How to Practice (And Is It True That "Practice Makes Perfect"?)

We’ve all heard that ‘practice makes perfect’, but is that the whole story? There are times when hours of extra practice can yield almost no results.

Smart Practice

Consider a student that is having trouble getting good, comfortable, clean barre chords. Constant repetitive practicing will only increase her muscle tension, worsening the barre technique. What about if the student had a fast, difficult run, that he consistently stumbled through. No matter how many hours he practices, if he doesn’t break the passage down into smaller chunks, slow it down, and maybe analyse it (to understand it better), then he will just continue to struggle without progressing.

The key then, regardless of how much practice you do, is to practice smart. Maybe the saying should probably be changed to ‘smart practice makes perfect’?

To understand just what is smart practice, lets look at a few other cheesy idioms that I use when I teach.

  • Productive Practice Makes Perfect
  • Practice Makes Permanent
  • Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Productive Practice Makes Perfect

Non-productive practice (noodling, riffing, jamming etc) seems to be the number one reason that some students can ‘practice’ for hours a day but never seem to make any progress. For practice to be productive, you need clear goals, and you have to be prepared for the hard-work, patience, concentration and determination required to achieve them. Too many students practice inefficiently and mindlessly by ‘running-through’ tunes/exercises/scales without focusing their attention on improvement.

Like most teachers, I usually begin my lessons by having the student perform what they have been working on that week. After the performance, I make comments and suggestions, identifying areas to address in the lesson. But occasionally I’ll ask the students to make comments on their own performances – essentially asking them to be the teacher for a moment. They need to actively critique themselves, much like I would.

A good practice session is like a lesson with yourself as the teacher – constantly examining and critiquing your own playing is the most important part of practicing. Similarly, when you’re with a teacher, you don’t noodle or riff mindlessly. You get engaged – lessons are short, and good teachers are hard to find, so you always try to make the most of it. Treat yourself with the same respect that you would give to your teacher, and you’ll find that you’ll progress far quicker. Productive practice is about taking control of your practice time.

Practice Makes Permanent

Everything that you practice your mind absorbs. While this includes new techniques, scales, chord shapes etc, it also includes any lazy shortcuts, posture problems, tension, fluffed notes, and mistakes. If you practice mistakes and don’t correct bad habits, then practice simply reinforces problems, and stops positive development.

Whenever we practice something wrong, we reinforce wrong technique. Whenever we practice something correctly, we reinforce good technique. So (ideally) we want to practice perfectly, so that we can cultivate perfect technique.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Now consider the student struggling with barre chords. Rather than persevere and continue playing with tension, the student stops and analyses her technique. Maybe she finds herself a full length mirror to more easily assess posture and body tension, or has a friend watch and comment on her muscle use.

It’s also possible that her difficult barre is a result of poor technique, so she looks on the net or borrows a book from her guitar teacher about barring technique and reads and re-reads until she fully understands the correct technique and efficient hand use.

Also, it’s possible that the tension has nothing to do with poor posture or poor technique – it could simply be injury or a quirk of that particular player – so maybe a massage or a visit to a physiotherapist will sort things out (Note: you should always take your guitar with you when you visit a physiotherapist).

Anyway, what is important is that the student sorts out everything that could be causing a poor barre before beginning practice. This way, she can practice the barre correctly the fist time, which means that she will only be developing good technique and not enforcing bad habits.

Think about the other student who was having difficulty with a fast passage. By slowing it down (not to mention using his metronome) and breaking the phrase into smaller more manageable phrases he is able to pinpoint any specific difficulties – such as fingering, picking patterns, legato technique, muting, co-ordination or something else – and address them first, or find a teacher to guide him if he is unable to address the problem himself. Again, the student has sorted out everything that could be effecting his ability to master the phrase, before learning it.

So, both of these students have learned to practice correctly. They have minimised time spent enforcing bad habits and wrong technique, and have made every effort to play as accurately as possible right from the outset. This means that every second of the practice session is making a direct, positive impact on their progress.

Before I go, here’s some food for thought: Don’t just practice until you get it right – practice until you can’t get it wrong.

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