Organizing Practice for Better Results
Last year I heard a student wonder why he didn’t practice as much as he should. His teacher said, “When I get like that I go out and buy a new guitar. That always makes me feel like practicing.” Most of us wouldn’t consider this advice a long-term solution, let alone a practical one, so let’s take a more realistic look at practice attitudes and habits.
You Are the Teacher to Yourself
Look back over all of the teachers you have had in your life. Think about the good ones, and then think about the not-so-good ones. Good teachers share some characteristics; a daily goal, unit goals, and long term goals. Good teachers know the material they are teaching, and have mapped out a plan for teaching it. They offer clear explanations and concise tips for student improvement. On a daily basis a good teacher is aware of what material relies upon previous knowledge and what is new to the student. By building steadily upon known information the student learns to adapt new information quickly. Patience, guided practice, and high standards are tools a good teacher brings to the classroom practice session.
Not-so-good teachers care but have not prepared themselves or their students for knowledge expansion. Mere discipline becomes the daily plan as students become bored and restless. The students fall into “default” behaviors. These behaviors include poor attitude, bad posture, low interest in the subject, and little attention to detail. Students allow themselves to just get by. The teacher grows irritated, then frustrated, and finally settles on simply getting through the day unscathed. No real learning occurs in such an atmosphere.
Tap yourself on the forehead because your brain must be the teacher. Will your brain set short and long term goals? Will it be patient while expecting better results? In short, will your brain share the characteristics of a good or bad teacher?
Now hold your hands up and look at your fingers because they are the students of your brain. They have prior knowledge of guitar, but they can do better. Plan to gradually increase the knowledge and power of both hands. A teacher must have no fear of learning, for that spirit is alloyed into the student. Worthy learning is always difficult, so count on struggling. In the long term it will be prove valuable.
Assess Yourself Honestly
Write down your strengths as a musician. Are you up to speed on chords? Do you prefer soloing? Is your sense of time accurate? Are you a good reader? Bet I got you on that one, so let’s use it as our example. A wise student will expand specific knowledge into broader learning.
Analyze reading for a moment by answering some questions. What came first, music or writing down music? Obviously music came first. As a child, did you talk or read first? You talked first and then used that prior knowledge to begin reading. You knew what “food” was before you decoded the word on printed page. From an auditory and verbal base you expanded your knowledge to a visual platform. Trust yourself; you have all of the aural skills needed to expand your musical platform to the visual. You know what a dotted rhythm sounds like, so go out there and practice what it looks like.
You should ask yourself, “Why have I ignored this aspect of my playing?” We ignore, by nature, out of fear and because of bad previous teaching. Go through a method book. Do you remember playing Ode to Joy and coming to the end of the first phrase? A five year old knows the cadence ends with a dotted rhythm, yet most often a method book will write it as two quarter notes followed by a half. I understand the method is trying to teach one thing at a time, but the effect is to disarm the student’s ears. Rather like saying, “Here, play this music but don’t use your ears lest you ask any questions like, “What does that dot mean?” Music is all about sound, so never allow your ears a lie. Remember, just because it is in print does not mean it is the truth.
And fear? Get over that. If you play any instrument you will make as many mistakes as McDonald’s makes hamburgers. No player is even good until they have racked up one million mistakes. To replace a bad fingering with a good one will take patience and confidence in the eventual outcome. Music is great because, unlike driving, if you make a mistake no one gets hurt. Musicians rely on the do over. Eventually you’ll get it right every time.
Select Good Materials
If your goal is to introduce reading into your practice don’t start with a Bach Prelude. Pick a method that explains well and contains many pieces you know from childhood. In this way your ears can relax while you focus on reading and fingering. Select a few pieces from outside the method so your practice “desk” has at least three items on it. Remember, none of this has to be learned today, you are merely trying to familiarize yourself with the material. One of the three pieces should be something you have never heard. Keep all of the materials fairly short. Your desk should eventually look like this:
- Working on
- Nearly done
- Brand new
By establishing this left to right sequence you will always know what work needs to be looked at during a practice. This sequence should begin moving in three or four days. Every item must go to the heart of an area you think needs improvement, be it reading, chord work, timing, or dexterity and accuracy.
