Table of Contents for Getting More
- Getting More Out of Your Guitar Practice Time
In my 5 part series “Getting More,” you’ll learn how to get more from your practice time, lessons, performances, and even from your attendance of concerts and master classes.
Part 1-Getting More from your Practice
Do you find that you lack the time to practice? Perhaps you find that you’re missing more sessions than you’d like to admit. When you do practice, are you unsure of what you should practice, or even how to practice? Do you lack focus? Do you find yourself only getting so far with a piece before you lose interest and move on to something else? Do you have very little playable music to show for your practice time or for the years you’ve spent playing the guitar?
A well-thought-out practice schedule, one that you find yourself adhering to more consistently, will help eliminate these problems.
The number one factor in using your practice time effectively is consistency. Consistent practice equals consistent playing. Yet, this is where most players fall short. If you find yourself missing more days than you’d like, then look to shorten your practice schedule. If you become more consistent, then even with a shorter practice time you’ll show improvement. Further, if you develop an organized practice plan, you’ll find that you actually need less time to practice, while making long-term improvement. Bottom line: organize your practice, and you can afford to shave time off. A shorter, more focused and organized practice, coupled with consistency, will give you fantastic results.
Planning your Practice
So how many times should you practice per week? And how much time should you practice each day? First, I suggest practicing five days per week. In addition, I’d recommend practicing as much on a schedule as possible. For example, commit to practicing every Mon-Tues-Wed-Sat-Sun, or, whatever works best for you. Look at your schedule and see if there are better days than others to practice, and schedule your practice on those days. But before you can choose the days to practice, you should know how long your sessions should be.
So how much time per day should you practice? I find another major error that students commit is to spend too much time practicing in an attempt to make noticeable strides on a given day. While we all know this to be folly, (would you look for your biceps to increase noticeably with one set of bicep curls?), but still we tend to think short term here. What follows are some guidelines for setting the optimal length of your practice sessions so that you can see those long term results.
Each practice session is dependent on your particular level of development. My beginning students, who have no repertoire, are asked to practice about 10-15 minutes per day. In these practice sessions technique is learned and eventually integrated into simple repertoire. Each exercise is given instructions along with directives (what to look for in practice) as well as how much time to practice each exersise.
I know that 10-15 minutes seems like a short time for most. In fact, I often check in with my students who have completed Phase I, and find them frustrated that they’re not practicing often enough. In almost every single example, they are practicing too long for each exercise, running out of time, not completing all the exercises, and in frustration, becoming disheartened. Once I get them back into the shortened, focused practice mode, they take off!
Once the student has some repertoire, somewhere between 5-10 pieces, then I suggest increasing the practice time to accommodate about seven minutes per piece. Often, I have my students work pieces five times over a 10-day practice period (approaching the piece every other practice session). With focused, consistent and directed practice, it’s often not necessary to play every piece every day. Also, the better known the piece, the less often it needs to be practiced. I then add my 15-minute technique practice to that time.
For example, imagine you have seven pieces of music ranging from two to three minutes per piece (the normal time for studies). But you only practice one of those pieces every practice session (perhaps your newest piece). That’s seven minutes. That leaves six more pieces which, let’s say, you practice every other practice session. So, three pieces practiced for seven minutes each puts your practice time at 21 minutes. Now add the seven minutes from the piece you practice daily (28 minutes). Now add the 15 minutes for technique, and you have a 45-minute practice session. This is plenty of practice time to show consistent improvement. In fact, my suggested times already take into account the small amount of time spent tuning, perhaps tending to an unruly nail, occasionally stretching, or a quick bathroom break.
Understand that that’s under an hour of practice per day, for about 20 minutes of playable repertoire. That may not seem like a lot of music, but you’d be surprised at how few people can sit down and play 20 minutes of music.
But what about when you begin to add repertoire? Let’s say you add pieces, and eventually, you have twice the amount of repertoire. You’d think that your practice time would double, but it doesn’t. Due to the frequency necessary to maintain those older works, you can add pieces but eliminate a session or two over a two-week period for those well known works, especially with a consistent approach to your practice sessions.
If your pieces are longer, say around five minutes (the average length of a concert level work), then give yourself 10 minutes per piece. Using the rules from above, that would yield a 55-minute practice session, or you could round it up to an hour. So let’s put that into perspective: an hour is one-half of a concert program, and none of your pieces are falling through the cracks! This is important, as lack of improvement can be the result of a small amount of playable repertoire. The mere fact that you maintain a base of playable repertoire will improve your overall playing.
