Remember what it was like when you first started playing the guitar and experienced those first doses of success? Everything was so exciting and new and you just wanted to play, constantly! You didn’t need to be taught how to practice. You already knew. You played simply because you loved the instrument and the sounds it made. However, at some point - and I know every player will corroborate - the relationship takes an unexpected turn. The once blossoming, idyllic, love affair begins to fade. A transformation occurs; one where practicing becomes a chore. Why does this happen? And when it does, how do we find our way back to the original inspiration and joy?
Over the course of some twenty odd years as a guitar instructor, one of the main recurring questions I hear from students is, “How do you practice?” Usually, this question is indicative of some larger underlying issue; a student’s temporary loss of direction (motivation) due to a plateau being hit (stalled progress). The “you” in this question is really “I”. And they are looking for a way out of a rut; a how-to guide plus more, because they understand the bottom line: If you don’t practice, you won’t get better, and the rut will deepen.
As guitar players, falling into a rut is a condition we all face sooner or later. We approach a breaking point of tedium, where everything sounds the same, and lack of motivation rules the day. The good news is the remedy to such a condition exists in simply modifying a few elements of, or approaches to, your practice routine. In this article I will answer the “How do you practice?” question by laying out five of my own philosophical and pragmatic strategies that I have used over the years, and still use, to great effect in helping me find my way again; out of my own ruts back to inspired practice. They can help you too.
Now, I am not pretending to impart any ancient-secret wisdom here, as I am certain countless teachers have similar advice and will have plenty to add to this enduring and crucial topic. It is simply my hope that I offer a new, or at least refreshing, perspective and that my personal insights - based on years of experience and observations – that will show you, the student, how to merely redirect and refocus your efforts, to help push you over the fundamental obstacle that is inhibiting your progress; the inability to practice. So, how do you practice? Allow me…
Make a Plan – Before you even pick up your guitar, create a few clearly defined goals that you want to accomplish. Perhaps you will focus on a specific set of tunes, a single tune, or a section, no matter, just keep the goals simple and direct. Do not make a time commitment, only plan for accomplishment. Work in short bursts and take breaks. A lot can be accomplished in such frequent, focused, and short sessions. This strategy helps to ward off tedium and to rebuild momentum.
Just Start – Feeling so burned out that you can’t come up with a plan? Well, then just start playing. Play something you are comfortable with whether it is your favorite piece or chord progression, a familiar picking pattern, scales, whatever, just something that is easy and will get you playing in an unthinking manner. Forget about goals. Be patient and allow yourself to settle into a groove. This exercise will get your hands and mind in tune, warmed up, and put you in the zone so to speak. You’ll be surprised by where you land and where you will want to go next.
Change Course – Stop working on your current projects and try something new. Explore some new repertoire, new chords, new techniques, new tunings, a new musical genre, even a new guitar. All of these changes will force you into new territory. You will learn, you will expand your horizons, you will revitalize your older material, and you will be inspired to practice.
Just Don’t Practice – Sometimes the best way to practice is to not practice. This strategy is more of a meditation. I call it hands free practice. Take a break. Take a walk. Find some other prolonged alone time to review your technique, rehearse some pieces, or try to solve some particularly difficult passages; using only your mind. Try to see and hear all of the details. You’ll be surprised how much clarity will be added to your playing the next time you pick up your guitar.
Return to the Beginning – Sometimes it is necessary to come full circle as a player in order to move ahead. As you become a more advanced guitarist, progress becomes harder to detect. What used to be easy giant steps become more demanding smaller steps, and that perceived lack of progress can be a source of frustration. This is the time to take a look at what you have accomplished so far. This is the time to revisit some original sources of inspiration. This is the time to remember why you play the guitar in the first place. Remember what you love about the instrument. Recall those early feelings of exhilaration, excitement, and joy. Take the time to appreciate the freedom and the limitless possibilities of expression. Remember the joy.