Practicing is the key to improvement in your guitar playing. Not surprisingly, people who do not practice will not improve and give up the guitar. Because practicing is so important, I have written this article explaining how to get the best out of your practice sessions. Practicing the wrong things or with the wrong attitude can negatively affect the rate you improve. Practicing the right way can significantly improve your learning. Read through this article and write down on a piece of paper how you are going to plan your practice sessions to get the best value from them.
REGULARITY OF PRACTICE SESSIONS
I always emphasise the need to practice every day. Why? You have 365 days in a year and 365 opportunities to improve your playing. If you improve (even a tiny bit) every day, that is 365 days that you made improvements. If you only practice every second day, after a year you will only have had 182 days where you improved. It can make a big difference over time.
Tip: Even 10 minutes of practice a day adds up to 61 hours of quality practice a year. Practice every day.
LENGTH OF PRACTICE SESSIONS
Many people think that if you practice for a longer time, you will learn more. This may or not be true depending on how you use your time. I read a study years ago that had a statistic saying 80% of the benefit from practicing happens in 20% of the session. So if you sit down to practice for 1 and a half hours, 80% of the benefits you get from that session will happen in 20 minutes. Whether this is true or not I don’t know but it stresses the importance for managing your time.
If you plan to practice for an hour every day, I recommend splitting that hour up into short 20 minute sessions with breaks in between. If you try to practice for an hour in one session, your brain will get tired and not take in everything. It is very likely that the last 20 minutes of your practice will be completely useless because your brain may have had enough. People with short attention spans should split up practice sessions into very small sessions with breaks in between. By having a short 15 minute practice then a 5-10 minute break, your brain can refresh and you can relax before you go back to practice.
As I explained above, having regular practice session is very important. However, many people feel that instead of practicing for 20 minutes every day, they will practice for 140 minutes one day a week. Although the time spent practicing is exactly the same in both situations, the person practicing 140 minutes in one day will find that they have trouble improving every week. Having short sessions every day will be of much more benefit to you compared to excessively long practice sessions one day a week. The difference between the two? The 20 minute sessions will be more efficient and effective than the 140 minute session.
Tip: When it comes to practice sessions: QUALITY over QUANTITY.
WHAT TO PRACTICE
When you sit down to practice, you need to have a clear idea of what you are going to practice. This seems obvious, but many people don’t even consider it. If you sit down with a certain goal in mind, you are more likely to achieve something. If on the other hand you sit down without any thought of what you want to achieve, you will most likely waste your time.
The following list is of certain aspects of playing that you may include in your practice session. What you actually include depends on your current skill level and your desires. This is just a brief list, keep in mind that there are so many different things you could practice.
ITEMS TO PRACTICE:
Finger exercises: Dexterity and stretching
Basic chord memorisation
Rhythm and strumming
Picking: Alternate, up, down, economy
Techniques (eg: Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends and vibrato)
Ear training (eg: recognising scales, chords, intervals)
WHAT NOT TO PRACTICE
While there are certain things you should practice, there are things that you shouldn’t practice. The number one thing you should not practice? Mistakes. Practicing mistakes is a sure way to develop bad habits. I emphasise ‘practicing’ mistakes because there is a difference between ‘practicing a’ mistake and ‘playing a’ mistake. It is okay to play mistakes, it is how we learn. It is NOT okay to repeatedly play the same mistake over and over, that is how bad habits develop. You need to focus every time you play and look out for any mistakes. If you notice you have played a mistake, go back and play the piece again and make sure you don’t play the SAME mistake. It can be hard for beginners to notice their own mistakes, so you need to focus. (This is why I have video demonstrations for my lessons, so you can hear what a piece should sound like).
Tip: Don’t practice mistakes. Practicing mistakes develop bad habits.
PLANNING YOUR PRACTICE SESSIONS
You now need to organise what you want to practice. Write a list of the aspects that you want to practice. Now rank these aspects from most important to least important. Next, write down how long you will spend in total practicing. From there you need to split up that time for each aspect. More important aspects should be given more time.
An example of a practice plan:
If I had 30 minutes set aside to practice, I would split the time up as follows:
1. First 5 minutes: Finger exercises and stretches (to warm my hands up)
2. Next 10 minutes: Practice material I learned last time (to perfect it before moving on to new stuff)
3. Next 10 minutes: Practice a new technique I have recently looked at (serious focus on perfecting new technique)
4. Last 5 minutes: Play around with the new technique (have fun with what I am learning)
You will notice that I only focus on one technique in the session. Focusing practice sessions on a few items will be much more valuable to you compared to trying to practice as many things as possible. If I sat down again for another 30 minute session, I would focus on other aspects (such as ear training or improvising).
Write down your own plan outlining the time spent on each item and why you are practicing it. If there are any aspects of playing that you haven’t covered this time, make a note so you practice it next time.
Tip: Planning your practice sessions will help you learn faster and easier.
WHEN SHOULD YOU PRACTICE
You should practice only when you will get good value of your session.
When should you practice?
1. When you are full of energy
2. When you are eager to practice
3. When you are in a good mood
4. When you won’t be interrupted
If you satisfy all four points, you will get great value out of your sessions because your brain will be focused and you will enjoy what you are doing. As you can see, it all depends on YOU.
WHEN SHOULD YOU NOT PRACTICE
Just like there are times when you should practice, there are times when you shouldn’t.
You shouldn’t practice when:
1. You are tired
2. You are in a bad mood
3. You don’t feel like practicing
4. The guitar is out of tune (and you don’t know how to tune it)
5. You are likely to be interrupted.
If you practice when you are in a bad mood or any of the other points, you will do more harm than good. Some people who give up the guitar and end up hating it normally don’t realise the real reason is because they practiced it at the wrong times (or are forced to practice by parents).
Your practice sessions are incredibly important to your improvement as a player. So you need to take them seriously and put in the effort to plan them out. A well prepared plan for a practice session can make the difference between an expert guitarist and a mediocre one. Take the points I’ve made here seriously and always think of how you can improve your practice sessions to get the best benefit from them.