“Wow, he’s good. I’ve tried, but after all this time I still can’t do that.”
“I’ve been playing for 25 years and still can’t play like I want to.”
These are common refrains from many players but it hasn’t been until the last few years that I’ve become aware of what they mean. If you or perhaps a student of yours is plagued with this kind of thinking, it’s time to abandon these thoughts and see the truth of things. Lack of progress, stagnation, and dissatisfaction with abilities is almost never a reflection of talent but rather a reflection of the knowledge of how to practice. Provided that you’re actually practicing enough, if these thoughts represent your current attitude, then your practice may be inefficient and unfocused.
I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth repeating: “The amount of time that you spend in the practice room is irrelevant in relation to how effective that practice has been.” Many player’s have mixed feelings towards practice because they feel that it is time consuming, laborious and even mindless. This perspective is narrow and completely misses how individualized and creative a practice routine can be.
Merriam-Webster defines practice as a) to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient and b) to train by repeated exercises. These definitions leave something to be desired and would have many musicians thinking that mere rote will instill the necessary attributes of a top performer. Contrast this with Gerald Klickstein’s definition from his book “The Musician’s Way” which states that practice is the deliberate, creative process of improving musical ability and of mastering music for performance. This definition reveals the true nature of practice and how dynamic and innovative it can be.
In my years of teaching and playing I’ve come up against many mistakes that hold players back. A few of them are listed below. This list is by no means exhaustive, but definitely nails the most common mistakes made.
– No Theory One of the biggest hurdles that grinds progress to a standstill is an inefficient grasp of theory. To get around this elephant, some players will even say that learning theory will harm their creativity. In the formative stages it can be easy to get bogged down with theory, but once absorbed and assimilated it will only make you more learned and efficient.
– Only Practicing What You’re Good At One of the worst traps that a player can fall into is continuously practicing things that they are already quite skilled at. This can be hard to diagnose because as long as new exercises are being added that address the skill, it can feel like a lot of progress is being made when in fact it’s time to move on.
– Crazy Fast All of the Time We’ve all met this guy. The player that never slows down to actually hear what he’s doing. Fast is great, but if you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast.
– Meandering Another common error is meandering from skill to skill and exercise to exercise with zero concentration or thought as to how it is leading to the goal. This player typically plays whatever they feel like with little discipline and consequently little progress from week to week.
Organizing a practice routine needn’t be difficult. The method that I’m going to suggest is very simple and if followed will have you practicing more effectively by the end of the day. The method consists of answering three questions. These are:
1. What are my goals?
This question over arches the other two and needs to be answered first. Do not answer this with generalities such as “I want to be a great player,” or “I want to be a killer soloist.” Set specific goals that are measurable like “Alternate pick 16ths at 200bpm,” or “Learn the Dorian scale in three positions on the neck.”
Do not think that you are limited to only one or two goals. List as many as you are inspired to tackle. This will keep your practicing fresh and ensure that you’re growing in many areas. As an added bonus, motivation will abound with so many milestones being hit.
2. How can I measure my progress towards these goals?
This is where many players falter. They can often define a goal but when that goal seems so far away, interest starts to wane until practicing falls off completely.
Let’s use the goal of wanting to alternate pick at 200bpm. Start off by selecting two or three exercises or licks that target this technique. Note how fast you can play them to a metronome and work on speeding them up. Set mini targets such as 140 bpm, 160 bpm and 180 bpm. When you hit these targets, be sure to acknowledge your accomplishment.
The metronome is only one tool for measuring progress. There are many other great techniques and when combined they can be quite powerful. For example, isolate the fret hand and make sure you can navigate the passage. Maybe set a limit such as 10 playthroughs with no errors before advancing the speed. Perhaps you know a producer or another player that can critique recordings that you make of yourself. The options are as many as you can think of. Order a copy of “Practiceopedia” by Philip Johnston for a huge selection of the best known practice techniques.
3. How do I know when I’ve achieved the goal?
This is an extremely important question to know the answer to. The tough thing with music is that virtually nothing is finished. There is always more to know and a skill can always get better. However, there needs to be new goals set and a time to move on or you’ll become a player that burns ruts playing the same thing over and over. Stay determined and achieve your goal but don’t be afraid to move on.
Hopefully this post has made you give your practice routine an honest assessment. If you’re on the right path, I congratulate you. However, if you’ve been disappointed and maybe even confused with your practice then implementing these ideas should immediately put you in a better space. Be inventive and stay inspired.
“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.”
– Vladimir Horowitz