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5 Tips To Better Practice

 

It's no secret that the key to getting better at your instrument is to practice.  “Practice makes perfect” is the platitude we see plastered around us in schools growing up, but rarely are students given guidance in how to practice.  Obviously practice is a malleable thing, but these are some broad tips that I’ve found to be widely applicable to help students focus and maximize their time spent practicing.

 

1. Set Specific, Small Goals

 

Everyone sits down to practice with the goal of getting better at their instrument, but the important word here is specific.  Learning any instrument is a large task, and if you aren’t setting appropriate goals the journey ahead can seem daunting.  Breaking the large task into multiple small tasks is a great way to focus your practice time to keep productive, and also is much more motivating when you can consistently accomplish those small goals.  Let’s do a quick runthrough of ways we can break down big goals:

 

Big Goal

Transcend into Guitar God-dom

More Specific

Learn and study songs from all the best guitarists

More Specific

Learn and study Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson

More Specific

Break Cliffs of Dover down into sections and learn each section

More Specific

Learn first section of Cliffs of Dover

More Specific

Learn first 4 measures of Cliffs of Dover

Current Practice Goal

Learn first 4 measures of Cliffs of Dover at 40% speed

   

Can I sit down in one practice section and become a guitar god? No, definitely not.  Can I learn Cliffs of Dover? Maybe in a marathon session, but probably not unless I block off a weekend for practice.  Can I learn the first 4 measures at 40% speed? Absolutely! If I plan a week of small goals and reach them every day - I’d have a good portion of Cliffs of Dover done and I’d be one step closer to my seat on the Pantheon of Guitarists.  

I know this is pretty contrary to how a lot of people want to get work done.  We like accomplishing big tasks, we like summiting the mountain, but we have to realize and consistently remind ourselves that mastery of an instrument is not something achievable in a day, a week, a month or even a year.  Setting small, specific goals will keep you working towards virtuosity instead of stalling out somewhere on that journey.

 

2. Start with the Big Picture of the Song

 

I know, “start with the big picture” may seem contradictory to my first tip telling people to narrow their focus, but this is something that I think about when I’m creating practice goals.  If I give a song to a student, there seems to be a tendency to jump to the hardest parts and ignore the structural parts of the song. Take a step away from your instrument grab yourself a notebook.  Make yourself a plan for the song. How many unique sections are there? How many bars does each last? How do the parts transition into one another? All of these questions are far more important to know the answers before you start rehearsing the song than the solo section.  This tip goes doubly for my students that are rehearsing with a band. If you come into the first rehearsal with a chart and a structure built, the group as a whole is going to have a much more productive practice than if you know the solo but none of the other parts of the song.  

 

3. Use the Metronome the Right Way

 

I know, I know, everyone hates the metronome when they start playing music.  The metronome is not nice, the metronome is not forgiving - the metronome can be relied on only to be cold and accurate - and most importantly, using a metronome offers us a way to speed up our playing in very small increments.  Getting some sections up to speed at first can seem a monolithic task but the metronome always shows us a clear path forward.  The first step to playing a song at 150 beats per minute is being able to play it at 70 beats per minute - or slower if you need to.  I have started some solos as a gruelling 20% speed and have taken them all the way to tempo - don’t be too proud to go as slow as you need to play the part perfectly.  Once you find your starting bpm and your target bpm you can then figure out a plan to reach that target. If you’re 60 bpm under, it may be very difficult to speed up with enough accuracy in one practice session, but say we spread it over a week with the intention of speeding it up 10bpm every day.  Now we have a week of small, achievable goals and in a week we’ll be up to speed!

 

4. Eat Your Vegetables, in the Right Order

 

Full disclosure, I remorselessly stole the name for this point from a reddit thread asking what is the equivalent of “eating your vegetables” for guitarists.  These are things that aren’t the most fun but are very important to developing good technique and a foundation of musical knowledge.  Various musical “vegetables” include:

 

 

Obviously there are many more, but these are the types of things that effective practice sessions should also spend some time on.  My big piece of advice here though is to sequence these in a way that makes sense - find the ones that are applicable to your current project and practice those.  If a song you’re working on is all out of a specific scale, then practice that scale to warm up. Is there an interesting chord change that’s catching your ear? Do a little digging into the chord theory and figure out what’s going on that makes that change stand out.  Maybe there’s a synth sound or an amazing snare tone that you want to emulate - do some research on how your synthesizer works and how to customize patches, or how to tune a drum head differently to get different timbres. All of these tasks are easy to overlook when we’re focused on learning songs, but a good foundational knowledge of your instrument and bigger musical concepts will make future songs much quicker and easier to learn.  It’s definitely worth the time investment.

 

5. Make a Realistic Practice Plan and Follow Through

 

Learning your instrument takes tenacity.  The students that I have seen the most improvement in are the ones that practice every day or nearly every day.  Now I know that especially with teenage and adult students, schedules don’t always permit daily practice, so I encourage them to make a realistic practice plan that fits their schedule, and to detail what is going to be worked on to keep focus during that practice session.  Some may be able to commit to 45 minutes every other day, some may prefer to do 20 minutes every day. For younger students who are still building calluses on their fingers I’ve even recommended 10 minutes twice a day until they build the stamina to be able to play longer. Decide what works best for you and follow through with your plan.

Once you decide how much time you’re going to allocate to practice, then it’s time to organize that practice plan.  For someone that is planning to practice in 45 minute bits I may recommend something like:

 



Try that plan for a few days, then review it.  If something isn’t working for you, then try something else.  If something feels really productive and satisfying then do more of that.  Your practice plan is completely customizable to your goals and your needs as a growing musician.  There’s definitely some trial and error involved until you find that sweet spot for practice.



I want to end this list by mentioning that these tips are geared towards someone who is taking a serious stance towards their musical improvement, which may not be everyone.  The great thing about music and musicianship is that there’s a place for people to be casual appreciators, or just have fun experimenting with their instrument in a non-structured way and that is absolutely fine.  If all of these tips leave you thinking, “My god, I’m looking to have fun with my hobby, not subject myself to musical boot camp” then just take the points that you like. Or take none, or come back to this list in a few months and see if anything I’m saying seems to resonate better then.  Musicianship is a lifelong journey and the most important thing is to find what you enjoy about that process and put your focus there.

 

Thanks for reading and happy practicing!

 

MD Jake

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