Let’s face it, practicing is hard work.
It’s hard enough just to get yourself started. It’s no different from all the other things we know would be good for us but never do. But if you would like to play better than you do, it’s essential. So let’s look at how we can get motivated, and how to get the most benefit from the time we put in.
First of all, it helps to recognize that there are different types of practicing. Not just different things to practice, but the different approaches we can take and the different goals they serve.
Mechanics and control
This is the one that most people avoid, or don’t pay enough attention to. No matter what or how you play, you need to be able to cleanly hit the notes you mean to hit. That takes control and a certain level of precision. You can develop those things by playing a lot, but you’ll probably find that repetition only takes you so far.
It’s helpful to look at control as an end in itself. When you practice specific things, your goal is not necessarily to just “play it right” but to make sure your fingers land where and how you want them to. This usually requires two things: absolute clarity about what you’re trying to do, and enough control of be sure you can execute it.
The solution is simple. Just. Slow. Down.
Simple, yes. Easy, no. It’s very challenging to move slowly, but the benefits are immediately clear. For one, you’ll learn how well you really know the notes. It doesn’t take long to start to absorb a passage or chord form into “muscle memory” so that you can have the thought and the fingers simply form the shape. The problem is the level of accuracy you’ve “memorized”. When you slow down, it becomes very clear whether you really know what you’re trying to do. There’s a lot of information! Which finger are you using? Where should it land? HOW should it land? If you take a look at practically anything you play you might find there are parts where you can’t answer these questions. This is what slow practice is for: to clearly identify the problem, and be able to deliberately execute in way that solves it. This is a level of paying attention many people never reach.
This might sound like boring or tedious work. It’s slow and deliberate, yes. But if you’re bored when you practice this way, I guarantee you’re not paying attention to the degree you should. There’s just too much to notice to be bored. Now, if your mind wanders, that’s something else. Some people use practicing as a kind of meditation: a way of focusing the mind on a specific task. That’s a great way to look at it.
Another way to deal with the “tedious” challenge is to set very small, attainable goals. Say you have an exercise to practice. You might decide to focus in on one very small section, maybe a single measure or even less. Break it down so you know every note and specific fingering and play it slowly. If you break things down far enough, you can make real progress in just a few minutes. Don’t worry about getting up to speed, just concentrate on getting to know what you’re doing. It helps to use a metronome to keep yourself in time and also to measure your progress. Establish a tempo that allows you to execute the part accurately. Then slowly raise the tempo in very small increments. Your practice goal for one week might be to learn just one line of music, or memorize one chord sequence. If you set these goals so that they’re modest and attainable, ten minutes of daily focused practice will let you see improvement every day. In a single day, that’s not much progress. But in a week, you’ll see a lot more.
So if the big challenge in practicing is motivating yourself to do the grunt work, just remember these tips:
– choose very small goals
– allocate short bursts of time – no more than 15 minutes
– move slowly enough to control the fingers accurately
– use the time as a focusing exercise, and move on when the mind starts to wander too much.
A little bit of this kind of work goes a long way! But you’ll find that the mind will start to drift after a little while. When it does, that might be a signal to move to the other side of practicing: what I call flow.
Let it flow.
Flow is the ability to play without thinking about it. (At least, not too much). When you practice flow, you’ll be playing different things than when you practice mechanics. Now, we’re looking at things you CAN do smoothly. What we’re working on is the ability to maintain a smooth performance. And there’s more to that than just getting from beginning to end without a mistake!
Flow also means reacting to what you’re playing in real time. This can include the dynamics of the song, interaction between your guitar and voice or other instruments, memorizing, or simply being able to stay “in the song”. Essentially, you’re practicing performance. Here are some tips to focus on:
– be dynamic….the music shouldn’t feel the same all the way though
– if you sing, be aware of the relationship between the rhythm and your vocal
– don’t stop if you make a mistake – keep smiling and keep on playing
– don’t overthink your form and mechanics, but do notice and feel what you’re doing
I find that “check-ins” are very useful when practicing flow. Every so often, quickly scan your body for signs of tension. Notice if there are parts you consistently miss, and make a mental note to work on those during technical practice. You should be able to redirect your attention as you play. Part of a pro’s skill set is to stay in the performance even when there are distractions.
If you’re starting to take lessons, or committing yourself to improving your skills, then regular practice is going to make success much more attainable. Commit to a daily schedule of at least thirty minutes EVERY day. Ten to fifteen minutes of mechanical practice, fifteen to twenty minutes of flow. You’ll find that shifting gears mentally helps keep you focused. You’ll find that those short bursts of intense focus let you see improvement quickly. And most of all, you’ll find that practicing becomes fun as soon as you begin to see and feel the results.
The video below is a good example of an exercise you could use for both mechanics and flow. Watch the video and notice the specifics of the hand position and the slow tempo. Play along if you can, or choose your own tempos for both aspects of practice: one slower, one faster. Remember how much there is to pay attention to. And above all, remember that concentrated effort always gets results.