Practice with Intention

When music is your “jobby”; you have a busy life with children, and a primary career that you depend on to pay the bills, you are arguably not able to dedicate the same intensity to practice as the fully professional musician might. Maximizing the effectiveness of the practice time you have is important if you are to develop and grow. In this article I offer an unstructured list of motivational and practical concepts to help, if you face this dilemma.

1. Practice with Intention: When you practice, have an end goal in mind. What are you trying to achieve? Broadly speaking there are two aspects to any practice. You are either working on developing technique, or you are working on musical intuition.

Technique development involves woodshedding type exercises (chords, changes, turnarounds, scales, riffs, arpeggios, picking and strumming patterns), or learning a new song note for note.

Intuition development involves playing along to a jam track or song, just noodling around, experimenting with ideas, creating, or trying to approximate something you have heard.

2. Have fun!

3. Short intense bursts, with breaks: Don’t persevere beyond the point of diminishing returns. Not only does the brain continue learning during downtime, but downtime is necessary for the brain to learn. When you return, you are refreshed.

4. Don’t push yourself to physical injury. Correct posture, holding the guitar properly, and taking a break when things hurt can prevent injury that could lead to long term problems.

5. Don’t practice your mistakes: Often speed on guitar is equated with effectiveness, and while this is certainly an indicator of mastery; I would argue that feel, control and tone, rather than speed, are the hallmarks of effective musicianship. Play it slow, focus on playing one perfect note. If you play one perfect note, it is reasonable that you can follow it with another perfect note, and so on. Speed will come with patience … focus on playing it correctly with feel, control and tone, rather than playing it fast. And, remember, if you are reaching the point of diminishing returns, take a break.

6. Keep a log, and periodically celebrate your progress and success.

7. Record or video yourself, and listen or watch back. And listen back after some time has passed. We are often doing better than we think. 🙂

8. Get honest and constructive feedback from an encouraging friend you trust. A guitar teacher can fill this role, but I am thinking from the paradigm of the self taught. False praise or needless nitpicking don’t help you with maintaining a positive, realistic, growth oriented frame of mind.

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it structured, but it should help you form an attitude that leads to maximizing limited practice time for productive and goal oriented practices. There are a wealth of great free resources nowadays for the self taught that simply did not exist when I started out; tutorials on youtube, mobile apps (audio recording apps, jam track apps, drum pattern apps, learning games). Take advantage of these. Set a few realistic goals, work toward them, review progress, celebrate your success, and update your goals. Don’t overdo it, start slow, focus on correctness rather than speed, and have fun.