Getting The Most Out Of Your Practice Session

"Practicing" is by far the most misunderstood term in music. Far too few people really understand what practice is for, and how to optimize the time you have to garner the greatest results.

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"Did you PRACTICE this week?"
"Gee, I think that section could use a little more PRACTICE."
"No, you can't go out with your friends, not until you've PRACTICED."
"We didn't buy you that guitar for it to collect dust. Go PRACTICE."

Noticing a common trend here? Yup, this is all about practice. I've noticed a rather interesting trend in my fellow musicians, even some of my Conservatory-educated, actively gigging musicians. A lot of them, far too many of them, in fact, don't know how to practice. Some of them don't even really know what "practice" is. Do you? Maybe we should find out.

My first year at college, I learned a whole lot about what "practice" was. In fact, I had several major epiphanies about what practice was, and how to manage my practice time to get the best results.

Epiphany #1

Practicing is different than performing. Practice is different than "playing." Playing you do for fun. Practice is work.

Epiphany #2 

Quantity does not equal quality in the practice room. Not by a long shot.

Epiphany #3

Practicing is a whole lot like working out.

Oh, there were several more, and we'll hit on them, but those are the big ones, and the ones we need to think about the most, and by doing these big things, the little ones will fall into place.

Number 1, Practicing is different than performing. You have to divorce the two. When you hold yourself to some ridiculous standard in which you can't make mistakes, you're never going to get better. Practicing is where you make yourself a better musician. You practice the right ways to do things, so that you can eventually transfer them into your performance. The two don't have to happen simultaneously. For example, say I notice that my fingers don't curve over the fretboard, and I'm fretting with the flat of my finger instead of the tip. Great! I have something to work at. While I PRACTICE, I can work hard to make sure my fingers don't flatten out. Does this mean I'm going to make more mistakes? Probably. You have to be patient with yourself. Sometimes you'll make major changes to the way you play, and it's going to feel like you're learning your instrument all over again. In the practice room, this is fine. You're allowed to make the mistakes, you're allowed to sound terrible, as long as you're getting something out of it, and focusing on the correct technique. Its more about the process than the results.

However, until I've mastered the art of playing with my fingers arched, I'm certainly not going to take that out into my performance. Performing is where you make your money, you have to be on your game. There, we focus more on results than process. If I have to play with my fingers flat, so be it. Its okay for now. Eventually, through correct practice, we'll phase that bad habit out, and we'll end up playing the correct way, which will make us a better player. But until then, we've got a livelihood to maintain, and we can't afford to become worse trying to get better.

To summarize, in the practice room, process > results. We focus on the right WAY to play things, not necessarily on playing the right THINGS. Of course, when we make a mistake, we correct it, but we embrace that mistake as part of the learning process. In performance, however results > process. Play the right notes, in the way that currently sounds the best. Over time, we'll continue to enforce correct technique, and it'll appear in our performance, but until then, just play.

This is where the second part of Epiphany #1 comes in. When you practice, you practice with a distinct goal in mind. You have to find the problems in your playing, and correct them. You can't just continually play. If I just "play" my lit in the practice room, then I've probably continued to make the same mistakes I made in performance, and I'm continuing to reinforce bad habits. Remember, we emphasize the process. What's WRONG with what I'm playing? How can I fix my mistakes? What exercises can I do to fix the problems? Again, this has nothing to do with performance. In performance, we just play. When we practice, we troubleshoot.

Number 2: Quality over quantity. I hear so many people complain about their practicing, "Dude, I practice 4 hours a day but I'm not getting any better!" Well, good for you for being dedicated. But I would bet you're not really PRACTICING four hours a day. When you practice, you have to focus. And I mean FOCUS. No distractions. No TV, no visitors. No food. No computer. Getting the point? When I practice at school, I like to go into the smallest practice room possible, face away from the window, and turn off my phone, or at least put it on silent. The more time I have with just me and my horn, the more I'm gonna get accomplished.

