In the car the other day I mentioned that I was going to start practicing the guitar for real, in such a way that implied that I knew, in some deep sense, how to practice an instrument. A friend inquired about it, and with a little thought I realized that I did in fact have a notion of practicing well.
I developed this notion back when I played the trumpet — far more seriously and often, and with much greater rigor, than I now play the guitar. Of course, I was still lazy back then, so I didn’t always follow the rules, but at least I knew what they were. At any rate, here’s how what I think it takes to practice an instrument well:
- Warm up. A good warmup routine achieves a few things: it helps you improve fundamental techniques through repetition, it prepares your body physically for the current practice session, and most importantly it prepares you mentally. By forcing you to focus on a task that’s both challenging and familiar, it helps clear your mind.
- Use a metronome. You never know how badly out of time you’re playing until you use one. Find a comfortable tempo for the exercise you’re playing — and then slow it down by 10-20%. It’s always harder to play slow than it is to play fast.
- Focus, and reject mediocrity. This is the most important and hardest rule to follow. One good hour of practice is worth ten bad ones, and what separates the two is focus: how hard you concentrate while you’re playing, and how unwilling you are to let minor infractions pass. Few mistakes are minor enough to truly let go.
- Keep moving. It’s easy to become comfortable with a set of exercises and, eventually, your mastery over them. Keep moving on to newer, challenging material, as soon as you’ve nailed the current stuff — but no sooner.
- Listen to yourself. Record yourself any way you can and listen to how you sound. A microphone is ruthlessly honest.
- Get a teacher. Expensive, but necessary. I’ll have to do this eventually for guitar if I ever want to be any good.
Okay, that’s all I have.