Respect The Process (Effectiveness and Efficiency in Practicing)

Efficient Vs. Effective

We live in an era of tricks and hacks and workarounds all in the name of efficiency.

Being efficient can be a very good thing but doing effective things is (IMHO) even better.

Most people equate the two terms but I think that’s a mistake.  Here’s a shortcut to differentiate between the two:

Efficient means doing things better.
Effective means doing better things.

You might be able to learn every trick in the book to be able to analyze a spreadsheet as fast as you possibly can (i.e. be as efficient as you can) by hand, but if you have an app that can interpret the data in the same way (and that is also working in an efficient manner) – that app will do it faster than you regardless of whatever steps you take to be efficient.

Ideally, it’s good if you can do things effectively and efficiently because that maximizes what you can get done but determining what is effective and efficient in practicing is often counter intuitive.

Effectiveness and Efficiency in Practicing

Many players I come across equate skill set with mastery.  Particularly for lead playing, the concept seems to be, “Here’s this lick.  I’m going to get it under my fingers and then it’s going to be something at my disposal when I play.”

In context, it’s akin to saying, “I’m going to lean every chord voicing I can on guitar so I can use them live.”  You can learn a few voicings for a 7(b5 b9) chord but if you don’t understand how to use that chord in the context of a song knowing some fingering isn’t going to help you remember to actually play that chord on a gig.

In other words, mastery is also contextual.  If you don’t have a specific reason why you are trying to play something then it will be much harder to be able to access it when you really want to.

So what’s effective practice material then? 

Well – it’s an elusive question as what’s effective for players changes over time as their ability level increases.

For example, I think developing aural skills (be that formal ear training or the ability to really listen what is happening in a musical context and know how to engage with that in a musical manner) – is a critical skill regardless of how long you’ve been playing but if you don’t have any technical or theoretical skills at your disposal it’s going to take even longer to utilize that ear training and be able to translate that to your instrument.

Effective practice requires reflection and analysis.
It requires the ability to look at what’s going on with your playing and make it better. You don’t get that from learning lick #4 from someone’s YouTube channel. (p.s. there’s nothing wrong with that either – but interacting with someone else’s material in a vacuum generally won’t reveal what you need to work on in your playing.)

The easiest way for most people to understand what will be effective to practice is to take a private lesson with a good teacher.  Mind you I am fully aware of just how difficult that can be.  There are a lot of bad teacher’s out there – but finding someone that can look at what you’re doing in an objective manner makes it easier to diagnose what’s really going on.  The internet makes it possible to take skype lessons with players all over the world.  While not ideal, it’s probably going to get you further than taking a lesson with the 17 year old kid in the back of a music store who is trying to show you how to play the intro to “Sweet Child of Mine” – in response to a generic question of wanting to get better at playing guitar.

Since what I’m saying means that every player will have to tailor what they’re working on to meet specific goals – I’ll throw out one suggestion that I think is universal.  I’ve never once regretted taking the time to learn something aurally.  Whether transcribing it or just being able to play it back – the biggest stylistic elements in my playing came from learning licks from other instruments on guitar and adapting that material to songs I was playing on.
Yes you might get a lick under your fingers faster if you find a tab for it, but you’re more likely to be able to pull that lick out of your hat on a gig if you’ve internalized it and the most effective way to do that is to learn it aurally.

With that in mind, here’s a recommendation that I’d make to anyone that’s practicing anything or trying to gain any kind of skill set:

Respect the Process – Not Just The Product (Result)

So much of what is “sold” to guitarists in instructional material utilizes the concept of a trick or a hack to be able to play something faster – but most players only have a profoundly general idea of what they are trying to achieve on guitar.

If you don’t have a specific goal for what you are trying to do, what advantage is there is getting there faster?

So yes, you have thousands of videos out there now of people playing a lot of notes very cleanly but for many of those people – that’s the extent of their skill set.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but having sat in auditions and rehearsals with players that just didn’t have the ability to play anything other than those riffs and solos that they worked out, it became a problem in a larger context of – what are you trying to do musically?

I’ve met many, many players (and former players) who were frustrated because they didn’t reach some arbitrary goal in an equally arbitrary time frame.

“Yeah….I’d love to be able to sweep and I practiced it a bunch for like a month but I just can’t do it.”

When it comes to practicing, perhaps the best advice I can give anyone is to try to surrender to to process of developing a skill set and not get hung up on the end goal.  Players who get hung up on the final product of what they’re doing (like being able to play a certain lick at a certain tempo by a certain time) are typically the ones who reach a frustration threshold and bail on it.

For example: I’m about to record some more solo acoustic material.  Originally, I wanted to track these tings as quickly as possible, but instead I decided to just work on the pieces consistently and adopt the motto of, “It is what it is. – Whatever rate I progress at this is the rate that it progresses.”

By taking away a strict time frame of when I “should” have everything down – I started focusing much more on the nuances of each piece an the things that actually made the pieces more musical.  Now, quite a bit later, the pieces have all developed and matured in ways that I could never have expected and I can communicate them in a much more sincere manner to a listener.  That sincerity is the most efficient way to make that communication with the listener which is the end goal.

Was it the most efficient manner to get the notes under my fingers?  Probably not.  Was it the most effective way to reach my end goal?  Absolutely.

So if you’re someone who gets frustrated with practice, try to think about this idea of enjoying the process of learning something new and being as musical in each moment of practice that you can be.

You play what you practice – so if you can practice in a musical way, you’re much more likely to play in a musical way as well.

Also, one thing I’ve been really focused on in the last year is gratitude and not taking things for granted.  I am so grateful that I can make music and in being grateful that I can do something it makes it a lot easier to approach practice in that mindset as well.  It might be a little woo-woo for some people but – believe me – audiences pick up on it as well.  For a number of years I practiced in a pissed off manner and played that way and let’s just say it didn’t make for a lot of repeat customers. ; )

So there’s a rambling post reflecting on last night’s gig on a Saturday morning!  Hopefully it’ll be of some help to you!

As always, thanks for reading.

-SC

Addendum: for some of the deepest wisdom about this and related topics check out part 2 of my interview with Miroslav Tadic here.

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