Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Hi everyone, here are a few tips on how to improve our practice. Sometimes, it may feel that we are banging our heads against a wall, over and over again, with less than desired results. Often, it’s not how much we practice, but how we practice.
Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Don’t just jump straight into your hardest piece of music. Treat those fingers well and start with something easy. Nothing too fast, or with lots of barre chords!
No, literally, I mean warm-up
Don’t play in the cold. If your hands are a little on the frosty side, then run them underneath a warm tap or drink a cup of cocoa. No cocoa? Then under the armpits, those mitts go then!
Seriously though, it’s not advisable to play with cold hands. Movement becomes restricted and you're much more likely to damage those tendons in your wrist and hands that way.
Practice regularly, don’t cram!
It is infinitely better to practice for 5 - 10 minutes a day than to practice 3 hours once a week. It’s all about how information is learned and technique becomes developed. We can know academically how to do something, but it takes time for the muscle memory to become ingrained.
In this way, you can tell a child to score a goal that you have to kick a ball into the goal. That’s the knowledge. Easy, right? But it takes time for the skill to be learned. That means: the more routine something becomes, the more natural it will be.
Regularity to practice is king. Conversely, cramming right before a lesson or an exam can actually have a detrimental effect due to stress and muscle damage/fatigue.
Everyone hears this, and no one likes doing it! I understand, I truly do, but if everyone is saying something, then there might be a reason. Not always. But in this case, yes.
It’s really important to start learning a song slowly at first. That doesn’t necessarily mean to play at half-speed or anything like that.
It actually means establishing a baseline once you’ve learned the basics of a new song. Find a tempo where you can play with no mistakes and no hesitations! Until you can play the song perfectly at the desired tempo, you need to first get a feel of playing the song without buzz notes, massive gaps between difficult chords, or ‘glossed over’ fast passages. Otherwise, if we just barrel forward then those mistakes that you have practiced time and time again, become ingrained. Those errors become muscle memory associated with that song and it becomes incredibly difficult to unlearn. Ultimately: be careful not to practice the mistakes!
Be flexible with practice!
Can’t quite do that half-hour practice session you promised yourself? That’s fine! Music’s meant to be enjoyed, it shouldn’t be a chore.
Instead, be kind to yourself and just modify your schedule. Only do 5 minutes instead of that half-hour. But do try not to cancel it out altogether if possible, even if that means just quickly running through your favorite piece of music before dashing out.
Practice according to your level and ambition!
When you first begin tickling the six strings, most people wouldn’t really practice more than half an hour per day, and that is fine! Really. You shouldn’t over practice! In the early days, as mentioned earlier; it’s going to take some time to learn those fundamentals. You need to wait for all of that information and muscle memory to get digested.
But, if you are a more advanced player, then your practice sessions should reflect that. If you are about to take a graded exam then you might want to up your practice length to an hour, for instance. If you are a university student studying music, then that hour should most likely extend to 3 hours per day.
Ultimately, your practice schedule should reflect what you wish to achieve.
Long practice equals lots of tea breaks!
It’s important to give both your brain and your hands a necessary rest. If you’re practicing for an hour, try to work in 2 - 3 breaks. Go for a quick breath of fresh air, a cup of tea or just rest your hands for a minute or two, before rushing straight into the next song.
Watch those hands!
It takes time to properly build up muscle strength and stamina in the hands. If you start feeling muscle pain, then take a break from playing for a beat. Maybe play a different song for a while.
Often if our hands are feeling uncomfortable, then we could be playing with too much tension in the fingers or it’s an issue with technique. Listen to those aches. Question where they are coming from and what kind of pain is it?
Once you’ve figured where the pain originates from, then you can ask the relevant questions.
Are the fingers at a natural angle and curve?
Is my wrist straight?
Sometimes, our own body can be the greatest teacher, because it’s always looking for the most ergonomic approach and posture for our instrument. Be kind and listen when it tells you something.
Avoid tunnel vision!
Remember, we are learning a wonderful thing! It’s good to focus your practice on aspects that we need improvement on. If you need to improve your speed for instance; slowly work on scales a little bit each day to improve coordination between the two hands, then increase the speed gradually, But don’t become blinded by the pursuit of improvement if it comes at the expense of your enjoyment of the instrument.
A balanced diet
No matter whether you play for 5 minutes or 5 hours, make sure that you work on a wide variety during your practice regime.
You could work on:
Technique - Some slow scales to warm up the fingers, gradually playing quicker
Interpretation - Let’s add some dynamics and timbres and work on musical expression on that nearly completed song.
Notes - There’s also that other song you liked the look of, why don’t we start sketching in some notes about fingerings and positions?
Repertoire - You can spend some time revisiting some old material. Sometimes it’s fun to play songs that you already know like the back of your hand.
Keep your old songs under the fingers!
One of the saddest things is to forget a piece of music that already has had hours dedicated to learning it. Make sure to once in a while dust off those old gems and have some fun playing some nice music.
Music is an art, not a sport!
Few words have resonated with me, quite the way this sentence has. Although how we approach to practice is important, and we all harbor a desire for improvement, sometimes we mix up the means with the ends. What I mean by this, is that we don’t learn technique in order to play faster or clearer scales. We should be wary of the mindset of learning just in order to show off. To be better and play faster than others. This mentality leads to one always comparing ourselves with others, which means we can ultimately become shackled by our own lack of imagination and courage.
Instead, view the climb of improving one’s technique as gaining the tools to be better able to express one’s own musical ideas. These skills and techniques are merely a means, so that we’re more equipped to articulately express ourselves musically.
Have fun practicing,
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