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Practice Guitar More Efficiently

Updated on January 6, 2014

A story that is all too familiar

Finding some free time in your day, you sit down to work on a piece of music. You take out your guitar, sit on your bed, and go to work. 30 seconds in, you figure you should tune, so you stop practicing to do just that. Upon resuming practice, you find something to mark in the music, but you can't find your pencil. After ten minutes of rummaging around for a writing utensil, you are finally ready to work through that music. But soon you get tired of sitting on the bed, so you go find a chair. Now you need a place for your music, so you search for your music stand and take the time to set that up (or you spend even more time trying to find ways to prop that music up because you don't have/can't find your stand. Now you've spent 20 minutes getting everything together, and you only have 10 minutes left to practice. You decide instead to "practice your improvisational technique" and spend the remaining time picking out melodies and otherwise playing "nothing" on your guitar.

Does this story sound familiar? Many times we sit down to practice and end up doing nothing for a half hour. Sometimes, even when we do actually practice, when we go to play the next day it seems that we have forgotten everything we did in our practice session! It's frustrating, and to be quite honest, it can make you want to throw your hands up in the air and quit.

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How can we make the most of our valuable time? How can we retain what happens during our practice sessions, so we don't keep practicing the same things every day? Well, I've been playing guitar for over 11 years now, and I have discovered a few tricks along the way....

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1. Get organized!

The biggest killer of practice time is a messy practice space. Keep your space clean, and ready to go. There are a few ways you can accomplish this, most of which require little effort on your part.

  • Designate a practice area

It can be a corner of a room, or a separate room entirely. It doesn't really matter, as long as it's your "practice area." This is more of a psychological way of getting organized. When you just practice wherever you feel like it, you will find yourself getting distracted easily. If you designate an actual space that is just for your practicing, you allow yourself to become more focused. It's the same reason people who work from home still get dressed in the morning; you need to separate yourself from lounging around for the task at hand.

  • Designate a practice time

Along the same lines as creating a practice space, you also need to schedule practice time in. It doesn't matter when you schedule that time (although it helps if you schedule the same time every day), it just matters that you are scheduling a time to practice each day. This way, you get into the habit of playing each day. You make it a priority. And just like when you schedule something for work, or plan to go to a show or other event, when it comes to practice time you are doing nothing else.

  • Organize your music

Keep your practice material on a shelf or filed neatly in your practice area. You don't want to spend time digging through a pile of papers to find the piece of music you need to practice.

  • Keep all practice materials in your practice space

Keep a couple of pencils on your music stand - that way when you come across something during practice your writing utensil is within arm's reach. Make sure you have a guitar stand next to your chair, along with a tuner. The idea is that anything you might need during practice is within reach, so you don't spend any time looking for things. This way, all of your time is spent playing guitar.

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2. Get comfortable!

Sitting on your bed might be nice for watching a movie or putting on socks, but if you're playing guitar you need more support. A chair with a music stand is preferable and if you can afford it, a foot rest like this is really nice.

The reason for this is simple. When you're on a bed, or the floor, you slouch. This causes a number of things to go wrong, not the least of which is the fact that your wrist is going to have to work harder. Twisting your wrist while slouching cause soreness or injury, not to mention it's just plain hard to get your fingers where they need to be.

Sitting in a chair and using a music stand is also going to be easier on your back. You won't have a tendency to slump forward, and you'll be able to play longer due to no back pain. The music stand will help you to be able to see the music clearly, and you won't strain your eyes or neck trying to see something on the ground or lying flat.

The more comfortable you are, the more effective your practice will be. You'll be less focused on the pain you're feeling and more intent on playing music.

"Block Practice" schedule

Part
Time spent
A
15 minutes
B
15 minutes
C
15 minutes
Total Practice Time:
45 minutes
Figure A - Example of a possible Block Practice schedule

"Interleaving Practice" schedule

Part
Time Spent
A
5 minutes
B
5 minutes
C
5 minutes
A
5 minutes
B
5 minutes
C
5 minutes
A
5 minutes
B
5 minutes
C
5 minutes
Total Practice Time:
45 minutes
Figure B - Example of a possible Interleaving Practice schedule

3. Practice problem spots in small bursts

This is probably the most counter intuitive thing you will read in this article: practice parts of your music in small, 3-5 minute bursts.

We tend to practice the problem areas in our music repeatedly until we get it right (See Figure A). We might spend 15 minutes to a half hour working on 8 measures of music, but at the end of that time we are able to play it flawlessly. However, the next day we have to start over - it seems like we didn't work on it at all!

This is because of the way our brain works. Frankly put, we get bored. When we get bored, we stop processing and learning. The longer we repeat something, the less we pay attention to it. Sure, the muscle memory improves almost immediately. However, the next day we have not put any of that learning into our long term memory. This is because we process better in short bursts - our brains put forth the highest processing power when approached with something new. That processing power decreases the longer we repeat an activity.

So rather than practicing parts in "blocks" (one part every 15-30 minutes), try interleaving the parts together and practicing each one for a short amount of time (See Figure B).

The Benefits of Interleaving Practice

Taking Back Practice

Once we know what we're doing wrong, we can work to fix it. Now that you know a few ways you might be sabotaging your own practice, you have to make the commitment to remedy the situation.

  1. Create a space - designated physical space creates a designated mental space
  2. Schedule your practice - make practicing every day a habit
  3. Get organized - a clean physical space clears the head and avoids distractions
  4. Get comfortable - if you're hurting, you won't want to practice
  5. Use interleaving practice schedules - try it: get rid of "block" practicing and work on the problem areas 3-5 minutes at a time instead of 20 minutes

Now that you've read about it, do it. Go practice!

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