If you keep applying the planning rules, they work– even for the most advanced players. I have often been juggling two concert programs: that’s 120 minutes of music. But many of these pieces are only practiced one or two times per week. This way I can maintain a large repertoire. NOTE: my practice regimen changes the closer I approach to a concert or series of concerts. In fact, I have, on occasion, received a last-minute request to perform. Since this maintenance schedule keeps my pieces in focus, I have been able to alter my ‘maintenance’ schedule and still ramp up a full recital program ready for the stage in two weeks. The focus of this article is for maintaining most or all of your repertoire.
Another note: I have my students work alternate days on scales and arpeggios as part of their technique practice. Embedded in those are the primary skills I teach in my Phase I, as well as other practice directives which I call secondary skills (vibrato, slurs, planting, etc). Alternating practice of techniques and primary skills keeps your technical practice short, focused, and varied.
So now we have an idea of how often to practice, and what to practice each day. Now it’s important to assign a task for each piece, or as I mentioned above, for your technique work. I call these tasks directives.
Now that you know what pieces you’ll be practicing, on each particular day, over the next two weeks, it is time to assign a practice directive for each piece. Each piece should have only one practice directive, and it should be maintained over the two-week period (however many times you practice the piece over those two weeks).
Students of mine or those who have taken Phase III get 12 practice directives equally divided into tools for musicianship, memory, and technical skills. These can be applied at random or in any order. But if you don’t have these directives, you can make up your own.
My teacher Michael Lorimer espouses a great concept: ask yourself what three things could you do to immediately improve a particular piece. I would suggest narrowing that down to what ONE thing could you do to immediately improve that particular piece, and work on that idea for two weeks. Let’s say you notice the melody has become dull in one of your pieces. Focus on bringing out the melody for two weeks! Just about anything you apply will help! Play the piece through once, under tempo, and listen for the melody.
I will use an analogy of the manager and assembly line worker. The manager decides what is going to be assembled and how it’s going to be assembled. The assembly line worker simply puts the pieces together, no questions asked.
When you schedule your two-week practice session, you are the manager. When you are practicing, you’re the assembly-line worker. Refrain from judging your daily results–re-asses after your two weeks of practice. Simply stay focused and on task for the two weeks. I don’t change how I practice a particular piece until the two weeks are up. Trust me on this – I’ve learned my lesson.
I’m not going into great detail here on the advantages of practicing slowly (I’ll cover that in another article), but trust me–if you apply these practice directives to a piece that is played at 1/2 of tempo (or even slower), you’ll only have to practice the piece one time through.
So now you should have a developed practice plan (a list of what and how to practice) that fits within your schedule. Keep this up for 3 months, and you will be happily surprised at your progress! All of this will be contained in my upcoming Phase IV, by the way. This Phase includes a Practice Log which allows you to record your practice in an organized form.
For more information on my Phases just go to the link.
Other Factors to Aid your Practice
Now that you have an idea on what and how to practice on a specific day, you’ll do well to look to some smaller factors that will aid in you in Getting More Our of Your Guitar Practice Time.
Having a well-designed practice space aids in effective practice. A specific place, free from outside noise and distractions (your cell phone or computer) is very helpful. In addition, you should feel that you’re not disturbing anyone.
Some important tools include a full-length mirror, a solid music stand, a place to keep all your music, and a pencil. Other recommended tools are an audio and video device for recording.
With the tools listed above, you should be able to objectively assess your progress from time to time. It’s a good idea to make this assessment just prior to a lesson. Take your thoughts in to your teacher, and see if he or she agrees or has anything to add. I often find students are far too hard on themselves, and while this is normal, it can give one a negative perspective which will inhibit growth.
Often growth comes slowly, and without perspective, students often change course too early–instead of hitting their target, they circle around and end up where they began. That’s where a good teacher is helpful.
Private instruction is probably the most important factor in getting more from your practice time. Finding a good teacher who can communicate his or her ideas clearly, takes into account your individual needs, and gives you a clear idea of the path ahead, will put you years ahead. I have some very bright people in my studio. On occasion a student will need to take some time off. I’m am constantly surprised at their self-assessment when they return. Most feel like they’ve made real progress and nothing could be further from the truth. Even those with sharp self-assessment skills loose direction without someone to put them on a clear path and guide them towards meaningful progress.
A good teacher will keep your practice times affective, relevant and ultimately save you countless meaningless hours in the practice room.
Next Month: Getting More from your Lessons.