Recently I had a Skype lesson with someone who wanted to learn more about practicing and while we talked about a lot of different elements of things to work on I forgot to mention one critical thing (that may be a good reminder for you):
When you’re practicing you should practice material the way you ultimately want to play it.
(Be forewarned – this simple sentence requires some context.)
When I was living in small apartments I was really mindful of other people and not disturbing them and made sure that when I practiced that I was really quiet.
Guess what happened when I went to play live? You couldn’t hear me or make out a single thing I was playing.
You can’t practice something in a passive or lethargic way and expect to play it aggressively /dynamically / with conviction / in a way that creates a moment in a live context.
This is one reason I recommend that people work on specific licks or approaches for short periods of time as a big part of practice is examining nuance and attention to detail.
Here’s (one way) how I approach something new I need to learn in a practice session.
1. Figure out what I’m playing (and why I’m working on it)
Even before I go to a metronome, I make sure I understand what I’m playing. If I’m going to add it to my musical vocabulary – I need to understand how it fits in a context. Examples of this would be:
“Ah..it’s a pentatonic based lick”
“It’s an arpeggio pattern based on harmonic minor chords”
“It’s a scale I’m not familiar with” (Then I need to learn that as well).
The why is generally, “it sounds cool.” but usually it’s tied to a specific song, solo or approach for something I’m going to play in front of people or record.
2. Figure out where to put all my fingers
Again, still no sign of a metronome yet! Here I’m looking at the fretboard shapes involved and make sure that I understand what I need to do physically to perform it. Recently, I was working on a descending scalar pattern for an original tune and realized that the fingering I was using was really difficult and didn’t sound that great. Even playing it at the slowest possible tempo, it was difficult to get the articulation I wanted. After about 5 minutes of running options, I discovered a string skipping shape that made it much easier t play and (more importantly) sounded better.
Included in this step is also addressing what the fingers of the picking or tapping hand need to do.
3. Understand the phrasing
Usually I’ll try to sing along with the line to help internalize it. I’m not a vocalist. You’ll never hear me on American idol. I don’t do it because it sounds good, I do it so I can really internalize the rhythms and the phrasing. Tapping my foot helps a lot with that as well…..
I heard a guitarist of some renown play recently and I was shocked at just how bad the phrasing on his tunes was. Every note was played in the right order but it just didn’t sound musical at all.
4. Set a metronome marking
There are a couple of ways I’ll do this but in general I’ll find the fastest tempo I can perform the idea following the 3 T’s (Tone, Timing and hand tension and by “perform” I mean playing it totally in the pocket and every note jumping out at the listener.) and then move it up a few metronome markings until it starts to fall apart.
One place where I think some people get hung up on this is (on the physical side of practicing) equating playing with conviction = playing aggressively = playing with excessive tension. As the saying goes,
“Tension is trying to be where I think I should be”
“Relaxed is being where I am”
Take your time getting to this step if you need to! I might be practicing the idea for a couple of sessions before I even get to the point where I can play it in time. I work on playing the phrase with conviction and intent and then worry about tempo. Playing all the notes on the guitar quickly doesn’t mean much if you can’t move listeners when doing so.
Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your overall level comes up and you can start playing things closer to the tempo you hear it.
5. Do. Observe. Correct (if necessary).
That’s the crux of it right there. Not getting emotional about what you’re doing or getting hung up on where you should be – just performing it. Observing what worked. Correct if necessary. If I can play something 3-5 times without a mistake – I’ll generally bump up the metronome a few markings and try it again.
(Make sure to check out The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner for more on this. I had another descriptive but I liked his description of “Do Observe Correct” so much that I use it in my own teaching now)
6. Keep track of what I’m doing and work on it daily
This is an old topic for me but daily focused work makes the difference. Writing it down let’s you see what kind of progress you’re making.
As a shortcut think of it this way (I stole this from a book that is definitely worth reading - The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremo)
You want to practice like you’re the number 2 player in the world and have something to prove. Practice with grit and drive and instead of being totally focused on the end goal – try to be engaged in the process of what you’re doing.
Having said that, when you play or perform – you want to do so like the #1 players in the world. Those players play with no tension. Their hands are lose and relaxed and they’re focused but not over-focused.
If you practice in an engaged manner you’re more likely to perform in an engaged manner and that’s a good thing.
There’s a lot more to practice than what I’ve outlined here (If you check the blueprints page you’ll see a lot of material specifically related to guitar practicing) – but I really think that the steps I outlined offer a reasonable starting point and (perhaps more importantly) can be applied to any skill set you want to achieve.
That’s it for now! I hope this helps and as always thanks for reading!