Much of my energy with my students is spent trying to help them practice more effectively. Good practice methods helps us get the most out of any of the material we are working on. Conversely, bad practice habits will keep us from progressing to our potential, regardless of what content we work on. Here are some ideas to try to implement into your practicing.
Setting up your environmentWe are busy people. Finding time to practice is frequently very difficult. When we do find the time, we want to be sure to make the most of it. I can't tell you how many of my students say that they would practice more if they had easier access to their instruments and their materials. This may seem like an obvious step to take, but we can lose 10 minutes of practice time just getting set up or looking for the music we're working on etc.
So, first off, I encourage my students to have a practice area that is set up with all of our materials readily available. I prefer to leave my guitars out on stands, although they are a bit more susceptible to the elements. If you do leave your guitar on a stand, make sure it is secure and try to keep the room at a reasonable temperature and humidity level. Guitars are best taken care of in an environment we are also comfortable in. Changes in temperature and humidity can damage our gear and impact our setups, so try to keep the temperature and humidity as consistent as possible.
If you are working off of written music or notes, keep them organized and protect them. I encourage my students to get a 3 ring binder and page savers to store notes and music that I print for them. This will protect your music for years to come. My first lesson notebook is incredibly valuable to me and is falling apart after 30 years. If I had just protected the paper in the first place it would be in much better shape. For those of you that want to take it a step further, organizing your book into sections focusing on specific techniques, and organizing transcriptions alphabetically may save you some time. Use a method that makes sense to you. Keep in mind that being obsessive about organizing your stuff can waste just as much time as being disorganized.
Also, bookmark videos that you are working on so you can get to them easily. Keep your bookmarks in sub-folders to keep them in order.
Good playing technique requires that we support our body properly. Finding a good chair that allows us to sit upright with our shoulders slightly back and our feet on the floor sets us up for good playing habits. A bad chair can ruin our technique and it's one of the easiest things we can remedy.
I always play with a guitar strap, so having one that is set up to the right size is crucial. Setting up a strap so that the guitar is at the same angle whether you are sitting or standing helps to reinforce good, consistent technique. When I first started I didn't practice with a strap when I sat. Every chair I sat in felt uncomfortable and changed the angle of my wrist, which made it hard to develop a consistent technique. I was constantly shifting the guitar from one leg to the other, shifting the neck higher or lower. Very rarely could I stay in one position for very long. Finding the right height for a strap ended all of that for me.
Materials you want to have easy access to: computer, speakers, metronome, recorded music, pen, paper, extra strings, capo, tuner, music stand, tablet, water, snack, comfortable chair, guitar strap, guitar stand
Preparing for Practice:
Just BreatheWe make our most progress when we are focused and clear-headed. Practice time, as mentally-challenging as it can be, can also be an escape from the chaos of our daily lives. When we practice from a calm place, we tend to make the most progress. Try taking about 30 seconds to a minute to just breathe deeply and leave the demands of the rest of our lives behind us for a little while. Breathing is really essential to good practicing. Many of us hold our breathe when we are playing something technically challenging. It creates unnecessary tension in our bodies, and also our coordination is negatively affected when we don't breathe normally. We need oxygen to survive, and when we hold our breathe we lose our flexibility. Often we aren't even aware that we are doing it. The calmer we are when we start, the more likely we are to not feed the habit of holding our breath.
Drink some waterDrink a little bit of water so we aren't distracted by hunger or thirst. Our bodies have great distraction mechanisms built in. On many occasions I'll be set up to do some work, and then think, "Oh, I'm thirsty..." Then go up and get a drink, and suddenly I'm into something else that takes me away. This is easy to fix.
VisualizeTry to imagine yourself playing well. Imagine feeling relaxed and in control. Try to hear in your head the passage you are working on played perfectly. Imagine it down to the smallest detail possible. Hold on to that vision as you are playing
What are your strengths?When I was younger I practiced to feel good about myself. By ten years old I was playing songs I loved and it felt great. When I practiced I imagined myself as a rock star. While this was great for my self esteem, I often overlooked some of the little mistakes and holes in my technique. In general, I would play passages up to tempo a little too early, and gloss over the techniques that were a struggle. Fortunately, I grew out of those tendencies and eventually addressed the problem areas.
Understanding yourself and your own flaws can help you make the most of your practicing. Trying to strike a good balance between technique, feel, theory, ear training, helps to root out the trouble spots. In general, we need to focus on the areas that give us the most trouble. At the same time, we also need to be able to feel when we are getting a little too burned out by the challenge, and give ourselves a breather by playing something fun that will loosen us up. We are more likely to practice regularly if we enjoy the process, so try to keep your frustration level in check. When we do encounter frustration, take a breath, remember how good it feels to master a technique, and try again. For me, my break would be playing along with some songs I knew well and not trying to be too picky about what I'm playing. If I practiced for an hour, I'd try to leave about ten minutes for just playing for the fun of it.