Once you've isolated yourself to the point at which you can focus, you have to think about what exactly you're doing in the practice room. Here's how my practice session works.

1. Warm Up 15-20 minutes.
2. Technique: Things I can't do 15 minutes
Things I can do but would like to do better. 15 minutes.
3. Etude #1 10-15 minutes.
Etude #2 10-15 minutes.
etc.
4. Literature, piece 1 20-30 minutes.
piece 2 20-30 minutes.
etc.
5. Cool Down 10-15 minutes.
Notice, I've compartmentalized, micromanaged, and detailed my practice time. And what's most important, I've timed it. And make no mistake, those numbers aren't vague. I literally set an egg timer, and when it goes off, its off, and I'm done. If I'm in the middle of a rep, I'll finish the thought, but that's it. Don't keep going. You have to force yourself to keep to the schedule. Because I know me, if I don't force myself to stop, I'll beat my head against the same wall for 2 and a half hours and not get any better, plus I've just affected the time I can spend on everything else. Now, what I haven't put on here is the real nitty gritty details of what I need to do. Why am I playing Etude #1? What's it for? What should I focus on, what's it going to make me do better? What's wrong with my lit piece #2? What should I try to fix?

** Please note that the practice schedule there is for an entire day. Nothing says you have to do all of this at once. Note that you only need to warm up once per day. You only need to cool down once per day. If my first practice of the day is at 8:30, I'm going to give that 8:30 slot the full warm up. If I go again at 2, I might play a few notes, but I don't need to spend the time to completely re-warm up. Its unnecessary.

Epiphany #3, Practicing is like working out. Am I going to get more out of working out once a week for 2 hours, or every day for 30 minutes? The second one, of course. Usually, if you practice every day for a little, you'll end up racking up more time over the week than if you go for one long chunk. Plus, in those little bursts, you'll be more focused, and you'll get more done.

Parallel number two: If I'm working out with the wrong technique, is it going to be as effective? Of course not. If I do crunches, but I use my back muscles, then of course my abs aren't going to get more toned. If I practice my left thumb placement, but let it slide into the wrong place, well then its not going to get any better. Emphasize the correct technique. It's a pain the butt now, but its going to yield faster and more noticeable results.

Parallel number three: They're both hard, and they both take a lot of willpower to stick to. If I want to lose weight, I have to keep forcing myself to the gym, and I have to keep pushing myself. If I want to play better, I have to keep forcing myself into the practice room, and I have to constantly listen and be vigilant to make sure I'm not letting myself cheat. You won't do yourself any good by giving up. It's easier, but not better.

So, that covers the three main things you need to know about practicing. But wait! There's more! Here are some additional quick little tips for more effective practice.

1. Find yourself a regular place to practice. If you use the same spot over and over again, your mind will subconsciously adjust and be more alert and better focused at that spot, meaning more effective practice.

2. When introducing yourself to a new technique, really strive to get it right the first time. Once you have it right, ALWAYS force yourself to play it the exact same way every time. No steps backward, always forward.

3. Know what you're after. Ultimately, what do you want to sound like? Always practice with that ideal in mind, and constantly strive to get closer to it.

4. If you're one of those who is difficult to motivate, find a practice buddy. It really helps to have somebody to push you to keep going. Keep yourselves honest, don't let the other slip.

5. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, fuzzy, or whatever, take 5. Stop the clock, walk around, drink some water, shake it out. Then come back fresh.

Well, there you go. The crash course to effective practice. Hope it helps, and, for goodness sake, GO PRACTICE!

