May 5, 2014

Three Practice Strategies for Serious Guitar Progress

by jim — Categories: Beginner, Being Awesome, Intermediate — Tags: 11 Comments

It’s always satisfying when you find an article or some research that confirms for you that what you’ve been doing is legit.

This has happened to me before with particular techniques (the pinky power chord, for example). But recently I’ve run across a series of excellent articles in a favorite site of mine – The Bulletproof Musician – that lends some credence to drills and practice suggestions I’ve been making to my students for some time.

And make no mistake, having a strong concept of HOW to practice – not just WHAT to practice – is the key to consistent gains in the practice room.

So, in conjunction with The Bulletproof Musician, I’ve put together three basic practice strategies that will help you to make some serious progress in your guitar playing.

These strategies are especially helpful for translating your work in the practice room to the stage or bandstand. But of course, they’re money even if you’re just a hobbyist wanting to be an all-around more awesome guitarist.

Strategy #1 – Practice Deliberately

No matter what you decide to practice, you must do it deliberately. This means no mindless repetition.

You need your reps to build muscle memory, for sure, but they must be thoughtful reps where you pay attention to what is happening and correct mistakes along the way.

If you’ve ever felt like you’ve practiced something over and over and still have serious issues, it could be just this simple: you’re not clearly thinking about what you’re doing. You’re going through the motions.

Here’s a basic deliberate practice approach:
1 – Set a small, manageable goal.
2 – Practice whatever musical elements will help you to meet that goal.
3 – Analyze what’s happening and what isn’t.
4 – Adjust things based on your analysis.
5 – Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4.

Here’s a real-world application of that approach:
1 – The goal is to increase your string bending skill, specifically whole-step bends.
2 – Pick a note on strings 1, 2 or 3 and bend it up a whole step. Pay strict attention to the sound and feel.
3 – Analyze the situation: Did the bend feel solid or out of control? Was it in tune or did it go sharp or flat?
4 – If the bend was out of control, adjust your thumb, your supporting fingers, or whatever you think is the problem. If the bend was out of tune, figure out if you need to give it more strength (for a flat bend) or take a little away (for a sharp bend).
5 – Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4 until you are consistently reaching your goal or have at least made some progress in that direction.

One of the coolest by-products of deliberate practice is it breeds confidence. When you have thoughtfully analyzed and fixed your problem areas, you know how to repeat your movements on command instead of just hoping for the best.

And that’s a beautiful thing. :)

The Bulletproof Musician: Deliberate Practice vs. Mindless Repetition

Strategy #2 – Practice Randomly

We don’t just want practice. We want practice that’s engaging and practice that sticks.

The answer to practice that keep us interested and also encourages retention is random practice, also known as interleaved practice.

Many people think that “practice” means a block of time where we go over one thing continuously. That can certainly be helpful, and if muscle memory is so darn important, then it seems logical that continuous reps will improve this. Sure enough, the reps after a few minutes of “greasing the groove” always seem more polished than the first few we played.

The only problem with using this method exclusively is that it seems to optimize our performance in the practice room right now. Unfortunately it doesn’t always help us to retain that performance level tomorrow or the next day.

This is, according to the article and the research therein, because our brains are wired to focus on change, not on continuous repetition. Randomly moving between a few different techniques, phrases or concepts forces us to restart each task. This trains our brain to reconstruct the action plan for what we need to do every step of the way.

To any performer, this type of practice has an advantage over straight repetition because it mimics the real world of playing music. Our brain is using the “reconstruction” method all the time during the course of a song.

Here’s a chord drill that applies this interleaved practice concept:

1 – Play C as an open chord.
2 – Play C as a root-6 barre chord.
3 – Play C as a root-5 barre chord.
4 – Repeat the open C chord.
5 – Repeat the root-6 barre C.
6 – Repeat the root-5 barre C.

The outcome: We’ve established a deeper understanding of each C chord grip by reconstructing the action plan with every change. The variety keeps us engaged and it also translates well to real-world performance.

The Bulletproof Musician: Interleaved vs. Blocked Practice

Practice Variably

This is another strategy that I love and use regularly in guitar lessons.

Simply stated, instead of practicing your riff, chord progression, or even whole song one way, experiment with different approaches. This variable method ensures that you understand what you’re doing at a deep level and can deal with whatever musical curveballs are thrown your way.

There are a number of types of variable practice – sitting vs. standing, louder vs. softer, picked notes vs. slurred notes – which will enhance your performance and deepen your skill set.

But the simplest, and possibly most empowering, example of this type of practice is varying the tempo.

VARYING TEMPOS

It seems natural that we would practice something at the tempo that seems “correct”, but varying the tempo holds some real hidden benefits.

Slowing the tempo down allows you to get “inside” the movements and focus on the subtleties of physical technique. It also gives your brain and eyes extra time to absorb the transitions between movements.

On the other hand, increasing the tempo gradually will develop your top speed. A higher top speed will make any slower playing easier, much like a Ferrari purring along on the highway at 60 mph.

Taking the tempo up also serves to fire up your nervous system, priming it for quick action. This is similar to a type of training in sports called overspeed training, where you are asked to perform at a higher-than-necessary tempo. When you achieve some mastery over the greater tempo, it empowers you both physically and mentally to meet tempo challenges at a moment’s notice.

The Bulletproof Musician: Variable vs. Constant Practice

QUESTION: Are your practice sessions deliberate and focused or more like “anything goes”? Is that method helping or hurting your progress? Leave me a comment below!

11 Comments »

  1. Mark says:

    Hi Jim, I stumbled onto your you tube lessons and boy was i pleasantly surprised..I really like your approach to teaching guitar and find the lessons extremely useful.

  2. jim says:

    Thanks, Mark! Glad you’re enjoying the lessons!

  3. Ian Stings says:

    Precise and up to the point! No strings attached. Kudos from PH !

  4. Thanks sir! ure a legend. 😀

  5. […] are a number of effective practice strategies that I recommend regularly to my students. The three tips I’ve listed below absolutely help […]

  6. Bruce Morehouse says:

    Thanks JB, I’m new at guitar and found this very helpful.

  7. dkrozell says:

    Great reminders. Thanks!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

© 2012 Jim Bowley All rights reserved.
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