8 September 2007

Guitar Practice Is Not Guitar Playing

A mistake I make frequently is trying to do guitar practice too fast. Whenever I'm learning something new I find that it always helps to play it as slowly as possible.

When you start learning something new on the guitar it seems natural to try and play at normal speed. But playing and practicing are not the same thing. If you want to learn effectively then you must know the difference between the two.

Practice vs Playing
Playing the guitar is what you do when you already know a song or have reasonable mastery of a skill. You can usually perform this without thinking too much about it.

Practicing the guitar is what you do to get there. During practice you usually have to think quite hard about what you do.

If you just start playing a new song or skill on the guitar you'll make mistakes. This is because there are too many things to concentrate on and perform consciously. Each time you play wrongly you're teaching your mind and muscles the mistake, instead of teaching them the right movement.

The more you teach mistakes to your mind and muscles the more you'll reinforce their incorrect learning. This only leads to increasing the time required to master the skill or learn the song.

Practice Is About Simplifying

Practicing on the other hand is all about simplifying the learning process so that your guitar practice time is spent effectively. There are two ways to simplify learning:

1. Focus on one thing at a time.

2. Go more slowly, aim for accuracy, not speed.

Focusing on one thing at a time means identifying all the individual movements required for a new guitar skill. For example, to play a new chord change on the guitar's neck you must move five fingers as well as your wrist and arm muscles.

That's a lot for your brain to think about. And that's without worrying about the other hand picking or strumming the guitar at the same time. That's why you make lot's of mistakes or get stuck on one passage when you're learning.

One Thing At A Time
For example, when I'm learning a new chord change I identify the movements I have to make, experiment to find the most comfortable and effective. I think about each finger individually. Where does the finger start from? Where does it arrive on the guitar's neck?

Then I look for the best ways to make the necessary movements. What if I put my first finger down first? Or is it better when I place the second finger first? What is the simplest and smallest movement for each finger and for the whole hand and arm?

I do this without strumming or picking the guitar. I just look for the most effective way to position the hand making the chord. I do this slowly, concentrating on one finger at a time. Gradually, as each movement starts to become easier, I concentrate on other fingers, then on the whole.

I make the movements as slowly as I need so that they are accurate. If I make false movements then I slow down some more until I can make the movement without error. By doing this I reinforce my brain and muscles learning of the correct movement. I don't train them on false movements.

I find that it's most effective to do this kind of practice for short periods and repeat them several times through the day. Just one or two minutes is sufficient. I'll practice for a couple of minutes in the morning, and try to do two or three few minute sessions in the evening. As I master the movements I gradually increase speed, making sure that I don't lose accuracy in the process.

The magical thing is that I seem to get better from one practice session to another. Your unconscious mind works on the new skill even when you're not actively practicing it. That's a real gain in effectiveness when you're pushed for practice time.

Practicing like this might seem strange at first. But you'll reap benefits because you'll take less time to learn skills and have better accuracy. Your playing will be less approximate and less prone to mistakes.

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Not Playing Guitar

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