How to practice an instrument

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Listen to yourself. Record yourself any way you can and listen to how you sound. A microphone is ruthlessly honest.
  6. 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.

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2 Responses to How to practice an instrument

  1. I think this is generally pretty spot on. I’m not sure about (3) though. Sometimes I think that my practicing would be much more productive if I were more willing to let the little things go.

    • aj says:

      Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I guess it might depend on your personality.

      I think you can definitely give up too soon and say, “That’s good enough” — when it’s not. I do kind of address perfectionism in #4, but yeah, it’s a fine balance. Too much nit-picking and you never make any progress.