Mindless Exercises

Mindless exercises... to practice or not to practice? That is not the question.

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Mindless exercises... to practice or not to practice? That is not the question. Below is an email exchange between a young guitar player and myself:

TomI have been practicing boring mindless exercises for almost a year now, yet it does nothing for me. I can do little with what I've practiced. The same thing over and over again, my skills are not strong enough to rely on it when it really matters. I mean, I can't justify my spent time, energy and sanity if I'm only to spin my wheels - I am not getting anywhere. I hoped to experience something more from my labor. My fingers bleed but the playing does not flow. Out of boredom and desire, my fingers practice relentlessly as I only think about how desperately I wish to become a great guitar player. Please allow me to ask you something - Did you have to practice such mindless exercises to reach the level of musicianship you have achieved? And if your answer is yes, did you also experience something similar as I?...

The following is an edited excerpt of my reply to him:

Mike, .Concerning both your mindset and the term mindless exercises, there is no such thing as a mindless exercise, only mindless mindsets exist. Even if you are concentrating on making a single movement or playing a single note, there is nothing mindless about that unless you choose to allow it to be mindless. Exercises of any kind should never be mindless, if they are, it only means that you are not mentally focused on while practicing. Often times we can become bored while repeating tedious tasks. It can be quite difficult to sustain concentration on that which is simple. Think about exactly what you are trying to achieve while practicing anything. Is it your intention to merely exercise the physical muscles in your hands? If that's all we care about while practicing, the result will not be very good. What we need to do is train our hands to perform whatever tasks we command them to do. The important part of that phrase is: whatever tasks we Command them to do. Your mind and your hands must work together. Exercises are never for the hands alone.

You wrote to me that your skills are not strong enough to rely upon. The key word here is rely. After all the time you have invested, your hands are probably in pretty good shape. Your skills are not reliable because you have not practiced the most important part, the synchronization between mind and body. Reliable consistency in your ability to play well depends heavily upon this synchronization. Your brain and fingers won't learn to work together by accident, you must train them. This only happens under the right conditions of sustained concentration while practicing. It is simply not enough to allow your fingers to go through the motions on autopilot. Let me give you a quick analogy. If you only practiced with your left hand (and neglected to develop your right hand), what would happen? You would be out of balance. Your left hand's skills would be held hostage by the weaknesses of the right hand. What must you do to solve this problem? Develop the right-hand skills AND develop the synchronization between both hands. Skills in isolation are virtually useless in most playing situations. Only when skills are synchronized do they become both effective and reliable.

I believe this issue is the primary reason why you feel you have been simply spinning your wheels despite your hard (physical) work.

My advice to you Mike is to continue practicing what you have been doing, but do so with consistent mental concentration, even while practicing the most simple of things. This is very simple advice, but I think it is the key to this common problem. As with so many other things, simple advice is not always easily implemented. You may find it challenging to remain highly focused for extended periods of time (this is normal for most people), but over time, it will become easier with some self awareness, self discipline and a continuous faith in yourself.

Remember, nothing is mindless.there exist only choices of possible mindsets.

For further reading: check out Tom Hess's instructional web site. Tom Hess's world tour dates are posted here.

Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

38 comments sorted by best / new / date

    kennethdave
    Yeah, point taken...good article for beginners who really never make progress...10 stars...
    JimiShredrix
    Burrito031 pretty much nailed everything i was going to say only better, just skip the article and read his comment.
    mfergel
    Burrito031 wrote:hendrix knew only a handful of theory, but yet his guitar screamed his feelings.
    Actually, that's been debated. It's believed that Hendrix actually knew a lot more about theory than most people think and I'm inclined to believe that. Aside, I always enjoy reading Toms stuff. I don't doubt for a minute that most of his one on one students have turned into some mighty fine guitar players. He seems to have a way of really focusing on key development points.
    Burrito031
    mfergel wrote: Burrito031 wrote:hendrix knew only a handful of theory, but yet his guitar screamed his feelings. Actually, that's been debated. It's believed that Hendrix actually knew a lot more about theory than most people think and I'm inclined to believe that.
    agreed, but the point is, he didnt just mindlessly play scales. his passion for what he did is really hard to find these days. guitar has seemed to morph into a competition, you know, the faster the better; as opposed to what sounds better for the song.
    nikh158
    Something else you can do is to play a song which is just beyond your current ability, or better still if certain parts of the song are difficult. Then play that song over and over until you get it all. Aside from that, my last tutor told me he tutors ten-year-olds that sweep pick perfectly, can play incredibly fast legato all day, but that`s ALL they can do. There`s no emotion, no feeling, just pure speed. And we all know what happens when you play quarter notes at 300bpm without a shred (see what a did there?) of feel or emotion don`t we folks? That`s right, Dragonforce.
    HemlockCocktail
    ...anyone else find it funny that under "Mindless Exercises" that there is an ad giving away a free Book of Mormon?
    NaMeLeSsEviL
    ...anyone else find it funny that under "Mindless Exercises" that there is an ad giving away a free Book of Mormon?
    hahaha hell yeah that's funny!!
    TheSouthernator
    if you/anybody else thinks practicing scales (im assuming thats what he means by mindless exercises) then just learn one of your favorite songs...it can take time but its a lot more exciting (and rewarding) to know a cool song, as well as learn how the really good musicians construct their music
    mucaslooney
    i think what tom said in the article and what some of you are saying in your comments can and should be applied to anything you are doing (especially complex tasks like playing music). I am a placekicker and i like to play golf as well and there are alot of little things you have to do right in order for the swing to work. if you just swing your leg or the club mindlessly, guess what, you are still goinig to suck. Like guitar, you have to really focus on what you are trying to accomplish in each exercise. Good article.
    slash_angus_VH
    nikh158 wrote: Something else you can do is to play a song which is just beyond your current ability, or better still if certain parts of the song are difficult. Then play that song over and over until you get it all. Aside from that, my last tutor told me he tutors ten-year-olds that sweep pick perfectly, can play incredibly fast legato all day, but that`s ALL they can do. There`s no emotion, no feeling, just pure speed. And we all know what happens when you play quarter notes at 300bpm without a shred (see what a did there?) of feel or emotion don`t we folks? That`s right, Dragonforce.
    i laughed so hard when i read that.... and +100000 to Burrito031's comment
    Jak0lantern01
    Funny, I've played guitar for almost 20 years now and learned plenty of songs, but I just started taking lessons again and have to learn plenty of 'mindless' excercises. Let me tell you, these excercises are making me realize I never really knew how to play guitar since they've made my playing better than ever. Learning songs is great, but do you really have any true ability aside from replicating something someone else has already created?
    Burrito031
    Jak0lantern01 wrote: Funny, I've played guitar for almost 20 years now and learned plenty of songs, but I just started taking lessons again and have to learn plenty of 'mindless' excercises. Let me tell you, these excercises are making me realize I never really knew how to play guitar since they've made my playing better than ever. Learning songs is great, but do you really have any true ability aside from replicating something someone else has already created?
    THANK YOU! there are so many talented players that i know, who only play covers, and think they are the best thing since sliced bread! Musicians are hard to rate, how can you say one is better than the other? yeah sure, one has far superior playing ability, but only plays covers, while the other has mediocre ability, but mainly plays their own songs. different musicians have different areas that they are strong in, you know? my opinion stands strong, that you should only play covers until your ability allows you to play the material you want to play. yeah, sure, learn songs you love, of course; but i dont believe you should let covers be at the head of your repertoire, or the highlight of your musical ability. For me, guitar is all about expression, and I don't see how playing covers expresses my emotions. If someone else expresses themselves better through covers, then hey, thats no different than my way of expressing myself!
    Jak0lantern01
