A Guide to Efficient Practice

Getting the most out of your practice sessions is as simple as knowing and following a few time-tested principles. Once you establish good learning habits, every practice session will become easier and more productive!

Start by choosing a small bit to learn and practice, such as a scale, arpeggio or part of a song you are working on. If you choose to learn a song segment, it should be no longer than 4 measures.

First, play the small bit slowly and with attention, making sure that you are clear on the notes and fingerings. Then, determine a tempo at which you can play the segment correctly, while still feeling slightly challenged.

Before you begin your repetitions, commit to disallowing all distractions, most importantly those coming from your own mind. In order to enjoy efficient and productive practice, you must refuse to indulge in mental chatter of any kind. Your inner judge is simply not allowed to participate in your practice session!

Once you have made or renewed your commitment to complete focus, take a deep, slow breath and begin playing the segment repeatedly and non-stop, like a loop. When you make a mistake, mentally let it go and keep playing. Maintain your focus, observe a steady rhythm and keep your fingers moving, regardless of where they land. If your inner judge shows up, treat it as an unwanted guest who doesn’t deserve your attention. Ignore it!

Pitfalls and Solutions

One of the hardest things about this approach for most people is the fear of ingraining incorrect information or technique. It’s true that it’s important to avoid practicing mistakes, and I constantly warn against doing so – but it’s also important to learn how to keep moving and honor the music as a whole. How do you determine when to keep going and when to stop?

Ideally, you will have a trustworthy teacher who can point out when it’s best to dismiss mistakes and when you really need to stop and fix them. (If you don’t have a teacher you trust to do this or if you are not in a position to take regular lessons, I will be happy to help you, either regularly or on an as-needed basis.) You can, however, make a lot of good decisions on your own, by following a few guidelines:

Never play through pain  (unless it’s tenderness in your fingertips!) and make sure that you maintain good posture and technique at all times. If you are struggling with any of these issues, take the time to resolve them before moving on.

Be sure that you are clear about where and how you want to place your fingers before beginning your repetitions.  you should also be able to correctly hear in your head the piece you will be practicing.

If the entire segment is sloppy and riddled with mistakes, slow down!

If you make the same mistake three times in a row, stop and correct it, before it becomes a chronic issue.  Practice the problematic part separately from the rest of the piece or segment. ( Practice it slowly and in a non-stop loop, of course!) When you are able to play it accurately, gradually increase the tempo until you have reached or surpassed the tempo at which you are comfortable playing the rest of the piece or segment.  It’s a good idea to over-practice a problem spot before reinserting it.

If your tempo or time feel is off, stop and either listen to a recording or listen in your head to the timing as you want to play it.  Sing or clap that timing until you can really feel it and then begin practicing your loops again.


The Next Day

After warming up, begin your practice with the work that you did in your previous practice session. Perform a mental review before you pick up your guitar, including hearing it in your head.

When you are satisfied with the previous day’s work, choose another segment and follow the same procedure for learning it – one small bit, slowly, thoughtfully and with sufficient repetitions.

For more help with practice, check out Guitar Practice, Part 1 and Part 2 and check out this blog post.



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