Whenever I think about practicing, I can’t help but be reminded of Steve Vai’s infamous 10-Hour Workout, which was first published on an issue of Guitar World a long time ago.
I had been playing guitar for a few years, and the thought of having access to the secret routine used by the almighty Steve Vai had me dreaming of becoming the next Guitar God.
I mean, 10 hours a day? I’d be shredding like crazy in no time! (Of course now I’m aware that equating practicing guitar to weightlifting was a marketing ploy used by guitar publishers to get you to buy their magazines. But I disgress…)
I remember trying that workout for about 10 minutes…and becoming incredibly bored. It started out with some very unmusical technical exercises…in fact a large part of the article seemed to focus on those exercises, even though Vai actually dedicated most of his hours to things like harmony, improvisation and phrasing.
After quickly realizing I wouldn’t be practicing for 10 hours any time soon, I tried whittling it down to a more reasonable 3 or 4 hours. I thought I’d do an hour of the boring technical exercises (which were actually very useful) and the other couple of hours for, you know, the other stuff.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, that attempt wasn’t very succesful.
Still, I did end up practicing a few of those exercises quite a bit, and they helped me develop speed and dexterity among other things.
Something similar happend when I was at Berklee. A lot of my fellow students were very disciplined and would practice for hours on end, some waking up at 6 or 7 in the morning in order to get some woodshedding done before their first class.
Once again, my attempt at following a similar practice schedule was a failure. After a certain amount of practicing, it would become a chore and I’d struggle to stay motivated.
For a long time I felt guilty about how little I was supposedly practicing…I even felt like a fraud at times. But despite my apparent lack of discipline, I was still improving.
Why was that?
Because there is way more to practicing than the amount of hours you put in.
There’s no question that in order to get better at any craft or skill, you have to spend time at it…there are no shortcuts.
But there are two other things which I consider to be much more important: the quality of the time you spend practicing, and how often you practice.
Whenever you sit down to practice, you should have a clear goal in mind. This is a time to focus on one of your weak areas and work to improve it, not to jam and play your favorite licks. That’s the stuff you already know, that’s for when you’re actually playing.
Or to paraphrase a musician friend of mine who put it very succintly: if you sound good when you’re practicing, you’re doing it wrong.
This kind of focused, goal-oriented practicing is very intensive, it’s pretty normal to get tired after a short time. I myself usually need a break after 30 to 45 minutes. And if that’s all you can manage, or even if it’s less, that’s ok.
The important thing, and here is where we get to the second point, is to keep doing it every day. Practicing 30 minutes every day is way more effective than practicing 8 hours one day and then having to take the next couple of days off because you’re burnt out.
Now, if you have the discipline to practice for 8 hours every day, I’m not stopping you! But for most of us, it’s a miracle if we can find 10 minutes to practice. So an intense half-hour practicing is quite an achievement.
What really matters is that you get the most out of those 30 minutes, and to keep it going the next day!
Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your practice session, regardless of how long or short it is:
-Start the session by playing some exercises to warm up. This will help focus your mind.
-Keep a journal of what you practice and any progress you make. Read the last entry at the beginning of every session to remember what you did last. You’d be amazed at the thing you forget…
-Make a list of the weak areas of your playing. Go over it before every session and decide which one to work on.
-Don’t force yourself to work on something just to follow a schedule or routine. Look at the list I mentioned above and follow your muse. After all, you have your journal, so you won’t forget any progress you’ve made in any areas of your playing.
-Use a metronome. I don’t know why, but using a metronome helps me concentrate on what I’m practicing, even if I’m not necessarily working on timing or speed. Whenever I find myself thinking about what I’ll be eating for dinner, I switch the metronome on.
We all wish we had more time to practice guitar, but rather than feel frustrated about it, it’s more important to focus on using the time we do have as best as possible. If you do this consistently you’ll start seeing results very soon.