I was originally planning on updating this post with pictures of hand postures and address left and right hand muting techniques – but given that I have sunburned skin peeling off of 20% of my body – I’m going to hold off on photos for now.
Instead, I’d like to take a moment and actually address defining practicing as a means of understanding what is being addressed by practicing and then examine how documenting the process can assist with it.
For those of you who are just coming to this post you may want to also read the previous posts on practicing. Here’s a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3.
By defining practicing it’s easier to understand what practicing is supposed to do. Here is a partial definition from Meriam Webster.
“Main Entry: 1prac·tice
Variant(s): also prac·tise \ˈprak-təs\
Inflected Form(s): prac·ticed also prac·tised; prac·tic·ing also prac·tis·ing
Etymology: Middle English practisen, from Middle French practiser, from Medieval Latin practizare,alteration of practicare, from practica practice, noun, from Late Latin practice, from Greek praktikē, from feminine of praktikos
Date: 14th century
transitive verb1 a : carry out, apply <practice what you preach> b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually<practice politeness> c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine >
2 a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act> b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>”
The definitions presented in the 2nd part of this definition help – but don’t really explain how to train or what practicing is supposed to achieve. So I’m going to supply one of my own.
Practice: The proper focused repetition of an idea through an incrementally difficult environment for the purpose of achieving a musical goal.
By tearing apart this definition some elements of practicing can be exposed that you might not have thought about before.
proper: meaning the right way; consistently
focused: Practice requires concentration because it requires attention to detail.
repetition: repetition leads to familiarity (and familiarity breeds contempt so be careful here!)
incrementally difficult environment: To practice something means that you are pushing your abilities to do something. In music, one implication of this is to practice with a time keeping device (metronome, drum machine, drummer, recording, etc.) – but this could be any kind of parameter that actually pushes you.
for the purpose of achieving a musical goal: Practice is goal oriented. If you are not trying to achieve anything then you are not practicing.
With a clearer understanding of what is meant by practicing – we can go on to how to maximize the use of your practicing time.
1. Set clear, well-defined goals (short AND long-term) and work towards those goals.
2. Since practice requires concentration, put yourself in an environment that facilitates concentration such as a relatively quiet, well lit and well ventilated room as free of distraction as possible.
3. While concentration is required for repetition, excessive repetition undermines concentration. Many people use set periods of time to practice something. This can be a good policy if it is done in moderation. Bill Leavitt (the founder of the guitar department at Berklee) suggested that students should practice reading for 15 minutes of every hour of practice – because 4 sessions of 15 concentrated minutes of practice get you a lot further than one hour of unfocused practice. A timer (like an oven timer) can be a great assistance here.
For some people, concentration will be a learned activity. If you are not used to focusing on something with intensity, then even trying to work 10 minutes on something may be problematic.
If you are having problems with this area – try starting with smaller intervals of time like 5 minutes with one short phrase and then move on to the next item on your agenda. Practicing in this manner will help you develop your capacity for focus as well.
There are several different thoughts about achieving goals, for me personally – it’s important to get many ideas into muscle memory slowly and develop them all at the same time rather than developing only one idea fully after another. You, however, should plan on experimenting and find what approaches work for you.
By setting a timer and not worrying about how long you are practicing, (in whatever methodology you use) you can spend more energy on the actual performance.
One approach to consider is seen in how athletes train. After all, playing guitar is a physical process that requires performance of well-trained activity. This is very similar to a swimmer who has to be able to perform at a high level at a signal (like a whistle blowing). One thing athletes do is WRITE IT DOWN. Runners for example often keep a journal of performance times to see if they’re improving. Writing things down in a journal doesn’t have to be complex or difficult. I used to keep a notepad in my guitar case, and then write things down. But now it’s easier to customize a practice log or journal and utilize that either in print or electronically.
I have linked two sample documents below. Please feel free to download and use or edit at will.
PRACTICE LOG (PDF)
Weekly Practice Log (Word)
What needs to be written down:
Here’s a sample entry:
||What is being Practiced?
||A Major Pentatonic sweep (sextuplets)
||Watch Pinky tension!!
The goal is to write just enough to keep track of what you’re doing. Feel free to add or drop items.
If you’re going to start really putting the hours into practicing, I would recommend that you give yourself enough material to do no more than an hour or two at one sitting.
Do multiple sittings a day if you want. (Personally – I can’t really focus very well after an hour or so consistently. So if I can I do an hour in the afternoon and then another hour later).
It also depends on what I need to practice. If it’s a difficult piece I need to pull together – I might have to do 4-5 sessions like this a day. The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.
I’m calling it a practice log or a journal – but really it’s a type of map –
by keeping a journal you can see where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.
It’s a good idea to periodically go through some old journals to just kind of get a fix for where you’re at.
Keeping a practice journal can be a drag and a chore if you want to view it that way, but it can be hugely beneficial in seeing what it is you are actually getting done. If you make it a part of the practice ritual it will just be something you do.
For example, the first thing an experienced player will do before they play anything on a guitar is to see if it’s in tune. If you get used to just picking up the journal when you pick up a guitar to practice – it will become 2nd nature.
Now that you’re writing it down – here are some things to address while you’re practicing:
You have to play slowly and accurately before you can play quickly and accurately.
Can you make out all of the notes? Are you really nailing the rhythm? Are there any open strings ringing or unwanted notes? Are you practicing the same way that you’re going to play? Is the guitar in the same position when you practice as when you play in front of an audience?
[*Special Note: Paying attention requires concentration which is why you can’t really practice while you’re watching TV. You can play or warm up in front of a TV – you just can’t focus on the TV and the guitar at the same time. If you can’t pay attention to something try moving on. If you can’t move on, then stop and come back to it. You will get much more done this way that by just mindlessly running fingering patterns*]
Always use a metronome, recording or time keeping device when practicing.
Isolate problem areas.
If you are learning a piece, there are often several areas that need more attention that the rest of the piece. Isolate those areas (however small they may be) and develop them. When you have gotten more comfortable with the problematic areas – begin to practice sections before and after the area. Treat the problem area as a center and keep moving out from the center as necessary.
Do it right the first time.
Paying attention allows you to make sure that you’re practicing correctly. Practice correctly – play correctly. Inherent in this idea is that you’re practicing at a tempo you’re comfortable enough that you can tell if you’re playing it correctly.
Don’t go overboard.
Some people go from not practicing at all to trying to practice the entire day. Music is built off of experience, growth and endurance – none of which comes quickly. Moderation is a good thing. Occasionally think of the long term, and use the marathoner’s strategy of pacing yourself.
Establish a regimen and stick as close to it as you can. If you make practicing enjoyable – you’ll eventually start to look forward to it. It’s okay to stop and take breaks from practicing as a regimen, just don’t forget to start up again.
Don’t forget to play.
The whole point of practicing is to gain elements to utilize in playing music. Play whenever possible, desired and/or required. After all this is supposed to be enjoyable.
All of this advice works off of the idea that you have specific goals in mind when practicing. My suggestions for what to practice will be the subject of a later post.
I hope this helps!
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