Why do some people get better faster than others? Is it genetics or genius and luck of the draw? Is it some secret formula: 20 % warm-up + 20 % technical workout + 40 % repertoire + 20 % sight-reading = ?
I say neither genetics nor formulas are the main ingredient in practicing effectively.
If you have a passion for playing guitar and spend time regularly practicing–even for short sessions– then all the ingredients you need are there for your playing to flourish.
It’s not about what you do. It’s about how you do it.
Sure, some of us have bigger hands. Some have better fingernails. Some have a stronger memory, some have developed a more sure sense of pitch, a more natural connection to rhythm, a better ear for style or expression. Some of these are genetic advantages, others are more complex “gifts” that happen for a combination of reasons. But none of them add up to much of anything if when you sit down to practice you don’t get the “how” right.
How do you practice?
Most important thing? Enjoy it. Do it because you love it. That’s the engine that will overcome any and all obstacles.
This short article is not a guideline for how to organize your practice time. I’ve gotten good at playing mostly without organizing my practice time at all. Not that I recommend that either, even if it has worked alright for me. It can be very useful to structure your practice time loosely, and you might find it helpful to have a more “top-down” discipline, even to develop a time management system for your practice that keeps you from forgetting important details and covers all the bases. Developing this system around a clear goal that you would really love to achieve will make it even more effective.
But the most important organizing principle is your curiosity, which comes from love of the music: follow the music and go where it leads you.
If you have very little time to practice, trusting your curiosity is especially important. We learn the best when we’re lit up and fully engaged. We falter and stutter when we are overly concerned with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” Follow your curiosity and the music and develop trust in your intuition. Spend as little time as possible comparing your “level” to that of others. Get over the feeling that there’s a jury of angelic, snotty classical guitar know-it-alls hovering around you and observing your every move.
Good practice is a cycle, like breathing.
A cycle renews itself each time. You can’t just breath in. You can’t just breath out. You need to do both.
When you practice well, what you take in and how you take it in is just as important as what you put out and what you let go of. Good practice is about learning, and learning happens when you pay homage and attention to things that make the learning process flow and flower.
Though this process is organic and natural, I’ve found it fun and useful to break an effective practice session down into components. Four components, to be exact.
What are the four essential components of great practicing?
1. Curiosity. (Listening fully to all senses and all sensations)
2. Aliveness (Cultivating the spark of “almost”)
3. Focus (Deliberate, conscious, intentioned repetition)
4. Release (relaxing into a feeling of ease and flow)
Let’s look at these four components in a bit more detail:
I love to say “Listen for what to listen for.” Anything could be relevant. A sensation in your wrist, a tightness in your belly or forehead when you try playing something fast, a sound that you never noticed before that really turns you on, or maybe really irritates the heck out of you. Keep your eyes soft, your attention wide. Think peripheral vision, peripheral feeling, peripheral hearing. Openness, newness, awe.
Something gets your attention. A way your hands move that you’ve never noticed before— that might mean a new technical possibility, but also means you have some work to do. You hear an old phrase in a new way, hear a potential sound in your imagination that your hands might be able to create. Whatever it is you notice, it focuses you inwardly, causing you to feel a spark of aliveness in your entire system. Often this aliveness is on the border between pleasure and frustration.
That’s why I called it cultivating the spark of “almost.”
It’s about something you can almost do. Don’t let the frustration at NOT being able to do something yet stop you or interrupt you. If you interpret this spark as “I can’t,” or “this is too hard,” or “I suck,” or any variation of these thoughts, you’ll spiral out of the simple experience of playing. As a teacher I see this A LOT. You can waste SO MUCH time giving up or glossing over.
Instead, be “yes” to the mixture of sensations that are most alive for you and USE that energy to move you into doing, not thinking.
This is the part of practice that most people think of as “work.” Here is where the pleasure and frustration of “almost” can combust into deliberate practice that comes from powerfully focused intention. Repetition becomes not a matter of “I’ll play this 5 times, dammit,” but can grow out of aliveness. The energy this gives you can result in healthy determination that is enjoyable rather than dreary, in not giving up before something has been accomplished.
The worse thing you can do when practicing is to drearily push through on sheer overdrive causing you to develop even worse habits. But if you let your focus grow out of aliveness, your entire system senses what it needs to do, to learn. You still repeat the difficult passage five times, but instead just notice all the sensations and feel what is changing, when something “clicks,” when you have an “aha,” feeling, no matter how subtle.
Then you release.
I call this “relaxing into.” Every technique you learn has to become easy. You have to be able to forget about technique. Physically, you need to let go of tension so the muscles are ready for the next thing they need to do. You actually learn to relax into it.
Even if it’s not quite easy yet, you need to practice what it feels like for it to be easy. You need to practice just trusting your fingers to find the notes, practice not forcing them to do what you think they have to do. Just letting them play. Allowing the mistakes to happen, allowing the magic to flow, playing with sound, leaving it to your ears and your fingers, and just enjoying and being curious.
Those are the four components of great practicing: Curiosity—Aliveness—-Focus—-Release.
What do you do with these four components now that you know about them?
You can loosely organize your practice session as a whole to include all of these components, but you don’t have to. There’s a cycle in them that naturally happens. Warming up is done naturally with a sense of curiosity. It leads to aliveness and an intuitive spark of knowing exactly what you want to work on. This spark guides your intention and leads naturally to the kind of focused repetition that gives you breakthroughs and “aha’ moments as a matter of course. The effective focus and the “aha” lead to a natural letting go into flow, into just playing and letting your fingers fly and finding out what they do differently now, that they couldn’t do before.
Which leads to the next cycle, as you get curious again.
You can also focus on one component at a time, cultivating it, becoming stronger and better at it. Trust your intuition on which of these four components you might want to focus; which might need the most time and work.
Look for the sticking point in the cycle—one aspect which you are neglecting a bit that is keeping the whole thing from flowing. Get better at that.
But be sure to stay feeling and doing, stay in your body, in contact with the guitar, in your sensations, in the music. Let the music draw you into pure experience and don’t let the blah-blah of your thoughts carry you away from that for too long.