Improving Your Practice Time
One of the most common questions I get asked in my guitar teaching is: “..how can I get the best results out of my practice time?…”
In this short article I am going to list some points that I think are very important to bear in mind when structuring your guitar practice sessions. This list isn’t exhaustive of course, and these points are just presented here to get you thinking about how you practice at the moment and what might potentially be improved with your current regime.
Some tips will undoubtedly sound like glaringly obvious common sense (but can be easily forgotten as you strive ever harder to improve your playing) and others are a little more specific/personal in nature. I hope they help in some way.
I am also drawing upon my own experience as a music student with many different teachers over the years.
Practice Music That You Love Playing/Listening To
This sounds like obvious advice, but you’d be amazed how often I come across students who for example want to learn jazz guitar because they think it is more ‘advanced’ than say rock or blues guitar.
No music is more advanced than any other in my view. The important thing is that you play and practice music you really enjoy listening to and perform it at an appropriate level.
Practice Regularly (i.e. every day)
Progress is very hard indeed if you only pick up the instrument for 10 mins once a week or even less than that. It is MUCH better to practice/play even for just 20 minutes every day than play for several hours on one day/once a week.
Few of us have hours and hours free every day to practice, but it’s the regularity of your engagement with the instrument that really makes the difference in my experience. Make your guitar practice a daily routine.
Practice Parts Until You Can Play Them 100% Accurately
I’m certainly not advocating just playing one or two bars over and over until you are bored rigid, but rather concentrating on a few specific sections within your practice regime until you can play everything correctly and consistently, and without mistakes.
Too few of us do this, and as a result pieces of music can be left sounding incomplete or unfinished. Check that you really know something well and can play it accurately, before moving on. In fact triple-check it.
Very easy to say of course, but a little harder to actually achieve. Make completing musical tasks properly an ingrained habit.
Don’t Become Obsessed with Instructional Videos and Books
These days there are literally thousands of books/DVDs and online video tutorials covering nearly every aspect of guitar playing. Many are super helpful and well produced but many are not, so use your own judgement very carefully with this. Is the book or video really going to help you?
Learning from published instructional materials can of course be very helpful, but it can also create a lot of confusion too, for example without the assistance of a good teacher.
My advice is to use these tools sparingly. Go to an artist’s original high-quality recordings first, even if the playing seems far above your current playing standard.
Learn from the best players by listening to what they play in a regular musical setting first, not via their instructional DVD.
Practice Without Distractions!
This seems like the most obvious advice to improve your musical concentration and practice time, but you’d be amazed at the number of people I see quietly texting away during an online guitar lesson, masterclasses and even at concerts.
If you really want to achieve a high level of concentration in your practice time, it almost goes without saying that your cellphone, TV and any social media should be switched OFF!. Enough said!
Write Things Down (Musical Diary)
Keeping a musical diary is a great idea for any level of player. You can track your progress on anything and it also serves as a good way to assess the effectiveness of your current practice regime.
I’ve done this for years and even make a note of days when I haven’t been able to practice at all. You can also set goals for yourself on a short, medium or long term basis.
Learn Some Repertoire!
I come across a lot of students who become easily distracted by building their technique and fingerboard development, to the point that they never actually play a complete piece of music!
EVERYTHING you practice should be with the aim of playing it in performance at some point. Fingerboard knowledge and technical skills are certainly important, but they are not the final goal for musical practice, playing music is!
Learn The Basics and Learn Them Really Well!
This might look somewhat contradictory to the last point, but without a very good knowledge of the basic musical tools required to play your music of choice, then things are never going to sound good.
If for example you want to be a fluent improviser, you have to know scales and arpeggios thoroughly and in the context of all the songs you want to play. Half-knowing them just doesn’t work. Trust me on this.
ALL the great guitar players know their basics inside and out on the fingerboard. You should too!
Learn Fundamental Rhythms and Rhythmic Subdivisions
Sounds simple doesn’t it? – yet this is the single biggest (unresolved) issue I come across with guitar students in all styles. If you play with inaccurate time and no ‘groove’ then your playing will sound unprofessional and at worst, weak and sloppy.
Play with good time and people with really sit up and take notice of your playing. Learning fundamental rhythms and subdivisions will greatly enhance your time and make your playing sound polished. Make it a core part of your practice regime.
Become a Great Self-Teacher
This might worry you if you are currently studying with a tutor, but in my experience the finest teachers are the ones who show you the best way to become your own teacher. Strange but true!
Learn to make up your own etudes and studies. Find new ways to make repetitive scale/arpeggio exercises sound musical. Sing what you are playing as well as reading it. Play passages backwards..the list could go on and on.
I’ve often found that otherwise difficult studies that I have been given by a teacher, become much easier to play and remember when I have personalised them myself. Try it!
There are of course many other factors that will help improve your practice time, but I hope that the above list will at the very least get you thinking about your current schedule and maybe offer you some food for thought for the future.