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An Analysis of Effective Guitar Practice
by Tom Hess
I received the following e-mail from a young guitar player about 9 or 10 months ago……
“My friend and I started playing guitar at the same time, the very same day even. We both practice about the same amount of time, but he is already so much better than I am. His playing is getting better and better at a faster rate. Mine is lagging behind. I do make small improvements however I become frequently frustrated cuz I try just as hard as he does. Sometimes I wonder if he is just more talented than I. To reach his rate of growth I would have to practice 10 hours a day as he only needs 1 hour. I cannot dedicate 10 hours per day so what can I do? Bottom line -- I still SUCK after three and one half years of playing six to seven days a week!”
I know both of these guitar players and can verify that the friend’s progress has been more significant than the author of the email above. And everything written in the email was basically true (at the time it was written). I gave this guy two main pieces of advice:
1. Do NOT compare yourself to your friend. Do not let your friend (or anyone else) set the standard for you to aspire to. One should have fixed in his/her mind the vision of the type of player one wants to become. Generally speaking, you don’t want your “next door neighbor” to be the definition of your ideal long term “vision”. If I could magically take your friend’s skills away what you feel better about yourself simply because he was not as good as you? Keep in mind that your skills would be the same as they are now, the only difference is that your friend’s skills were taken away or diminished. Your attitude about your own progress should be centered completely around where you are in the journey to realize your goals.
2. After you have reconciled your thoughts with the first piece of advice, you are ready for the second. In general, the greatest players are not great because they were naturally talented. In every case, truly great players become great (and make a lot of progress in relatively shorter periods of time) because their practice habits are EFFECTIVE. You see, they not only put in the time and effort as you do, but that time and effort is focused and effective. It appears that your practice habits have not been effective. I do not believe you lack the necessary potential to make significant progress. You just aren’t being effective. You seem to believe that you “CANNOT”. I propose that you can, but that you simply “HAVE NOT”. Certainly you are trying, but the efforts are bearing little fruit…
…I went on to tell him a story of how I generally approach increased practice effectiveness when working through a specific challenge (which all players at some point will face), read it below. There are many reasons why some players make less than average progress while spending a decent amount of time practicing. In most cases however, the problem is almost always the same.
I had suspected his lack of progress was due to ineffective practice approaches and habits. He thought the equal time he spent should have brought equal results. But that is a fallacy, a myth. Time is like a road. And there lots of different types of roads such as: dirt roads, gravel roads, brick roads, concrete roads, tar roads, and auto racing tracks (roads). His friend was driving (practicing) on a high quality road that can enable the car (his guitar playing) to move at the fastest pace. The email author was on a road made of loose gravel, rocks and littered with pot holes. The poor quality of the road is similar to poor quality practicing habits. Poor practice habits put one on a bad road and therefore the progress will be rough and slow. Effective practicing will put you on a race track where maximum traction and conditions are there to allow the maximum rate of progress.
I once had a new student (named Chris) who came to me because he couldn’t play Stairway to Heaven smoothly. In one of our first lessons together I asked Chris to play it (Stairway to Heaven) for me, 3 consecutive times. Each time Chris played the beginning of the song he could not make the chord change between the 3rd and 4th chords in time and cleanly. He practiced the song for months but could not get to the fourth chord (D/F#) correctly. I asked him some questions about how he was practicing and then I asked him to “practice the song for 15 minutes right here in front of me and I would just sit back quietly and listen”. After 15 minutes of that, I could see the problem was not that Chris lacked the potential to play it. It was clear that he had been struggling with this song because of ineffective use of his practice time. I noticed several minor problems that he was doing over and over again that was creating obstacles for him. But the greatest problem wasn’t in the way he attempted to play it, it was in his “approach to practicing” it. In those 15 minutes he practiced in front of me, he played the entire first section of the song. Which meant he actually only “practiced” the hard part 21 times (yes I was counting!). So we spent the next 15 minutes “ISOLATING THE PROBLEM AREA” and just focused on that. That meant he wasn’t allowed to practice anything he could already do well (which was the rest of that section of the song). I made him focus on only the difficult chord and position change. In the course of 15 minutes he had practiced this “problem spot” 536 times! (Yes…like a nerd, I was again counting!). In 15 minutes he could still not play it perfectly yet, but significant progress was made. I told him to practice in this exact same way for 15 minutes a day for the next 7 days. When he came back for his next lesson, I asked him to play the entire section of the song and he played it perfectly every time.
What changed? Well actually he practiced the song LESS (in terms of numbers of minutes per day) but he did practice the problem area more than 3,500 times in a total of 1.75 hours total during the week. What has happened was he got off the pot-hole- gravel-road and moved to a race track. Since then he has learned to practice all extraordinarily challenging things in this way…and the results show in a huge way. There are many reasons for Chris’s huge long-term success as a musician, but certainly the effectiveness of practicing is close to the top of the list. Chris has become a virtuoso guitarist and professional musician. You can hear the results for yourself here
There are lots of ways to improve the quality of your practice-time-effectiveness and thus your results. To get started, I recommend the following:
1. Before practicing, have your goals in mind before you begin and make them specific. Don’t just say, I’m going to practice Stairway to Heaven, say, “I’m going to work specifically on getting to that D/F# ONLY for 15 minutes”, or “I’m going to practice the 7th and 8th measures of the guitar solo for 12 minutes”.
2. When practicing ALWAYS ask yourself if you are using your practice time in the most effective ways.
3. Video record yourself practicing for 30 minutes. 1 week later watch the video recording and ask yourself this question, “If was a teacher (watching my student practice for 30 minutes, what might I suggest to him/her to improve the quality of the practicing I am observing). Then implement those suggestions the next time you practice.
© 2006 Tom Hess
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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