Life is short and passes by very quickly. Meanwhile: playing guitar is super fun, and gets more fun the better you get at it. That being said: it probably does not have to be pointed out how much you are missing out on, if you have inefficient practice habits. Fortunately, there are several techniques to improve efficiency and get stronger, faster results. When you are able to spend less time covering more material and seeing more results, you will find yourself willing to practice more often because that amazing feeling of achievement is priceless. Here are five great ways to make your practice sessions as efficient as possible.
Shut down your computer and your phone if you have to. Don’t check emails. The ability to keep your attention to the task at hand is one of the most important skills to have. It is a skill that you can train. How do you train anything? Simple: you just do it, and correct your attention back to the task if you feel yourself getting distracted.
When you’re practicing: zoom in on the core of the challenge you are dealing with by removing all the other activity or interfering actions. As an example: don’t keep repeatedly playing an entire song if there is only 1 bar in the song you have a hard time executing correctly. Other example: if you have a certain rhythm you are trying to figure out or that keeps tripping you up, then don’t try to cover the whole measure/rhythm all at once, but work it out in smaller sections, 1 beat at a time. In other words, focus during guitar practice entails:
1. Isolate the obstacle.
2. Break things down in smaller segments.
3. Slow a technically fast paced passage down to something you can execute
4. Repeat the action over and over again.
5. Get rid of actions that are not necessary to get the job done. (i.e. only move fingers that need to move, don’t make extraneous strum motions, don’t play anything rhythmically fancy with your strumming arm while you are playing chord changes you have a hard time fingering correctly, so you can direct more focus towards your fretting hand, etc.)
You then slowly and attentively keep repeating the challenging action, till it becomes effortless and natural. At that point, you start adding the other elements back in: your other hand, the rest of the song, more complicated strumming, etc.
- Short Drills.
Researchers in the fields of neuroscience and psychology know for a fact that the brain works in “little chunks of information, regular intervals”. What this means specifically is that our brain works optimal when we feed it smaller segments of information, and then feed that information to the brain at regular time intervals on a daily basis. Unless the activity is more physical than cerebral, such as for example technique exercises, avoid practicing more than 15 minutes at a time on anything very concentration intense. It is generally accepted in neuroscience that after about 15 minutes, ones concentration level starts dissipating. If you practice in short 10-15 minute drills, you benefit of 2 major advantages:
1. You keep your concentration at peak performance: by the time your concentration is about to start losing its peak, you are already off to the next drill.
2. You become a more complete musician. Practicing short drills: you lift yourself up in more different areas of your musicianship in a shorter amount of time. As an example: when you have half hour drills to practice, you only can do 2 exercises in an hour, when you have 10-15minute exercises, you can fit in 4-5 drills in the course of an hour. There is so much to practice on to become a really great musician, it’s endless: ear training, technique, songwriting, scales, improv techniques, fret board knowledge, theory, harmony, styles, etc. Having short drills: you get more of these covered in a shorter amount of time.
- Alternate Between Cerebral and Physical Activity.
This is another great way to get more done and keep your concentration up. When you had a couple of concentration intense guitar exercises in a row, break it up with technique exercises that train your speed, dexterity, control or coordination. Speed and muscle coordination exercises require a different kind of concentration that is not as mentally demanding. By the same token: when you feel like your arm is about to fall off because you worked your muscles hard, go back to doing something that requires more brain power than physical strength and endurance.
- Use a Metronome.
The metronome is an indispensable tool for training your rhythm and technique efficiently. You cannot really train your time feel efficiently any other way than with a metronome (or drum machine). Top musicians spent a great deal of their time honing their speed and technique as well as their timing and rhythm feel with this tool. You can also use a metronome to practice your sight-reading skills. Set the metronome at a slow, comfortable tempo; then read the music along the tempo of the beeps. You can evaluate your music reading progress based on the speed/tempo you are able to read new music at without making all too many mistakes.
- Slower Is Better.
It is unbelievable how much valuable time most guitar students waste trying to tackle new material they keep struggling with, at a tempo that is way above their abilities, and persistently so. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results” (Einstein). If after 8 tries, you still have not made it to the end of the bar of this 1-bar complicated rhythm you’re trying to execute, chances are you are probably trying to play it way too fast. 9 out of the 10 times, the student then gets incredibly frustrated, while the solution is really simple: slow down, pace yourself, and give your brain the time to put all elements in order.
This also goes for technical prowess on guitar. The quickest way to being to play really fast is by playing really slowly for a longer period of time. After all: speed is the byproduct of… accuracy. Someone who can shred fast scalar lines does not move all that much quicker than you do with his fingers: he moves LESS. Practice very slowly, then gradually increase tempo a couple of bpm (beats per minute) at a time. The slow pace improves muscle memory and control. It also gives your brain the time to process information adequately, which it can’t do when that information is fed to the brain at a rushed pace.