Guitar Practise The Right Way - Part 1

It is my firm belief that anyone should be able learn to play the guitar well, the caveat being that they practise well.

Students (or their parents) will often ask me when they start learning “How long should I practise for?”. You may think the answer to this is simple. However, it is not a simple question. Each student will have a unique set of circumstances, which may dictate how long they should practise for. These may be time constraints imposed by family or work life; the level at which they are studying; natural ability and aptitude; and numerous other factors.

What is Practise?

Before considering how long to spend practising though, we should first consider what it means to practise.

According to the Oxford English dictionary to ‘practise’ is defined as:

                “Perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it”

The key ideas here are that of ‘repetition’ and ‘regularity’. The action of practising, then, requires the regular repetition of some form of activity or exercise.

Playing the guitar is very much a physical skill (though there are mental aspects, but that would be a discussion for another time), and like any physical skill, we improve by allowing the muscles within our body to repeat a particular movement or action over time - consciously, consistently, correctly and slowly. Those four words are extremely important. It is no use to rush an exercise, this will likely lead to errors. Without deliberate, conscious, focus on what we are doing the meaning of the practise will be lost. The practice must be consistent – it is no help to practise an exercise ten different ways if we are trying to allow our fingers to learn a movement through repetition. And by practising correctly we can ensure that we minimise mistakes and problems in the future.

How to Practise

So now we know what it means to practise, how should we go about practising?

Let’s take the example of practising a page of music or tab.

Many people may approach this by simple playing through the page repeatedly from start to finish with the hope, or expectation, that it will slowly improve over time. After all, practise is about repetition, right? Wrong. Repetition is part of the equation, but it must be done correctly. Remember back to those four words: consciously, consistently, correctly and slowly. We need to make sure we are following each of those principles. By playing the page through from start to finish it is very difficult for us to focus or be deliberate about what we are trying to achieve. Let’s say we keep messing up in bar 15, playing through the rest of the page is not going to help us improve bar 15 - so we should look at the music in bar 15. What is causing the problem? Is it the fingering of the notes? The movement of the hand from the section before? Or perhaps a technique we haven’t quite mastered yet? Once we have analysed and identified the problem we can then set about trying to solve it in a focused and deliberate way.

Let’s say it’s a hand movement that is causing the problem. We now need to look at how our hand is moving and identify the correct way it should be moving. We can then start practising by repeating that correct movement, starting slowly of course, all the time remaining focused to ensure that we keep each repetition consistent, whilst also monitoring to determine whether or not our new practise is helping to improve the music. If it is not, we need to analyse again and change our method accordingly.

How long should we repeat this practise for? That depends on how long our mind can stay focused on the task. Maybe just 10 minutes, maybe 30 or more, maybe an hour. The important thing to remember is that as soon as our focus is lost, the exercise ceases to be beneficial.

And so, this brings me back to the original question: “How long should I practise for?”

The length of practise should be determined by how long you can remain focused for. It would be better to spend 10 minutes practising in a fully focused way, than an hour spent mindlessly repeating a whole page of music over and over again.

For beginners, it may be better to try and keep practise sessions short, no more than ten minutes. It can take time to train the mind to focus for greater lengths of time. You wouldn’t start training for a marathon by running a full 26 miles on day one, so don’t expect that you should be able to sit for hours on end and remain fully focussed on your practise either. The more time you play and practise, the longer you will be able to sit for. To begin with, remember short and often is best.

In the next post, I will discuss barriers to practise and how we can overcome them. In the meantime, I hope you found this article useful and interesting.