5 Easy Ways To Get More From Your Practice
We all know that practice is a necessary part of playing the guitar. Yet finding the time to practice with consistency and structure is a real challenge for most of us. It’s a challenge that has defeated me for years.
So this year, my resolution was to practice with focus and dedication. With only a couple of days missed since the New Year (mostly due to travel or work) I’ve hit that and averaged around 7 hours of playing per week. 5 hours of this I would classify as ‘practice’. I wish it was a lot more than that – but even ticking along at this very modest level of practice, my playing has really stepped on.
What’s been most refreshing is the sheer amount I can learn in a small window of uninterrupted practice. The biggest challenge is sticking to this and making sure I actually practice with a clear aim and do so consistently. Whilst I’m certainly not out of the woods (and would love to be able to practice more), below are a few of the tips I’ve found helpful to ensure I do practice and get the most out of that practice time:
Use a Stopwatch
I realise that this sounds like quite a soul destroying tactic, but it has totally transformed my productivity and improved my playing immeasurably. I started timing myself to impose an element of control and gain an understanding of how much I was actually playing. The results were quite surprising, and not in a good way…
What I thought was me playing for a good chunk of time was actually me playing for about 5 minutes. Even when I got lost in a world of my own, playing along to my favourite songs, I was in fact only playing for 5 minutes. It felt like I was playing for hours.
A quick bit of mental maths really hammered the point home. If I was only playing 5 minutes, and not doing that every day – I was playing less than an hour of guitar per week (in total).
So I set myself the target of playing for at least 30 minutes every day. This is short enough that it doesn’t pose an overwhelming challenge, but long enough that over the course of the week the time really clocks up. Far from being restrictive, timing my practice has been liberating. I’m improving faster and playing better than ever before and I almost always end up playing beyond the 30 minutes I’ve set for myself.
If you can’t commit to 30 minutes, then go for 20 or 10. Just pick an amount of time that you can hit consistently, but which feels like a bit of a stretch.
What are you actually trying to achieve through practice? If your answer is ‘become a better guitar player’ then I would suggest setting yourself more structured goals. You will perform much better if you can clearly define your goals. For me, I set the aim of learning 28 songs (or solos from songs) that I’d long wanted to learn. My goal was clearly defined and easily broken down into each allotted practice session. These would generally consist of learning and consolidating a song on the list. Each session has as clear focus and I’ve found that I’m progressing a lot faster than I anticipated. Songs I’ve struggled to learn for years, I’m now smashing through in an hour.
Embrace the Ritual
Treat your practice seriously. I used to be a terror for just walking in, picking my guitar up and starting to play. Maybe it was totally tuned up, maybe it was a little out; maybe I’d use an amp, maybe not. Now I treat each session with a little ritual. I get all of the resources I need ready (tabs, theory books, plectrums) and I tune up. I then make sure the tuning is settled by jamming for a minute or two, and then retuning again. Finally, I make sure the vibe is good and I’m in a comfortable environment in which I want to play. It might sound a bit anal, but I really find it helps to get your head in the zone.
Get Rid of your Phone
As a final part of this, I put my phone on airplane mode. I can’t stress this enough. Phones are both very distracting and also addictive. Prior to practicing like I’m in the military, my old practice routine went something like this:
- Start to learn a song
- Find it difficult
- Check my phone and respond to a whatsapp
- Try to learn the difficult part of the song again
- Check Instagram
- Remain on Instagram for the next 30 minutes
- Get frustrated that I’d just watched 30 minutes of inane sh*te on Instagram
Crucially, I never worked through the pain of the parts I struggled to learn and so I never learnt them. The hour I spent with my guitar translated into 15 minutes of playing and 45 minutes of time wasting.
Practice, Don’t Play
Playing and practicing are not the same thing. I lost a few years of potential development by putting too much emphasis on playing but not on practicing. I’d pick up my guitar and just noodle around on it, running through my favourite songs. The time I spent with the guitar wasn’t focused so I inevitably ended up in a rut – always playing the same material. This wasn’t wasted time; many elements of my playing stepped on and in particular my vibrato, improvisation and general soloing style greatly improved.
The problem with this approach though, is that it’s very easy to re-tread the same old ground. You noodle around playing your favourite 4 or 5 songs and before you know it, 5 years have passed and you’re still playing the same 5 songs.
I try and think of practice as a chance to develop as a player; to learn something new and challenge myself. It should feel difficult and at times it will be frustrating, but also very rewarding. Playing to me is just about enjoying the guitar. It’s a time to play whatever you fancy and you don’t need to go into it with a clear focus.
Become a Lone Wolf
The one inescapable reality of practice, is that it is a solitary affair. Unless you’re lucky enough to live with a fellow guitarist, you will have to practice by yourself.
Upon starting my more structured practice regime, this was something with which I struggled. I live with a close friend and it feels anti-social to lock myself away and practice when I get home. If you live with a partner or have a family, then this feeling is going to be more acute.
On this I would say two things:
Firstly, try not to overthink it too much. If you’re passionate about the guitar, your friends and family will want to support you. They’ll understand if you need to put a bit of time into it. If they don’t (which hopefully isn’t the case!) – or if you have too many responsibilities, then do your practice when it has the least impact on those around you.
My Dad used to be a very competitive long-distance runner. This demands a lot of miles and hours out on the road. Rather than run in the evening (when we were home from school) he would go at 5am. It sounds intense, because it is. But if you really care about something, you have to make compromises and find the time. You can’t expect that time to just appear in your day.
Embrace the Zen
Secondly, there are benefits to practicing during a time that is anti-social. Most notably, practice will help you to ‘decompress’. If you actually turn your phone off, remove distractions and focus only on the guitar, you will relax. For me, it’s almost like a form of meditation. It really helps me switch off and transition from work mode into Zen Buddhist mode (or at least get a little closer to it). I may physically be absent and isolated for 30-60 minutes but then when I do go and chat and socialise with my flatmate, I’m more relaxed and much more ‘present’.
I’m not in that awful screen saver mode where the lights are on but I’m a million miles away, worrying about some inconsequential email or tomorrow’s to do list. I hate this more than anything – being physically present but mentally absent. Guitar playing gets my head back in the game and I am sure it will do the same for others. In other words – practice will not only make you a badass guitar player; it’ll also make you happier and a nicer person to be around.
So, get cracking guys! Good luck and let me know how you get on in the comments!