The key to reaching a long-term goal lies in a succession of smaller, short-term achievements. A practice plan not only provides you with the gratification of these smaller achievements, it helps you to move forward on those days when you’re feeling uninspired or unfocused and therefore unable to decide what (or if!) to play. A well thought out and wisely structured plan has the added benefit of making your learning process highly efficient, giving you the highest return on your investment.
Warming up is essential for the mind as well as the body. It is imperative that you pay attention to your body and use it wisely when you play. Use the tips and exercises that I show in my guitar instruction video, Comprehensive Guitar Instruction, to take care of your body and obtain the best sound. The technical exercises you play will vary as you progress, but regardless of the exercises you use, warm-up is not the time to practice speed, but rather to tune in to your body and your sound. Start with small, simple exercises and progress to scales and arpeggios, using the metronome to regulate your tempo. (Here‘s the page on using the metronome. a 21-minute, downloadable video lesson on metronome use is available here.)
Having warmed up for 5 -10 minutes, you are ready to begin playing music. Although most people are anxious to get to their songs, some prolong playing technical exercises in the belief that extensive mechanical work will accelerate their progress. Although that might be true for specific areas of playing, know that in general, you will best learn to play music by playing music!
If you read standard musical notation, an ideal time to practice sight reading is after you have warmed up and before you begin your less cerebral work. Choose music that is within your ability to perform perfectly on the first or second playing. (Detailed instructions for this can be found in the “Learning Tactics” section of the guitar instruction video, Comprehensive Guitar Instruction.) Playing at finished tempo is not necessary, but do strive for accuracy. Be sure to work with a variety of time signatures, keys and, when you are ready, positions. Use more difficult selections to practice rhythm reading by clapping out the rhythm as you count out loud. Finish this portion of your practice by reading some charts, using your choice of right hand techniques.
This is the point at which you are ready to play the music that you’re the most excited about. In fact, if the music you are spending the most time and energy on is not exciting to you, you might want to make some changes in your approach. Listen to a wide variety of music, notice what inspires you and begin incorporating it into your practice time.
You may devote this entire portion of your practice time to working on a single lick or small passage or you might begin something new or polish a piece you’ve previously learned. If you have time, you might work on a number of pieces or even a whole set. Just be sure you have a goal and you are able to hear improvement from your time spent, even if the progress is small. It is far more gratifying and efficient to perfect a few measures than to run through a lot of material with no noticeable benefit.
Speed up your progress by taking small bits, going slowly, and staying with it. Although it’s tempting to move on once you can play a difficult part correctly, resist that temptation and stay with it until the part becomes natural and fluid. Keep it slow enough so that most, if not all of your repetitions are played correctly. (The metronome will help with this). Continue your repetitions until you feel that when you pick up your guitar again, your mental picture will be clear and your muscle memory in tact.
In other words, think of your practice of something new or challenging as beginning at the point that you can play it correctly. Use the practice to ingrain the new passage or technique. Try to throw away any expectations about how long this will take and just stay with it as long as it takes. Remember – in order for this approach to be effective, you must go slowly and make any increases in tempo gradual.
Enjoy yourself! After you’ve met your goal, spend some time discovering new sounds or remembering old tunes. You can play for hours without fatigue or injury if you will follow the tips in the video and remember to take breaks, relax, stretch, and breathe!
Go to Guitar Practice Part 1 for ideas about discipline and attention in practice. Also, check out A Guide to Efficient Practice for more tips and troubleshooting.
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