Good Luck!
-John

39 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Perfection 101
    Great article, but I feel compelled to point out this line...
    The more time I have with just me and my horn, the more I'm gonna get accomplished
    Ore4444
    Practice is one of the most important things on the guitar. But it was more important to this lesson's author to convince the reader that it's important than to talk about how it get's done. Maye it's good for some people, but for me (I know that practice is important) it was too off-the point. The lesson could really be about fourth the size and then it would be an interesting read.
    Clabbe
    Sounds like a good thing, i'm gonna try it out. With a few modifications. Really good actually !
    Gabriel_54
    Thanks for this informative and well-informed post, your experience and knowledge is very helpful.
    Kid Ares
    I really like this lesson i've been on guitar for about 3-4 months and i find this a good guideline on how my practice should be
    GibsonGeorge
    I completely agree with everything in this article. First practice focused , then go out and have fun on stage.
    RockRolla
    Great lesson,made me realize that alot of my "practice" time I spend playing the things I can already play well.I need to practice the things that I can't play well even though they sound bad at first.
    RawalKhan-
    John, thanks so much for writing this article. I'm sure it'll help develop better musicians.
    Axe56
    just what I needed to get a good practice schedule going. many thanks for the clarity this was written in
    Midnightqueenz9
    thank you for this! Ive been playing for 2 years and i realized i know the basics but i havent been improving in months! Now i see the errors that ive done. I have to slow down and take it one step at a time. thanks!
    ApatheticMe
    Guitar is supposed to be fun...It's the only fun thing I get to do so I'm not going to turn it into a chore. When you practice like this you're focusing on the destination not the journey...There are some strong points in here and some good ideas but when I practice like this I have no fun and have to ask myself why I am playing guitar in the first place...and it's not to be the best or to impress people its for me to have the time of my life doing something I love...It was a very well written lesson and I'm sure it would work. It's just not for me...10/10
    monobrow7
    what stuff would people practice for that below? kinda new.
    3. Etude #1 10-15 minutes. Etude #2 10-15 minutes. etc. 4. Literature, piece 1 20-30 minutes. piece 2 20-30 minutes.
    andreirosete
    me i dont time my practice i just stop whenever i feel like ive done everything and for me i do guitar exercises last and some etude first coz im not getting better if i do exercises first i get bored thats why i do solos and songs first
    gnomegod
    Everything in this lesson is fantastic man! the only thing i have to disagree with is warming up. If my first practice session is 9am and i cant get another one till 8pm, its hard to just hop back on. warming up allows yourself to re adjust to the instrument at least. i mean like 10 mins tops though lol
    MelodicSlap
    Practicing??? thats fun... no great guitarist force themselve to practice music should only be a career if you already play 5 hours a day.... I simply think why? to get better? why?
    theokwilderbeas
    Interesting, but i really don't like the idea of having a schedule, i think that can ruin the fun for a lot of people.
    NapalmNewt
    This article has fantastic information and is well written to boot. Thank you for your sensible insights on practicing!
    jslick07
    A Rhino wrote: I stopped reading this after the epiphanies and scrolled down occasionally glancing at some lines... practice shouldn't be a chore, so practice is no different than fun.
    I disagree. I think playing tennis is fun. But hitting a bunch of forehands against a wall (practice) notsomuch fun. However, I know that if I put in the WORK (practice) and hit those forehands, it's going to make me a better tennis player, which makes playing tennis more fun. I love playing my horn. Its a lot of fun to me. Playing a measure over and over again for 15 minutes until its perfect? I don't think that's very fun. The end result, however, being able to play that part flawlessly, is a lot of fun. I think many people confuse the end result (being a better player) with the actual work. Sometimes, the work sucks. But you do it to be a better player, which is more fun than being mediocre.
    wilmearz
    really good article, thanks man! Most helpful part imo was "When you hold yourself to some ridiculous standard in which you can't make mistakes, you're never going to get better." very true.
    GQ9999