Practice slowly, but not too slowlyOne of the classic adages in practicing is that we need to play slowly before we can play up to tempo. While this is very true, I've had many students take this to an extreme. If you practice too slowly there are some potential issues. First, if we practice too slowly, we lose our perspective and musical context. It's easy to get lost at extreme slow tempos and then we are missing out on the benefits. So, instead of playing extremely slowly, I suggest playing at a slow tempo where the feel of the song is still intact. We are looking for a starting tempo that allows us to play each part cleanly, and connected. If you are having to slow down to the point that the phrase is unrecognizable, try practicing a smaller piece of the phrase and working that up. Usually, there are one or two spots that require us to go extra slowly, and the rest is playable at a faster tempo. Instead of playing the larger chunk slowly, focus on just the trouble spots. You should see faster improvement this way.
Another thing that many of my students have done is that they practice at slow tempos for too long. If you are playing a passage consistently cleanly, it's time to bring up the tempo. As an experiment, try playing the section 20 BPM faster than you've been practicing. Try to observe where you have trouble. While you wouldn't want to practice like that consistently, it gives us very useful information. If your brain is having trouble keeping up at that tempo or you are forgetting where you are, then you know you haven't fully internalized it yet, and that's where you need to put your focus. If you are tripping over the picking coordination, then put your focus on evening out the picking motion for a while. If your left hand can't get there fast enough, focus on lightening your touch and trying to make sure that you are being as efficient as possible. Sometimes multiple things fall apart, and it's hard to know what to do. In that event, try to pick one element to work on. If we don't play up to the point that things fall apart from time to time, you won't know where your weakness lies, and as a result you won't break through to higher tempos.
Smaller PiecesWe are anxious to play on the master level. Frequently, that anxiousness makes us play a whole song up to tempo with 70% accuracy, instead of slowing it down and playing it with higher accuracy. We don't like to encounter our practicing mortality.
The most productive musicians know how to quickly diagnose trouble spots. When doing this, usually we are struggling with small elements of our technique that require more intense focus. It's sometimes tedious, but a few minutes of this kind of hyper focus can yield more results than playing a whole passage hundreds of times. For example, try upstroking the open G string, and downstroking the B string. This is sometimes called "inside picking". The pick feels trapped by the surrounding strings. This is one of the harder coordinations we run into, and it happens all the time in melody lines. If we spend a few minutes going back and forth between those strings, it will help to even it out. When we run into it in the melody we are working in, it should be less of a sticking point. We need to route out spots like this. We are all different players with different strengths, so you have to be your own guide with this. Practicing techniques that are already strong won't improve your technique nearly as efficiently as working on the hard stuff.
Make MistakesThere is a lot of anxiety connected with making mistakes. For professionals it feels like a comment on our character, our profession, our self-worth. Mistakes are necessary! It's important to start to just observe our mistakes and not assign too much judgement. Make note of it and on the next repetition, put a little more attention at that spot, or slow down a little. Mistakes are there to guide us in the right direction. They shout to us, "Hey! Work on this!". When we make peace with our mistakes it becomes much easier to improve. Anger at mistakes is wasted time and energy. It pulls your focus away. As ridiculous as it sounds, try to be grateful for your mistakes. They are telling you important things about our playing, and are the only way we improve. Someone who plays only passages that are comfortable, never risking mistakes, will never advance. Mistakes are the byproduct of progress.
SDRAWKCABMany of my students work on music the way we listen to it: Beginning to end. Often, they have a hard time starting in the middle of a section, too so they have to go back to the beginning each time they practice. It's very hard to focus on specifics when you have to start at the beginning each time. If this is a barrier for you, you have to really stick to it. Start on measure two or three, and do your best to hear that as a unit. It will slowly get easier. Try not to give into the temptation of starting at the beginning. It will remain a barrier until you root it out. Ideally, you should be able to start a piece of music from any point and get to the end.
A technique that has helped me to learn long sections and internalize them more quickly is to learn the last phrase first. Then work on the second to last phrase and work our way back to the beginning. The benefit of this is that our concentration is naturally better at the start of a repetition. This way, we are starting at the newest material and working toward the most familiar. Our last measure will get the most repetitions and we'll be freshest on the new portion. Over time you will be able to play whole sections from beginning to end with fewer mental mistakes.