    There are definitely plenty of covers that I still am not up to playing yet (solo for Beast and the Harlot anyone? Working on it....), but in my opinion, you really need to know guitar to be good. That goes beyond strictly playing covers. But this isn't about bashing people who play only covers. Unless you have that certain chemistry with the people you are playing with, writing decent original material can be painful. My point in my original post, though, was that you need those excercises to really get good. Reverting back to my comment on the Beast and the Harlot solo, I'm turning that INTO and excercise and breaking it down, since it's such a pain. I don't consider myself especially talented, and I just got into more of a shred style very recently, but it takes a lot of practice to get good. And unless you've trained your fingers the proper coordination with 'mindless' excercises, how can you really be a good player? Unless, of course, you're some kind of ultra-gifted freak.
    Rexbeans
    I would say that knowing how to play covers is only teaching you how to replicate the specifics of that song & if someone asked you to make up a song it would probably just be composed out of bits of others songs.. Exercises ain't everything though i do find it best to vary my practice so i'm doing/learning something new every day..
    The_Preacher
    You know that lesson can be followed for a couple different situations in life. Self awareness, self discipline, and self confidence.. Good advice
    Jack_Sibelius
    people rely on lessons, tabs, theory, all of these thingst to bring them something great. EVERY. SINGLE. ASPECT. relies (not trying to be cheesy) on your heart. seriously, you can get a robot to play sweeps all day long at 10000bpm, but what is the point if it doesn't MEAN anything? dont just practice; if you dont feel like playing one day, then dont. find something better to do. 30 mins of enjoyable melody making is about 100x better than one hour of heartless, mindless exercises. am i saying you dont need to practice? no, of course not. but if it isn't a fun or rewarding exercise, then find a better one, because the one at that point in time has no use to you, right? hendrix knew only a handful of theory, but yet his guitar screamed his feelings. that's all its about,feeling. dont "pracitce", PLAY! PLAY PLAY PLAY! once you have the scales down by heart, PLAY YOUR ASS OFF. bottom line is; practicing scales, finger exercises, etc. are only the first baby step, the big and most important step is just playing what you feel.
    that's right man. when you're able to play what you hear inside of you, you're good.
    Atreideslegend
    good advice i guess but how can he achieve this in a literal sense? What are the things that he should practive to synchronize his brain and hands together? Abit more vague than your other articles tom but its still pretty good 7/10
    yblad0
    I find the best thing to do is to improvise with a wide rang of techniques. Improvising effectivly takes both a large amount of pysical and mental dexterity (if you do it in an increasingly complex manner through practise). Whenever you learn a something new from learning a song etc. add it into your improvising.its worked for me
    Burakki
    Good article, that's an aspect of practice that I've also neglected for a long time.
    dougl126
    I believe that there is a point though when you have to move on from those beginning exercises. I've played trumpet for 6 years and been playing guitar for a few. I have to agree that all exercises are important, but repeating the same ones is pointless. After it gets to be second nature you should move on to applying what youve learned.
    KKING911
    Yeah, I reached that point in my practice about a year ago. You just have to keep practicing and think positive. Now I'm the best bass player in my school. (although THAT wasn't very hard seeing as there are only 5 of us)
    Abbott
    I don't believe in Mindless Exercises, every exercise (if you're doing them correctly) helps you in one way or another, most exercises help your fingers build finger strength, or just help your hand recognize certain patterns.
    cameronlj
    I find it easier to practice actually playing songs (looking up tabs or improvising)
    Burrito031
    people rely on lessons, tabs, theory, all of these thingst to bring them something great. EVERY. SINGLE. ASPECT. relies (not trying to be cheesy) on your heart. seriously, you can get a robot to play sweeps all day long at 10000bpm, but what is the point if it doesn't MEAN anything? dont just practice; if you dont feel like playing one day, then dont. find something better to do. 30 mins of enjoyable melody making is about 100x better than one hour of heartless, mindless exercises. am i saying you dont need to practice? no, of course not. but if it isn't a fun or rewarding exercise, then find a better one, because the one at that point in time has no use to you, right? hendrix knew only a handful of theory, but yet his guitar screamed his feelings. that's all its about,feeling. dont "pracitce", PLAY! PLAY PLAY PLAY! once you have the scales down by heart, PLAY YOUR ASS OFF. bottom line is; practicing scales, finger exercises, etc. are only the first baby step, the big and most important step is just playing what you feel.
    Teufel
    Burrito031 wrote: people rely on lessons, tabs, theory, all of these thingst to bring them something great. EVERY. SINGLE. ASPECT. relies (not trying to be cheesy) on your heart. seriously, you can get a robot to play sweeps all day long at 10000bpm, but what is the point if it doesn't MEAN anything? dont just practice; if you dont feel like playing one day, then dont. find something better to do. 30 mins of enjoyable melody making is about 100x better than one hour of heartless, mindless exercises. am i saying you dont need to practice? no, of course not. but if it isn't a fun or rewarding exercise, then find a better one, because the one at that point in time has no use to you, right? hendrix knew only a handful of theory, but yet his guitar screamed his feelings. that's all its about,feeling. dont "pracitce", PLAY! PLAY PLAY PLAY! once you have the scales down by heart, PLAY YOUR ASS OFF. bottom line is; practicing scales, finger exercises, etc. are only the first baby step, the big and most important step is just playing what you feel.
    +35,000
    thrasherboy
    i agree with cameron the more you impravise the better you will be by just knowing the theroy you can use scales to impravise