    Awesome! I've had similar epiphanies recently. I've been "playing" guitar for 15 years and probably "practiced" only for the first few years (and here and there over the years). I've recently committed myself to developing my play by learning new things and really "practicing" as you've described in your article. I've done lots of thinking about what really practicing is and you've literally capture all my scattered thoughts in a well organized and solid article. A "blueprint" of "practicing".
    artimus
    Man, this article really opened up my eyes! thanks alot hopefully this will inspire alot of young guitarist's to "actually practice" and not just play, messing around in the same old rut for months/ years Great lesson Dude !!
    A Rhino
    I stopped reading this after the epiphanies and scrolled down occasionally glancing at some lines... practice shouldn't be a chore, so practice is no different than fun. of course if you are not disciplined enough and just mess around then ye you need a plan. but otherwise just try lots of different stuff. but I guess it's different for everyone. Vai practiced like stated here every day but Gilbert, Satriani and Van Halen just did what they felt like
    SpeedLives
    "No TV" i find it useful to turn on a movie and run up and down a new scale/excersize nonstop for 2 hours, cause it makes it go faster and more importantly teaches my hands to memorize, and not my head. but if i were to have a listed schedule like yours, it would be more like this day 1:excersize 1 day 2:excersize 2 day 3:theory etc... i prefer to do focus on just 1 thing at a time though, because then i can reap the benefit of it sooner. other then that =)
    Azhark
    Good lesson, but I knew the most of it already If you're trying to learn classical guitar you need lots of disipline, and then this article are great to read.
    pacsabbath25
    practice should be fun if it isn't fun practicing guitar then what the hell are u doing playing the guitar
    2mins2midnite
    haha my parents tell me to reduce practising and do some house work lol i love that 6 stringer
    SylvaShredder
    pacsabbath25 wrote: practice should be fun if it isn't fun practicing guitar then what the hell are u doing playing the guitar
    You said PLAYING the guitar. "Practicing is different than performing. Practice is different than "playing." Playing you do for fun. Practice is work." He didn't say work wasn't fun did he? Just let yourself have fun with your work. Don't argue, this man speaks the truth. I assume he's a horn player by a couple of his references, and I've found that horn players know how to practice MUCH better than us guitarists. I've played guitar for a long time, and recently I've joined marching band and played baritone and bass drum. It's been an eye opening experience. But I've also found a lot of wind players don't know how let loose and just play, but whatever, at least they know how to get to where they want to go musically. Anyways, enough rambling. Great article, hopefully readers here won't completely reject this just because 'all they do is want to have fun'. Don't be silly, there's more than one way to have fun!
    WOODY_B
    Thanks for writing this its a really great article, i found out i need to practice a little bit differently
    fnmpm
    A Rhino wrote: I stopped reading this after the epiphanies and scrolled down occasionally glancing at some lines... practice shouldn't be a chore, so practice is no different than fun. of course if you are not disciplined enough and just mess around then ye you need a plan. but otherwise just try lots of different stuff. but I guess it's different for everyone. Vai practiced like stated here every day but Gilbert, Satriani and Van Halen just did what they felt like
    I don't know about Satch, but Gilbert advocates practicing licks and songs in this manner online, you can find it on youtube. Also, Van Halen has stated that while his brother used to go party, he'd stay home and practice. So obviously, they didn't just do whatever they wanted, they had their own practice regiments. Props on the article, its one of the best I've read. However, It would help to add some examples of etudes/literature/etc to help the beginner. I should get on the practice bandwagon :-P
    mrbeetham
    great article. I practised a lot the first couple of years, but since then ive stagnated through just "playing" pretty much the same thing in the same way. Im still getting better but very slowly, im gona start doing some real practise.
    JMeasles
    Great article thanks for posting. It's easier said than done that's for sure. Just got to get focused.
    SlayerXX33398
    This lesson didn't help me realize I was placing roadblocks. To be honest, I've been playing 3 years, and for the past few months, I've been searching for something like this, because I could tell I was doing wrong. Granted, there's no way to do art a wrong way, but if you're habits are hindering you're playing, it'll lead to problems down the road. Five stars on this lesson, this is EXACTLY what I needed!