our practice time?


Whether you are an advanced player in a rut, or a beginner just getting started with guitar here are a few tips and strategies that will greatly increase the effectiveness of your practice.



First step ->Turn off the TV! - The goal is not to practice for duration. I can do a lot of practicing while binge-watching sitcoms or Star Trek, however when your mind is distracted from what your doing you will not attain the same benefit as if you had practiced for 10-15 minutes with no distractions. Do a few minutes of effective practicing and then put the guitar down and watch the good ol' tube!


Sing!!! - Any student who has worked with me for any period of time will have endured this experience: you are practicing by playing a phrase over and over again and making incremental improvements. I then tell you, "sing it!" following this declaration by demonstrating and playing it myself while mumbling along with the riff or lick we are working on. Singing the melody you are playing both distracts and focuses you. It distracts you from certain tactile issues (i.e. sore fingers), while forcing you to focus on the rhythm and melody.


Make A LOT of Mistakes! - Fail fast. While I have no scientific backing for this belief, I see in practice regularly a particular habit that separates my fast-learning students from the more average crowd. They make a bunch of mistakes early on and just keep rollin'. They have confidence that no matter how many mistakes they make, they will eventually get it.


Don't get bogged down when you've played it 10, 100, or 1,000 times and are still making random mistakes! Nowadays, for the level of music I practice personally it can take me a month or more to really get a song down. Don't worry about failing. In fact, start failing as quickly as you can because every failure brings you closer to success.


A, B, C practice. - Remember flash cards? To this day I still don't like them. Without some other method of learning (i.e. mnemonics) they are generally frustrating and unhelpful.


But A, B, C practice is different. Because what you are practicing is more than just a word on a card it, in a way, already has a useful memory technique -- a melody. So after warming up, start by lining up 2-3 pieces that you need to work on and start practicing song A. Play through it a few times, just enough for you to remember how it goes and make a little improvement (5-10% speed increase if playing with a backing track), then switch to pieces B and C and complete the same process.


Start mixing the pieces up as you continue your practice and increase in speed. You may be surprised to find that switching back and fourth helps keep you from getting stuck.


Overtraining. - All of my students at one point or another have experienced the shock when during our lesson they are struggling to play a song at 80-95% of the original speed and I say, "Okay, let's increase the speed to 110%". This never fails to get a brief look of, "Are you kidding me?"! And then a moment of resignation as they realize that I'm not kidding.


Overtraining pushes you past your limit intentionally. It's the act of trying that matters! Just like a batter in baseball using the donut weight on the end of his bat while he's in the batter's box, you are priming your muscles and your brain to go beyond your previous limit. Then, after a few tries, try playing with the track at 5 or 10% greater speed than you were playing it before you started overtraining. You'll be amazed at how much easier it feels!



I'll add more techniques and ideas in this or future articles as I come across them. There are many ways of boosting your effectiveness, and I'm sure there are a few floating around in my head that just aren't coming to me at the moment. It just comes down to mindfully analyzing the issue you are dealing with and asking, "What can I do differently?".


Change is a powerful thing, it's easy to become complacent and ineffective when we do one thing for too long so experiment with mixing these strategies, but don't try all of them in the same practice session. At most, try one or two and then call it a day.


Practicing is a form of exercise, you want to do just enough that you make incremental improvement but not so much that you overexert yourself and teach yourself to hate it. Remember a 5 minute session of effective practice may be all you need, if it is, then do that 5 minutes and then go do other stuff!


It's not about the duration, it's about the efficiency of your practice.


If you want to read some books on this topic, check out my recommendations in this article.


Your learning companion,

Donnie

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