For all of you out there that might be struggling with motivation, frustration, and plain old time management, I have good news.
Practicing works! When you practice properly, you get better.
I also have a less optimistic thought for you, though. Most people don’t practice and never will.
Fortunately, you have a choice. You don’t have to be “most people”: you can choose to be exceptional. And exceptional in this case doesn’t mean “exceptionally gifted”. It means being one of the few that set a goal and really do what it takes to reach it. And the fact is, most people either don’t fully understand what it takes or are unwilling to follow through and do it. It’s not for lack of desire, or even willingness to try. It’s because it’s hard work that requires a leap of faith. You need to accept that you may need to suffer today to succeed tomorrow, no matter how lousy today might be.
No one questions that in the gym, or training for a marathon. Athletes take that leap of faith every day. And playing an instrument is ultimately an athletic endeavor: you are training muscles to respond on command. The additional challenge we face is that we’re training muscles that we don’t use in the same way for anything else. Aside from touch-typing or video games, there’s not much you might do in your everyday life that requires the same degree of fine motor control as playing the guitar. This means guitar practice requires a specific approach.
For many people that approach is more challenging mentally than physically. But if you apply these three things in your daily practice over the long term, you will see the results you’re looking for.
1. Slow down!
If you’ve spent any time at all playing the guitar, there’s a good possibility you may have developed some habits that are getting in your way. These habits are ways of using your muscles that actually interfere with your ability to play well. They’re ingrained in what we call “muscle memory”, which is actually a result of series of neuro-electrical impulses that trigger the muscles. The impulses follow a specific “path” through the nervous system, called neural pathways, and make the muscles move in response.
The problem with breaking these habits is that you really can’t beat muscle memory. The impulses move at the speed of electricity, so the muscles respond to the thought before you have a chance to directly them differently. The solution is to move slowly enough that muscle memory doesn’t kick in! Over time, the repeated slow movements create new neural pathways, bypassing the old habit.
Even if you don’t have bad habits to break, slow practice allows you to be more controlled and accurate from the beginning when learning something new. This way, you can maintain the same degree of control as you increase speed. The reverse is never true…sloppy speed will never lead to greater control, but greater control will eventually allow for greater speed.
This idea leads us very neatly to point two.
2. Get clear and break it down.
When I was in graduate school, I had a 90-minute commute each way that involved a drive, a train, a walk through Grand Central Station, and another train. That meant three hours out of every day that I couldn’t get any work done…until my teacher pointed out and important fact. Playing the demanding music I was studying included a LOT of detail, and I needed to have an hour’s worth of solo guitar music memorized. So I started practicing on the train by reading the music and visualizing the movements of my hands: first just the left hand, and then the right. Then I would try to visualize the playing the entire piece from memory without the music.
As you can imagine, this took tremendous concentration. But when I sat down with the guitar, I knew exactly what I needed to do to execute each passage. That concentrated study let me really learn the music in detail. Combined with slow practice, this routine helped build the relaxed accuracy and control I needed to perform the music well.
Not all mistakes come from a technical deficiency. Often, we miss things because we’re a little fuzzy on the details! You might know what chord you need to play, but you might not notice that one finger is consistently missing the mark. Your picking hand might be getting tangled up or just missing the strings. There are any number of problems that could resolve themselves if your mental picture were clearer. In other words, detailed awareness leads to accuracy! And of course, the best way to keep track of all those details is to break down the music into short segments and practice each one slowly until you can nail it three times without a mistake. If you can’t accomplish that, break it down further. You really can’t be too detailed or practice too slowly.
The big challenge here is mental, not physical: it’s hard to stay that focused for long. It’s easy for this kind of work to feel tedious. But the fact is, there’s so much to pay attention to that if you’re getting bored you’re probably overlooking something. When the mind wanders, refocus. If you can’t maintain your concentration, shift gears and practice something else. Think of it as a form of meditation, a way to clear your mind and practice focus and clarity.
3. Put the pieces together.
Of course, slow practice has its limits, and being able to play a measure at a time is not the final goal. Once the small pieces start to come together, the next step is to integrate them into the bigger picture. The way to do this is to start with the trouble spot and work your way outward in both directions. Practice getting into the challenging part, then getting out of it, then playing straight through. From the tiny segment you started with, gradually add more on and make the segments longer.
This way, we move from the very detailed “micro” approach to practicing into a wider, “macro” view. At the same time, we’re also moving from practicing mechanics to practicing flow. “Flow” is the goal of all practice: to be able to play smoothly without mistakes and without overthinking. So we use the slow, methodical approach to develop accurate muscle memory, and we use the “additive” approach to put that muscle memory to work with fluidity and confidence.
This three-pronged approach to practice is very powerful, but most people don’t take the time to apply it. The beauty of this approach is that it works for everything, from very simple things like beginning chord forms to the most technically challenging music. But it does require a great deal of focus, patience, and that leap of faith that the work will pay off. And as I said at the outset, there’s good news: it always does.