One of the joys of knowing how to practice correctly is the feeling of confidence when you decide to learn a new song, piece, or exercise. When you first sit down to practice you have the same feeling that a craftsmen has when he/she sits down to build a new project. There is no doubt about the final result, you know what you are doing. You have done it many times before.
You know how to plan your work, and you know how to work your plan. You know which steps to take, and you know how to take them. For whatever amount of time you have decided to sit down and work, you know you will accomplish something, and what’s more, you have the wonderful certainty that what you do accomplish will be there the next day, or whenever you pick up the work again.
The work is enjoyable and you look forward to it. And, like a chef who gets to eat the meal after creating it, or a carpenter who gets to sit in the room he has built, you get (earn) the pleasure of sitting (or standing) with your instrument and playing the music, and having it be something special and something enjoyable for you and anyone else who may be around.
How different this is then what most guitar students experience! How different this is from what many of you reading this actually go through in your attempts to learn to play. I know, because I was there, in the pit of despair, and because I have spent all my adult life pulling people out of that pit. And it’s pretty crowded down there!
Down there, it’s more like this: every day you pick up your guitar and get in the ring with that new piece, or song, or something your teacher gave you in the lesson. You try to put on your best attitude, and you grab that piece with both your guitar playing hands, and you wrestle! You give it all you got, it’s like wrestlemania, but that big bad dude won’t budge, he won’t go down. Or, you get him down, but he won’t stay down. You think you got him, but as soon as you turn your back, he’s up and he’s on your back! A lot of you will find yourselves losing your enthusiasm for getting back in the ring.
Before I knew how to do correct practice, I used to feel like a kid who was building a sand castle. Every day I’d go back to build it higher, but it had gotten washed away overnight. Or I felt like a person who kept putting money in the bank, and the bank kept going bankrupt and I lost everything I put in. When I learned how to practice, I felt like I was building something day by day, and nobody and nothing was messing with it overnight. The structure was there waiting for me the next day, and I could invest more time and effort into it, feeling secure that it would in fact be there the next day.
This was a really good thing for me, because I am not a person who deals well with frustration. I get mad real easy, so I’m sure that everyone else in my world is also a lot better off thanks to the fact that I learned how to practice.
Once you understand the mechanics of correct practice, including the mental, emotional and physical aspects of the process, the most powerful tool you can use when you sit down to practice is what I call the Glue Of Repetition, and this glue is applied with another tool, one that every student I have ever taught is required to get, and learn how to use properly: a metronome.
People who understand correct practice know that repetition by itself can just as easily harm you as help you. Because of muscle memory, you can practice mistakes over and over and learn them just as well as the notes you are supposed to be playing. But we will assume that you realize this already, and are well on your way to being able to practice correctly. So let me make some points that will bring you even closer.
Before you can apply the glue of repetition, there is something you must achieve first with the music you are playing. And achieving this often takes fully half of the entire time and energy needed to master the music. And that thing you must achieve is this: one correct playing of the notes being practiced.
I have often sat with someone working on one measure of music for twenty minutes while they made attempt after attempt to get just one correct run-through of a complex lick from a rock solo, or a passage from a classical piece. They made attempt after attempt, and also mistake after mistake! This is what happens for most people, even me. Depending on the complexity of the music, it can take quite an effort to nail the notes square on the head as they should be, as they must be. And realize that this means every note, every pick stroke, every finger, all of this correct, as well as the proper form and relaxation being maintained. If all of this is not exact, the results will be flawed. And when you try to build on those flawed results, you will get more flawed results.
During the process of achieving that one correct run through, every mistake must be pounced on. Our awareness, our attention must be so powerful that we are aware of everything we do and everything we don’t do, but should. And then we must fortify our Intention so that the next run through comes out differently, either getting us what we want, or bringing us closer to it until we get it, that one correct playing of the notes. After this magnificent achievement, it is time to apply the glue of repetition.
Usually, that first correct playing of the music will, and should be done, no tempo. Then, there should be many repetitions done also no tempo. This is the beginning of applying the glue of repetition. To make the glue set and become strong, we take out our metronomes.
The Basic Practice Approach, which we find at the end of The Principles, (and ties everything together into an actual program of action when practicing) tells us to begin by stripping away the rhythm from the notes. This means making all notes into equal time values. This is done so that all the movements associated with making those notes can be done consciously, and examined and experienced consciously. Having to observe the actual time values of the music, where some moves must be faster to create shorter notes, is often the thing that prevents us from becoming as aware as we need to be of certain movements, especially the ones we are having trouble with.
In addition, the metronome, by being used so that four clicks at 60 represents one note (our starting point in going from no tempo to slow tempo when using the Basic Practice Approach) forces us to play much slower than most people ever would bother to do. Doing so leads to incredible discoveries by whoever does bother to.
From there, the glue of repetition is applied until it sets into the muscle memory, and we can ask our body and mind to perform the movements at a slightly higher speed. Again, the metronome allows us to do so by a much smaller increment of speed than we would otherwise use if left to ourselves. By putting the metronome on 80 and taking 4 clicks per note, the increased demand on our playing mechanism is very slight, and usually easily handled. From there, it is a matter of simply working it up, maintaining full awareness and “quality control” as we go along.
When we reach a speed that taxes us, that makes us feel like we are just about making it hang together, that is called our “working speed”. That is the speed to stay at for awhile, and apply the glue of repetition until the music is strong enough to bear the greater strain of a faster speed. It may take minutes, days, or months, depending on the demands of the music, and our level of development.
This “working speed” is our limit (our temporary limit). One very important thing to realize is that this limit, once achieved, must be worked up to everyday.
Another important (and pleasant) thing to realize is that the speed we work for hours or years to attain with a particular piece or technique after awhile becomes very easy for us. When it does, I call this my “falling out of bed” speed, the speed at which I can play something even if I have just fallen out of bed! (yes, I sleep with my guitar). There are a number of things I worked for years to bring to a very high professional level, that I honestly didn’t know if I ever would reach, that I can now play immediately (or give me a few seconds at the most), after falling out of bed. For those of you who don’t sleep with your guitar, this means that you will be able to play it at that speed even before being warmed up.
When the music begins to be “in our fingers”, when muscle memory, and the other forms of memory discussed in On Memorizing, ear and eye memory, are strong, it is time to let the plane leave the ground. It is time to begin to use the metronome as most people do, and set it to the basic beat of the music, and observe the rhythm, although still at a very slow speed, one that requires our fastest movement to be equivalent to a speed we already reached when using the Basic Practice Approach. It is also time to begin playing from memory, and developing the fullest emotional relationship to the music (as we would if we had memorized our lines for a play, and were ready for a dress rehearsal to bring the character fully to life.)
Everything I have said is a description of what is commonly referred to as “woodshedding”, meaning going out to the woodshed for hours at a time to practice. However, what we are talking about is a very intelligent type of woodshedding, one where the woodshed is well stocked with a copy of “The Principles” and a metronome!
Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.