Musical Practice – The 50/50 approach
If there is one question I have been asked more than any other this past year by my guitar students, it’s very likely been, “..how can I better structure my practice time with the guitar?..”
It’s a perfectly sensible question to ask of course, as we can all get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of new things to learn on the instrument, even while we are still trying to get to grips with older material. Properly structuring your musical practice time is therefore very important.
As we are approaching the end of the year now (and possibly contemplating some musical New Year resolutions?) I thought it might be useful to look at how we might find a new and improved methodology to get the results we all want from our musical practice time.
In this article I’m going to introduce you to a rather simple system I have been using for a long time in my own practice and also with many of my guitar students. Whilst I can’t promise miracles with it, it might just help you get better control of your musical practice time.
Set Your Musical Practice Goals First
It may sound rather obvious, but the first question anyone should ask themselves before they sit down to practice is ‘what do I want to achieve?’ and I’m constantly surprised by the amount of players who never ask this of themselves. Defining what you want to achieve in your practice session is crucial if you really want to improve. Setting some longer term musical goals can definitely help too.
To help define my musical goals for practice, I generally divide things into short, medium and long term objectives. For example here’s a way you might address this approach with harmony:
- Long Term Goal – To have a much better understanding of jazz harmony on the guitar
This is a great long term aim, although a little wide-ranging and it may take a very long time to achieve without some more defined and achievable objectives. As a long term goal it’s a good start though.
- Medium Term Goal – Learn all the Drop 2 and 3 chord voicings on the fingerboard.
Things are now more defined by this medium term goal, (and is clearly related to the first long term goal) but it still needs to be refined some more to get specific and manageable results.
- Short Term Goal – Learn four inversions of Gmin7 on the top four strings and be able to transpose them to 2 other keys.
This short term goal is good and certainly quite achievable with a bit of concentrated effort. I try to have a small number of short term goals like these each week/month and this ensures a much better rate of progress in my practice.
Introducing the 50/50 approach and how it works
The above goals are pretty good, but to get the best results from them I have found that it makes sense to work on their musical application in an amount at least equal to their theoretical and technical study. I call this the 50/50 approach.
Let me explain a bit more.
Simply learning some chord shapes (using our example goals above) isn’t enough in my experience to really get them into your everyday playing and this is why when I am working on new material I try to find a practical application or real-world musical context in which to work with them.
I always make sure that however long I have to practice at any given time, I divide that session into 50% on the technical and theoretical aspects of whatever I am working on and 50% on the practical application of the same material.
A practical example of the 50/50 approach
Keeping with our earlier goals regarding harmony, I’m going to give you an example of how I might take the short term goals I mentioned above and then work them into this 50/50 musical practice approach.
The short terms goals were: ‘..Learn four inversions of Gmin7 on the top four strings and be able to transpose them to 2 other keys…’
If I was going to work on this, I’d spend the first half of my practice session working on the technical/theoretical aspects of these chords, making sure I had comfortable fingerings for them, knew where to play them on the fingerboard and maybe learning the individual notes within each chord form so that I had soe knowledge of their intervals/construction.
In the second half of my practice session, I would pick (or even compose) a piece of music that used Gmin7 and perhaps the two other Min7 chords (in different keys) and then explore playing the chord forms with different rhythms for accompaniment, shifting between the different inversions, playing the chords as arpeggios, etc. until you really feel as though they are beginning to become integrated into your playing.
Repeat the above for at least a few days to a week and see if your musical practice is working better for you?