Now your brain must go to work. Don’t just stare at the materials, go after them mentally. If you are stumbling over a rhythm take out a pencil and read it over and over. If you make a mistake three times in one measure then take that measure and read it correctly over and over. This technique is called looping. If there are four beats in a measure you begin at Beat 1 and read it through. At the end of Beat 4 you “loop” back to Beat 1 and start it again. When you think you have mastered it, place the measure in context with its surrounding measures and loop them together. A loop can be as small or large as the teacher (your brain) thinks will most benefit the students (your hands). Notice you have yet to play a note. The teacher is now studying the material to be covered. If the teacher doesn’t know it the students will never grasp it on their own.
You will know when your brain is ready to teach. Take just one measure, establish a slow and steady beat, and allow your hands to move through it. Now the teacher must be more aware than ever. If a particular motion feels awkward that singular motion should be looped until it is comfortable. Now you are really “practicing”.
By establishing these small building blocks a player constructs a whole piece. You are not concerned with finishing anything yet because you wouldn’t purchase a house that was built in one day.
Practice this way for fifteen minutes and then ask yourself, “Do I want to continue?” Most of us will say “Yes”.
Move on to your second piece; never hammer one thing for a whole session. The same process should be applied. The brain analyzes and when ready patiently introduces the material to the hands. Moderate success is all that is required because the next phase will cement your building blocks in place.
Before you end your first organized practice take a moment to review everything covered during the session. At this point your brain should be planning the next practice.
You already play. You are already excellent at the construct called repetition. Can you imagine how many free throws a pro basketball player attempts in a practice? I’ve heard of one who never showers without 600 shots from the line.
All succeeding practices are about three things:
- New material
Review all of the mental and physical processes from previous practices. At first this seems daunting, but soon you will notice that information flows much faster if it is worked on often. What seems foggy on Day 1 will be crystal clear by Day 4 if you have looked at it multiple times. To stay on the sight reading example, if you look at, analyze, and play a second line G twenty times it will become natural and you will begin to play it without concern. To succeed you must allow yourself the twenty times.
Repeat and loop measures, phrases, and whole pieces. Each piece is unique and has its own arc. Your fingers, hands, and whole body must measure and learn the overall arc of each piece. If you are having a difficult time jumping from first to seventh position in a piece, stay there and allow your arm to practice and measure that leap. If the motion dictates your fourth (pinky) finger landing on D in seventh position, practice that motion for a few minutes every day. Your left hand is smart; it will memorize that exact distance if given enough repetition. This practice is not piece specific, I assure you it will crop up many times in your musical life.
Always prepare new material. Keep a constant flow across your desk. You don’t have to love every piece you come across, not everything must be arduous. I knew a man, otherwise smart, who went to a classical guitar teacher and said, “Teach me the most difficult piece for guitar.” He worked on it for years and never came close to succeeding. He also never learned how to play anything on the guitar. There are no shortcuts; the journey itself is of prime importance.
Borrow a technique from pianists; they also play an instrument that is vertical. Allow your right hand to practice without the complication of left hand. Your right hand will develop the focus it needs to later succeed with the left hand. If you want to work on your left hand only, drop right hand fingerings and just strum through the left hand motions. This is called blocking, like a director does early in rehearsals for a play. Both hands cannot work together until each hand knows its individual assignment. Go back to this technique over several days and see that it works every time.
Don’t limit yourself to what others have composed. Create arrangements of your own design, Compose short little pieces and develop your ideas. Creativity is a source of pride for musicians. Let your pride stem from real accomplishment.
A teacher of mine, a good one, once told me that more bad music was created using MIDI than any other tool. He was wrong, most bad music has been created under the guise of impromptu creativity. Sloshing through the familiar territory of a blues scale loses enchantment to both the player and listener. Keep yourself fresh by inputting many musical ideas. Your output will soar.
Become a better teacher and you will become a better guitarist. It’s that simple.
About the Author
Tom Mariotti is a composer, music teacher, and writer living in Michigan. Tom initiated a guitar program for the school district he taught in, authored a curriculum and textbook for school guitar programs, and piloted a Music Technology course for his students. Tom was a clinician for the Arizona Music Educators Association Conference in 2005, 2006, and 2007. He also served on the Authors Committee, Arizona State Standards for Music Education in 2001, and has worked with Music Curriculum writing teams since 1996. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University’s Music Education College, Tom is a long-time performer and educator. Contact Tom at [email protected] or visit his soon-to-be-up-website, GuitarUSA.net.