How To Practice Guitar: The Magic of Quality over Quantity
At the core of learning to play the guitar well is the quality of time you spend with it.
A lot has been said about quantity–about the 10,000 hours of practice you need in order to reach mastery. And about how to organise each of those 10,000 hours. These are both important. But the quality of that time is more important.
Throwing your practice time away by practicing badly is like throwing junk food into your body. If you eat lots of low quality food, you gain weight you don’t really want. But worse than that, your bones don’t grow strong. Your energy gets low and you feel lethargic most of the time. You probably get sick more often.
It’s similar with practicing music. The more time you spend practicing badly the more you train yourself to play dysfunctionally. You will practice in a lot of mistakes. But worse than that, you teach your body to be tense when playing, teach your mind to be fearful when performing, teach your fingers not to trust themselves, and you might even get so frustrated that you don’t even make it to that magical 10,000 hours, and mastery.
So what IS quality practice?
There’s no perfect diet, and there’s no perfect way to practice. There is room for individuality in your practicing. One diet doesn’t suit everyone, nor does one way of practicing.
But just like it’s good to know that eating potato chips for dinner every day is bad for you, it’s good to know what kind of practicing is bad for your playing. Here are a few common examples of bad practicing. Don’t make a habit of these tendencies:
It’s ok to be impatient. Indeed, expect it. But as an antidote to impatience, let yourself slow down and notice things. Don’t try to cram in as much learning as humanly possible. Do less, but do it better. Try getting one or two things as right as you can get them. Rather than rushing to get through a whole list of things you think you need to get through, shorten the list.
It’s ok to get angry and frustrated. Indeed, expect this to happen. But as an antidote to anger, notice it as soon as possible. Practice letting go of anger every time you notice it. Don’t make it worse by digging in and repeating something over and over. Be ok with giving up–for now: feel free to give up on some stupid stretchy chord or tricky passage that you just can’t play right now. It will come with time. You can’t force a tree to grow in one day, and you can’t force amazing technique or musicianship to blossom in a single practice session.
It’s ok to be unfocused. It happens easily for many of us. Expect it. But as an antidote, get in touch with your motivation for playing. What do you want to play? Why do you want to play it? Using these answers to inform you, decide what you want to learn and what you need to learn, right now. Figure out what comes first. Then jump in, and start learning that, whole-heartedly.
Mindless, or rote practicing—going through the motions without consciousness—is another thing that can happen easily. Expect yourself to fall into this sometimes. But as an antidote, be curious. Actually listen to what you are playing! Feel how it makes you feel. Follow your hunches, try something new, and follow it through. Get in the habit of this. Be creative, whatever you are practicing. Listen for what to listen for, feel what to feel for. Be your own observer, teacher, coach. And probably don’t practice in front of the TV.
As a teacher, it’s amazing how often I see a student just assuming something is impossible, before they even try it out. If you don’t believe you can learn something, you can’t. If you don’t have hope you won’t try very hard. It’s often right before a breakthrough that I see the most resignation. “I’ll never be able to do that,” often comes right before “Wow—that was easier than I thought it would be.” Sometimes breakthroughs take a longer time, sometimes shorter. But without believing in your innate ability to learn, you limit yourself.
The truth is, you are not just here to learn, you are here to learn HOW to learn. Learning HOW to learn is the key to getting over your feeling of learned helplessness that holds you back. It means you can keep getting better and better at getting better. You can hone your curiosity, hone your sensitivity, hone your ability to pay attention, hone your ability to solve weird, awkward technical problems that seem hopeless at first. Don’t take hopelessness for an answer. Keep trying.
A lot of people seem to see practicing as drudgery. “You practice 3 hours a day? How do you not get bored?” But practicing is a joy. Learning is a joy. Even if you get frustrated sometimes.
Cultivating an attitude will go a long way here. You are blessed with this time, whether it’s 30 minutes now and then, or 3 hours every day, to indulge yourself in the process of learning and mastering of music. It’s your time. For yourself. It’s a luxury. There’s magic here. Imbibe it. Let yourself be intoxicated by it.
Next time you practice, just take a little time to set your intention to practice with quality. It can go something like this: If I feel impatient, I intend to slow down and notice things. If I get angry, I intend to notice it and let it go. If I am unfocused, I intend to figure out what I want to learn and take the first step towards it. If I keep losing my attention, I intend to hone my curiosity and my creativity, and follow through on my practicing hunches. If I feel hopeless, I intend to trust my innate ability to learn new things. If I feel bored, I intend to cultivate a sense of joy and magic in learning.
You can intend all of these, or just one or two, depending on what your best hunch tells you. Happy practicing!