Most people start playing an instrument with the expectation that they’ll need to practice, especially if they’re taking formal lessons.
But yet, many people don’t, especially once they’ve developed some basic skill. They might pick up the instrument and try to play new things, but don’t know how to actually improve other than to just keep trying.
Have you ever heard the old adage about the definition of insanity being to repeat the same actions and expect different results?
Practicing is like that. Many people’s practice sessions consist of repeated attempts and repeated failures, without any conscious evaluation of what is and isn’t working. Sometimes that is in fact what needs to happen – at least, the repeated attempts. But each failed attempt also needs to be evaluated: what went wrong?
First of all, it’s important to recognize that if you don’t work in a deliberate way to improve or develop something specific, you’re not practicing. The key word here is “deliberate”: to identify a problem or goal, no matter how large or small, and consciously perform specific actions that will help you solve the problem.
This is a huge insight, if a simple one.
Taking this view teaches you to approach practicing as problem-solving, and to use the same mental approach for both small problems and large ones. So practicing virtually anything can be constructive, even if the music isn’t difficult to play. As long as there’s a specific problem to solve, there’s something to be gained from working on it even if it’s a very simple or subtle issue.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t specific things you should be working on, but what those things are will vary depending on your level of skill and experience.
There are fundamentals that are important for everyone, and there are subtleties and details that are specific to particular styles of playing. If you’re taking lessons, you can reasonably expect your teacher evaluate your playing and decide what needs improvement. But whether you have a teacher or not, you have the same responsibility to yourself: to honestly (and gently) identify problems and shortcomings, and make sure your practice time is directed at solving them.
Break it down
Everything you do on the guitar requires a mechanical action: a specific movement or series of movements, driven by a thought or intention. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that every mechanical problem has a mechanical solution, once you can reduce things down to their essential components. In other words, if you can’t play something, it’s because your hands aren’t accomplishing the movement they need to in a deliberate and controlled way. This might sound obvious, but consider this: it’s one thing to say that you can’t execute a part, but it’s another to recognize that your little finger isn’t landing cleanly on that high note in measure 3. Once you identify a specific issue, you can begin to resolve it. But you need to have a clear picture of the problem first before you can make any progress.
Most people don’t take the time to break things down far enough to be able to see all the individual aspects clearly. To play anything well requires two fundamental things: to know where you want the fingers to go, and to have the control to get them there. The control part is a given, of course, but you might be surprised how many issues come from a general fuzziness about what the music requires of you.
For instance, you might know what note to play but might not have thought about which finger you use to play it. Or perhaps you had considered the fret hand note but not how to pick or pluck the string. You might know what fingers to place to create a specific chord, but you might not notice how the fingers actually move from one chord to another. The fact is, it’s very easy to have a superficial sense of what you need to do, but completely miss the finer details that ultimately allow you to do it. Breaking things down to their smallest component parts is a powerful way to identify the real issue behind every challenge, and the issue is often NOT that you’re just not good enough.
Balance your practice time
Another crucial idea is that your practice time should be balanced. This means that you don’t spend all your time in one area, but divide your efforts so that you work to address several different things over the course of a single session or a single day.
I find that it’s helpful to divide practice time into three categories: technique, vocabulary, and flow:
Technique is the mechanics of playing: how your fingers move. This is the aspect we’ve addressed above in this piece.
Vocabulary is what you play: how many sounds you know how to make, and where they belong in a musical context. Obviously there is a technique component here as well, since every sound is produced by a specific movement or pattern.
Flow is the ability to put the pieces together in real time. This also includes musical elements like dynamics and phrasing as well as the ability to commit music to memory and maintain concentration in a performance.
If you can split your time up so that you address all three areas every time you practice, you’ll probably find your progress starts to accelerate. Of course, all three are interrelated, but working on discrete components helps keep you focused and organized. There are many ways to approach this, but here’s an example of a practice routine that would take about 45 minutes to complete:
1. 5 min – slow warmup on finger exercises.
This is simply to wake your fingers up and start off paying very close attention to how they feel on the guitar neck. Moving slowly ensures accuracy: a sloppy technical exercise does more harm than good, because it teaches you to be sloppy. You don’t need to spend more than five minutes on this kind of detailed work, and make sure that you vary the patterns from day to day.
2. 5-10 min – running scales.
This continues your technique work but places it in a musical context. Keep in mind that even if you never play lead or melody, single-note work makes you a better and more accurate rhythm player by developing overall finger independence and coordination. Focus on finger placement first, but also take the opportunity to do some ear-training: listen to the sounds that different patterns and formations make. Stay aware of your root note, and the sound of each subsequent note as the sequence unfolds.
3. 15-20 min – songs in progress
This might be time devoted to learning a new song, or to polishing up one you’ve been working on. We apply both technique and vocabulary practice in this work, by learning new chords and patterns and by zeroing in on the specific technical demands of each.
4. 15-20 min – performance
This is where you put the microscope away and step back to look at the bigger picture. Whatever song you might be working on, your first large goal should always be to be able to play it all the way through. But that’s still only the first step. Whether you intend to perform or not, you should still perform the songs yourself in practice. This reinforces the flow of the music so you can keep going through mistakes and distractions, and also allows you to play with expressive details like phrasing and dynamics in real time. Remember that the confidence you see in players that are comfortable onstage has to do with their ability to go through all the motions smoothly in real time, and that’s something that requires practice in itself.
The timing of each of these segments is somewhat arbitrary, and you may spend more or less time on each depending on your specific goals. But don’t make the common mistake of disregarding one of these elements because it doesn’t seem relevant to what you do. As I’ve pointed out, playing chords comfortably and easily (not to mention learning new ones) requires the kind of coordination that finger exercises develop. Scale practice serves a similar purpose while also training the ears to follow melody, and training the fingers how to play a sequential pattern on the guitar neck. Song practice develops your sense of structure and dynamics, and prepares you for any kind of performance setting in which you need to be able to play the entire thing through.
With a little thought, it shouldn’t be difficult to adapt these ideas and create a practice routine that will help move you towards your playing goals.
If you find it challenging to figure out what to work on, a good teacher will be able to give you the guidance you need. Do keep in mind, though, that ultimately you are responsible for your own improvement. The best teachers will teach you the problem-solving process so that you can continue to do productive work on your own.