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  • Writer's pictureJames Leitch

How to (actually) Practice

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

So, if you read my last post and thought to yourself something like “Wow, Leitch, just @ me next time” or “OK well how DO I practice then, funny guy?” well, it’s not really that simple. Do a <POPULAR_SEARCH_ENGINE> search and you’ll see 100 different ideas, ranging from overly simplistic definitions to highly detailed, scripted practice routines. The truth is that everyone’s brains, hands, interests, and goals are different, so there is no One True Path to being an awesome guitar player. But there are some guidelines:

Be Regular.

Let me just start with this: There is no way on earth that you can practice once a week and actually learn anything on the guitar. Not even if you practice for 5, 6, or 22 hours. You can’t cram it all in at once. What you’re doing when you try this approach is technically called “shoving a whole bunch of crud in your short-term memory,” and as you might guess, that kind of learning isn’t known for sticking around, just like that exam you spent a late night cramming for. You know the one, but I bet you couldn’t tell me one thing about that subject.

What you’re better off doing is spending a shorter amount of time -- between 30-60 minutes depending on your level and what you’re working on -- every day. Spreading practice out reinforces what you learn and helps you retain it long-term. Even better is to take that 60 minute session and break it up into 10 minute chunks, switching subjects frequently to test your recall. BONUS: You’ll memorize things faster and feel more confident about your ability to do them.

Have a plan.

Practicing without a plan leads to minimal or no progress, and often takes quite a while to get there. There’s nothing wrong with noodling, per se. It can be great fun, and the point is to have fun! But if that’s all you do, you won’t make much progress. This is especially crucial as beginner guitarists get some mileage under their fingers and feel for the guitar; for a while, any time you spend making music is at least somewhat good for your hands and musical development, but as you begin to hit that “pretty good/intermediate guitarist” level, that ceases to be the case. If you’ve got a bit of talent and you’re starting to think about taking the instrument seriously, you’ve gotta plan.

So, what’s in that plan?

Focus on your weaknesses.

First of all, honestly assess what you’re good at, what you’re weak at, and what you want to be able to do. Is there a lick you can’t get under your fingers? Do you have nightmares about barring or barre chords in general? Is there a part of this song you really love where you always end up slowing down because of an awkward stretch or an unfamiliar chord? Do you just have no idea at all what’s going on past the 5th fret? Prioritize that over the lick you’ve been nailing consistently since 1997.

Set realistic, short term goals.

If you’ve been playing guitar for 4 months, you’re not likely to be very successful with “Eruption” or “Entre Dos Aguas” this week. But, you can work toward those kinds of bigger, long term goals by learning a new scale, a chord progression, different types of slurs, or practicing using the whammy bar. You can do any of those in a week.

Practice deliberately.

I have seen at least one YouTube Guitar Dude™ literally tell you to “practice” something by doing it mindlessly on the couch while watching TV. That ain’t it, chief. Yes, there is a place for so-called “distracted practice,” but most of us can’t do any serious learning while also yelling at the screen during Game of Thrones. There is no substitute for deliberate practice -- slow, structured, and extremely mindful. Deliberate practice is tiring. It’s work. And it should be the way you learn new things and perform drills and exercises.

Practice everything at different tempos.

Most music teachers have spent so much of their lives trying to force their students to practice slowly, because the default is to practice at whatever tempo the thing you’re learning is. And slow practice is essential to developing as a musician. But the best musicians in the world practice at 3 general speeds: slow, at tempo, and faster than you would ever want. While “if you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast” is true, so is “if you can’t play it fast, you can’t play it fast.” Playing fast is a different skill from playing slow, and it needs to be practiced in its own right.

Visualize and problem solve creatively.

I use diagrams in my own practice all the time. Sometimes, I spend a lot more time in a given session making diagrams than actually touching my guitar. Sometimes, I’m in a place where it’s not appropriate to play, and I’ll make guitar diagrams there. I often make the same diagram more than once, or practice making the diagram as a means of working on an especially difficult passage.

Sometimes, the way you initially approach a piece (or the way you’re told to) doesn’t work. Honestly reflect on whether it’s just a new skill you need to learn, or if you need to find another way to make it happen. What’s ultimately most important is how the music sounds, not which particular fingering or technique you’re using.

What does your practice routine look like?

Well, I do my best to take my own advice. I wake up an hour earlier than I need to every morning so I can squeeze in an hour first thing, before I’ve even had my coffee. I drill weaknesses, currently slurs using my pinky and rasgueados. I perform sight reading studies in 5th and 9th position and I transpose simple melodies to flat keys to improve my fingerboard knowledge. I isolate difficult exercises and sections of pieces I want to learn and focus on them in short 5-10 minute bursts. I rarely perform anything from beginning to end until I think it’s ready for performance practice. I generally use timers to keep me moving -- 10 minutes on sightreading, 10 minutes of improvisation, 20 minutes on drills, scales, and other fundamentals. I spend time transcribing other guitarists’ works so I can steal what I like and understand what I hear.

It all sounds extremely arbitrary, and it kinda is, but if I don’t have this kind of structure, well, I tend to act a lot more like that other post.

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