The Art of Practice

Ever since you have started your instrument you have no doubt heard everyone say “practice, practice, practice”. Well, what does that mean? Is practice the monotonous repetition of certain exercises and chords and scales? Is it the same thing day in and day out? My answer is hardly not. Practice, like your instrument needs to be practiced. What?

First, we must define practice, it is a word that teachers throw around quite a bit but do not often elaborate. Now let’s put an end to popular myths surrounding practice.

MYTH: Practice makes perfect.

FACT: Practice makes permanent. In the words Al Woods (Tiger’s Dad), “Practice makes permanent, PERFECT PRACTICE makes perfect.” The fact of the matter is that if you let mistakes work their into your playing you practice the mistakes not the proper material. You are now probably saying, “Well of course i’m going to make mistakes that’s why I’ve got to practice!” Yes, you are going to make mistakes but they can be minimized. The way to minimize is to play slowly.

MYTH: In order to play fast I have to practice fast.

FACT: You need to be able to think while you play. Aaron Shearer, a famous classical guitar pedagogue was an advocate of “aim directed movement”, which is having a clear understanding of where the fingers need to go before you move them there. Aim directed movement can only be accomplished by slow practice.

One very important part of practice that a lot of players overlook is that of visualization. Some of the most constructive practice can be achieved without even touching a guitar! The best thing about visualization is that it can be done almost anywhere.

Try this:

  1. Sit down and close your eyes.
  2. Picture yourself playing a guitar from your normal point of view. In other words do not picture yourself as though you were watching in the audience, but that you are looking down at your hands as the actual player.
  3. In your mind “feel” yourself playing just open strings. “feel” i and m prepare and follow through as you play the open high e string.

After a while of doing just the open high e string try moving through the rest of the strings, paying close attention to detail. After you have gotten the hang of the open strings try playing a simple first position scale like C major. this is a little harder because now you have to visualize the right and the left hand. This is a little tricky but no more trickier than syncronizing the two hands, in actuality, it will happen it just takes time.

I believe it was Elliot Gould who was infamous for memorizing works of music while in transit to his next concert and then being able to play those pieces in concert from memory.

MYTH: I don’t need to warm up.

FACT: Would a football player ever dream of taking the field without first stretching, same for a gymnast, he or she would never dream of it. The question is, why do so many guitarist and instrumentalists in general perform or practice without first warming up? My teacher Ben Verdery told me that his doctor who specializes in “musical injuries” said that out of all musicians the guitar has the most. What can you do? The first thing you can do is to do things like touch your toes, stretch out your arms, do some shoulder rolls, do some wrist rolls, anything to get the blood flowing to all the individual body parts.

Musically you must warm up as well. You should have an arsenal of easy etudes and preludes to play through before you tackle your major repertoire. Maybe some Carcassi etudes or Sor studies, Tarrega, Giuliani, Coste, Aguado, Carulli, all these composers wrote some very effective and useful etudes and easy pieces that are great for getting the fingers moving. Also, do not neglect the importance of DAILY scale and arpeggio study. The study of scales and arpeggios does not have to be in the form of monotonous position scales and Giuliani’s 120 studies for the right hand. They can take the form of etudes. Carcassi 1 from 25 melodious etudes by Matteo Carcassi edited by Emilio Pujol, contains tons of C major scale runs, while etude 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos is great for arpeggios. There is an incredible amount of works to be found on practicing scales and arpeggios so explore what’s out there.

MYTH: I don’t need to practice reading music.

FACT: You better believe you do! The way to practice sight reading is to have various collections of easy pieces at your disposal (pieces that are well below your technical abilities) and just sight read them. As your sight reading gets better you will be able to read harder pieces and at an increasingly swifter pace. Remember that reading music and becoming proficient at it is difficult, there is no magic pill or formula and no esoteric teaching that will make you become a great sight reader overnight. The only thing that will make you become a great reader is to just DO IT! Also use visualization as a tool for sight reading. Get a piece of music and read it as though it were a newspaper or book and picture yourself playing the piece as you read it.

One of the most overlooked things pertaining to practice is that you must have a game plan. Don’t think that you need to practice for 10 hours a day in order to have a successful session. The truth of the matter is that you can have a very successful session in about 20 minutes. Remember you do not have to practice everything at once. when you sit for practice have a clear vision of what it is that you want to improve. For instance, If you want to work on a certain position switch in a certain scale then take that time (after warm up of course) and work on just that problem area. JUST THAT PROBLEM AREA, is the key. Stay focused, don’t let your mind wander, there is a difference between practice and doodling. Don’t get me wrong doodling has it’s place, I’ve stumbled across some of my favorite themes that way, but there is a time and place for everything. Beethoven said it best, “a musician must have the heart of a Gypsy and the discipline of a Soldier.”