Part 1: An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
We all know that feeling.
You know, that itchy feeling you get in your fingers. That restless corner of your mind knowing that something isn’t quite right.
You know what I’m talking about. It’s something all guitarists are familiar with.
What am I alluding to?
Not practicing guitar for days of days of course!
Guitar withdrawal is the medical term – or to use the formal term Fretingus Devoidilicus.
Futile attempts at humour aside, I now introduce to you Number 1 of The Top 10 Mistakes Guitarists Make In Their Practice Session:
Mistake #1: Not Having A Regular Routine
Having a routine is the core skill of any musician. It is from a routine that our effort we put into something has the highest leverage. It makes difficult things easy by turning something impossible into manageable chunks.
So why do so many guitarists ignore this point?
Life gets in the way of course. Life will conspire against you to thwart any attempts to create a worthwhile routine at anything. However as an aspiring musician this is the first thing that you need to ensure is firmly put in place.
No time spent on scales, coordination exercises, improvising, speed development, or anything else will bear any result any time soon in your playing without having a regular routine, by which you make time for your guitar practice and then have a well thought out structure in the session itself.
In the first installment of this ten-part Guide, you will learn the benefits of creating a daily routine to your guitar practice, and how to create and stick to a routine.
The Benefit of a Regular Routine
There is no way that one can improve a skill without a routine of some sort, especially for a complex skill like guitar playing.
To answer this question I want to introduce to you one of the best helping hands you will ever have on your musical journey. His name is…
Your very own subconscious mind.
The subconscious mind is your friend. It is your humble assistant, working on your guitar skills for you all those times throughout the day you aren’t practicing. Just like mixing up some bread dough and then leaving it to rise on the bench while you have a cup of tea, the subconscious mind works while you don’t.
In your practice session you basically have a handover meeting with your subconscious mind and outline its work for the day while afterwards you metaphorically go and play golf.
Have you ever noticed when you have practiced regularly, and pick up your guitar after a good night’s sleep to try that tricky chord melody solo of Green Dolphin Street that you were struggling with the day before – all of a sudden it becomes easier?
That’s because all through the day and night, Mr. Subconscious has been working his booty off. And you (well the conscious you) didn’t have to do anything! It’s not actually in the practice session you get better at that riff. It’s in between your practice sessions!
That is the main reason for why routines are so powerful (and getting enough sleep as well for that matter :-). In fact, there are many other benefits to a strong routine:
- Routines in a way are an arbitrary way to ensure that you actually do make time to play your instrument. Especially if you have family members – it gives an expectation that you will be unavailable for those 20-30 minutes daily so that you can work on your craft without being interrupted.
- Routines give you a framework by which to organise your life and to measure your progress. Professional musicians and other creative types are often terrible at self-organising. I think this could be due to the fact they spend considerable time working from home and don’t have any routines or expectations imposed on them externally, e.g. by a 9 to 5 job.
- Routines encourage self-discipline, which can positively impact all sorts of areas in your life, not just your guitar playing.
Are you convinced?
So let’s now talk about how to get a routine happening for your practice.
How to Develop a Routine
- Talk to your family (if you have one) or your housemates and collectively decide on a time that would be workable for everyone. A routine will only be successful if you garner support from those it affects.
- Decide clearly on the duration for your daily effort, and be realistic initially. Start small if you are a beginner and just do say 10 to 15 minutes. For a pro guitarist you will need around an hour at least, however if you are very well organised in your session you may need only 30 minutes.
- A lot of time can be wasted if you are not organised in advance to practice. Make sure you have a dedicated corner of a room (or a whole room if you house is so endowed) and that all your gadgets and doodads are out ready to go. Your precious 20 minutes may be 90% wasted if you are running around looking for your guitar tuner, a pencil and so on – you would be surprised how fast time moves when you are in your practice session time.
Finding a Regular Time To Practice
This is one of the hallmarks of a sustainable routine. Here are some tips to help find a workable time:
- Make it ideally at the same time each day, this will essentially meet the expectations of those your routine effects.
- If you need to, get up early to practice (preferable) or stay up a bit later.
- Use headphones and an electric guitar if you practice at time that disturbs other family members. For those times my practice needs to be quiet I plug my guitar into the audio interface on my computer with headphones. What is great about this setup is that all you need to do is turn your computer on, plug your guitar in and everything is ready to go – perfect for a late night practice session and no complaints from the neighbors! Added bonus: you can easily record yourself through this setup to assess your progress.
- Decide on the duration to practice – at least 20 minutes daily is still sufficient to make some progress (30 minutes at least is ideal to aim for though).
How To Structure a Practice Session
Well done my apprentice! You have created a regular routine. But that leads us to another routine to implement: the sequence of things you actually do in a practice session.
This doesn’t need to be very complicated. This is my tried and tested routine that I have in each practice session:
- Warm Up: e.g. play 1 scale or arpeggio a couple of times
- Main Project: the main thing I’m currently working on at the moment, e.g learning a series of Joe Pass licks, learning a new tune etc
- Review: I play a tune or a couple of tunes that I already know
- If my schedule is allowing a longer practice session (1 or more hours) I ensure that regular breaks are factored into the daily routine as well. This is a high leverage technique as putting short breaks periodically throughout a long session refreshes your mind, and means you can assimilate more information compared to if you are brain dead from overdoing it.
Ok aspiring guitar Jedi – over to you. Think about your guitar practice routine. Do you have one? If you do, how could it be improved?
I really believe this is something overlooked by so many guitarists, I can’t emphasise enough how much implementing these strategies could improve your guitar playing.
I can highly recommend a book on the subject of creating and maintaining routines for creative types by Jocelyn K. Glei and the team at 99U.com:
This is the best resource on the topic I have come across.
In the next instalment of the Guide, we are going to touch on a mistake I see guitarists making all the time, which is crippling their abilities and causing any time they are making in their practice to be wasted. Talk soon!
~ Greg from FretDojo
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