Practice: A Guide To The What, How and Why Of Effective Practice

Practice: A Guide To The What, How and Why Of Effective Practice

Dear Guitar Student,

We all know the saying, “Practice makes perfect.”

But knowing that you should practice isn’t the same as consistently and effectively doing so.

This happens in any endeavor where you must practice to get better–whether learning guitar, piano, a business skill, or algebra!

After the lesson, your teacher says “Now, go home and practice.” But, even though you know you should practice, you get stuck on how exactly to do it–and why.

And that is a problem, because a guitar lesson (or piano lesson, Mandarin class, algebra class, etc.) is typically only the initial exposure to and practice of new skills. The REAL LEARNING should place at home, during practice.

Isn’t it strange that we don’t spend more time learning to use our practice time effectively?

Olympic Practice Habits

Since I’m obsessed with practice, I just attended a workshop on championship practice habits taught by Olympic champion Lanny Bassham, who has trained hundreds of world champions across multiple sports. (I love his book With Winning In Mind and highly recommend it for coaches and students in any discipline!)

Lanny says that in order to reach your own best, you need to understand not only the WHAT of practice, but the HOW and the WHY.

Let’s examine these concepts in the context of guitar–but keep in mind they apply to ANY skill.

STEP ONE: WHAT

This is the easy part–the “what” is practicing consistently.

We recommend a minimum of 75 minutes of practice a week for hobbyist players. That may not sound like much–but I’ve learned 75 minutes a week is enough for an adult or kid playing just for fun to get some serious traction and make solid improvement.

  • The typical practice issue for a beginner is not 75 minutes versus 7.5 hours of weekly practice. It is 75 minutes versus, uh…no practice.
  • Good practice leads to more practice. To practice more than 75 minutes a week–start with 75! A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and getting better at guitar starts with picking it up!

Use simple structures to make it easy to start and maintain practice.

  • Same time / place. This works for guitar (after work in the kitchen) and in any other desired behavior–for example, I write on the train in morning, we hold a guitar school leadership team meeting every Tuesday morning, etc.
  • Environment. This is HUGE and SO SIMPLE. Make it easy to get to your guitar. Don’t leave it in the case under your bed–put it on a stand or hang it on a hook.
  • Accountability structure. Keep a practice journal, or have a weekly class or lesson to go to for regular check-points on your practicing.

What? Practice consistently!

STEP TWO: HOW

Step one is about making sure that you get some practice time in. But how do you make sure that those precious 75 minutes aren’t just wasted in sloppy practice which doesn’t make a difference

Over the years I’ve seen many students who “put their time in” fail to make significant progress. They are motivated to play guitar, but they don’t realize that playing is not the same as practicing. It isn’t. Here’s how to practice effectively, and make the most of your limited practice time:

  • First, warm up. This should be about 1/3 of the practice time. It should be fun and re-establish what you already know.
      • Use the “sweet spot” guideline–science has shown that learning is maximized when you work at a degree of difficulty where you can get it succeed with full focus around 80% of the time. If you can’t perform a skill 80% of the time, then slow it down or break the skill down more. This is the TIRING part of practice! But it is also where you make INCREDIBLE PROGRESS here! Second, practice step by step fundamentals. This is where the MAGIC happens. In this section, do not play an entire song all the way. Instead, practice a new skill BROKEN DOWN and STEP BY STEP–think “one chord change” or “one measure” or “one strum pattern.”
    • Don’t randomly guess what skills you should work on! Follow a program, get a book, or find a teacher so you can follow a proven, step by step path, so that skills build on each other over time.
  • Third, play the new skill “in context.” Use your new fundamental in a song, or with a strum. Go as slow as you need to to get it right. And give yourself a pat on the back–you really learned something new–you improved!

This approach REALLY WORKS. Not just for guitar, either!

How? Practice step by step, with focus and following a plan.

STEP THREE: WHY

What exactly is practicing?

It is literally changing your brain. By consciously repeating new behaviors correctly, you are literally rewiring your neurons to physically change your skills and capacities.

No practice? NO CHANGE!

It’s that simple.

By the way, this is also why it is so important to practice new skills correctly (see the 80% sweet spot rule above). Because if you practice incorrectly–then you “wire” incorrectly!

Why? Practice in order to rewire your brain to have new capacities and skills.

I love playing and teaching guitar! And I love getting better at ANYTHING. I’m SO GLAD to know that there is a better way to succeed that just working hard–instead of punching the clock, let’s make sure that we know how to get the most of our time, and why we are doing it.

So once again, let me leave you with this. “The better you practice, the better you get!”

On to greatness!

Dan Emery

Founder, NYC Guitar School

Graphics by Stephanie Smith

Dan Emery is dedicated to Coaching Personal Greatness, One Lesson At A Time. He is the founder of NYC's friendliest and fastest growing guitar schools, New York City Guitar School, Brooklyn Guitar School, Queens Guitar School and NYC Guitar School, East, and the author of the Amazon best-selling Guitar For Absolute Beginners and six other books on learning guitar and deliberate practice. He coaches new entrepreneurs through the Entrepreneurs Organization Accelerator program and especially enjoys helping other Educational Entrepreneurs. He has a Masters in Education from Columbia University Teachers College, extensive performing experience as songwriter and guitarist for The Dan Emery Mystery Band, a wife, three kids, a cat and some juggling equipment.

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