So much to learn, so little time!
When you take an overall look at all the things you need to become good at, in order to be a well-rounded, capable guitarist and musician, the project of learning it all can seem overwhelming. The fast way out of overwhelm is to hire a teacher and ask him or her to tell you what to practice and in which order, but this method isn’t always the most effective.
THE CHALLENGE OF FIGURING OUT WHAT TO PRACTICE NEXT
Though it feels really nice to put this responsibility on someone else, it might actually slow your progress down measurably. Just think about it: No top guitar players reached their skill level by taking weekly guitar classes. They were all driven from within – faced with the frustrating challenge of figuring out what to practice next.
Mastering the guitar is a never ending project because total mastery of this instrument never occurs. There is always something you can become a lot better at. And anyone who disagree might benefit from taking an extra look. This means that you can keep learning and growing all your life without ever arriving at “the final destination.”
So, we really need to develop a way of choosing what we should focus on at any given moment to keep us from floundering and achieving very little with our time and effort.
“Anything I’ve done that really worked happened because, either by sheer will or a lack of options, I was incredibly focused on one problem.” – Evan Williams
PRACTICING A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING CAN BE TOXIC
The most common way of approaching the enormous mass of stuff to learn, is to practice a little of each skill every day: Some chords, scales, techniques and some theory. Baby steps in all areas, moving forward bit by bit until YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR MIND WITH IMPATIENCE AND FRUSTRATION! (Sorry for shouting)
This approach is actually very useful for the beginner: In order to be able to have some amount of fun with your new found interest, you need to get some basics in place. And, that involves practicing a little of everything.
But if this is the way you proceed once you can play all the camp fire chords, do some steady strumming and crank out a couple of successful blues scale licks, then I can assure you that you will learn at a catastrophically slow pace. The strategy of “a little of everything,” is perfect for the beginner but toxic for the intermediate.
THE ESSENCE OF FAST PROGRESS: FOCUS!
Mastery is the opposite of this. A little of everything will ensure that you consistently take steps away from mastery and towards mediocrity. Again, there is nothing wrong with being average if that is the game you feel like playing (And why the h … not play that game it might be more fun and a lot easier?) but if you want to reach mastery level in anything, YOU NEED TO FOCUS! Paradoxically, taking in less, is the answer to coping with a mountain of things to learn.
WHAT YOU WANT TO PRACTICE AND WHAT YOU SHOULD BE PRACTICING
Whenever someone asks me what they should focus on I usually ask them these two questions:
1. What do you find the most exciting right now?
2. What is your weakest key skill right now?
The first question will bring out what you most feel like practicing based on your enthusiasm. If you find sweep picking enormously exciting right now, then focus on that all you can! Learning in a state of enthusiasm and excitement will speed up the learning process many times. As opposed to hacking away at some area that does not excite you, but that you know you “should” be focusing on. (You know, like school)
The second question is based on logic and strategy. And, while it’s a good idea to bring the awesome powers of your brain to the table, logic is not always the clearest beacon to follow, simply because it’s a poor motivator.
WHAT IS YOUR WEAKEST KEY SKILL?
If you look at the key skills of being a great guitar player you might come up with a list that looks a bit like this:
1. Rhythm / Strumming / Fingerpicking
2. Soloing / Techniques / Scales and arpeggios
3. Chords / Riffing / Theory
If you imagine yourself performing and using all these skills, which one skill would you say is the weakest? Which one skill would bring your total skill level up the most? Look at your skills as an engine in a car with the different parts working together. The engine will only be as efficient as the weakest part in it and there is no point in working to improve the fuel injection if the fuel pump isn’t working and there is no fuel to inject.
Working on the fuel pump first will give you the best results. Once the fuel pump is up to level, there is another part of the engine that is the weakest and that you can start optimizing. This never ends, only when you do.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT?
Practicing the thing you are the most excited about right now, is often the right answer to what you should be practicing. Since passion and enthusiasm are scarce resources we must feed them and act on them whenever they appear.
Figuring out what your weakest key skill is and then working to get that up to the level of your other skills, is the logical way of determining the most effective path to take. But your weakest key skill might be strumming, and you might not find that exciting at all. So any plan to practice it intensely over the coming weeks might not be such an effective idea.
Instead, you can reserve the 25% of your practice time for these not-so-exciting skills and then focus on what you are the most passionate about for the remaining 75% of your time. And, if there is nothing you are particularly excited about right now, go for the weakest key skill and start bringing that up to level.
CREATE A PRACTICE PLAN IN ONE MINUTE
OK, so now we know what to practice. Let’s take a look at the how. Here are four steps that you can use to create a simple plan for the coming week of practicing:
1. Decide on a small and primary target for the week
– This could be a sequence, a lick, a set of chords or a riff.
– Decide on something so small that you can easily make noticeable and measurable progress on it, in a week.
2. Practice this primary thing for at least 75% of the time
– Measure your progress either by metronome or by simply recording yourself at the beginning and at the end of the week.
3. Use the remaining 25% of time to practice more general skills
– Continue the general plan of practicing a little of each, but do it “on the side”
4. When the week is over, decide on a new (or the same) primary target and continue
In this way you can shift your main focus every week while still practicing the generalities of playing guitar. Having a clear focus for seven days or more and spending most of your time on this focus, is the way to build your skills fast. You can decide to have the same primary target for more than a week. You can go for four weeks or more.
But keep your commitments to yourself at a level where you can deliver. If you decide to do a week of focusing on a specific legato sequence, then follow through on it. If you can’t follow through on your own commitments it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, it just means that you need to scale down the commitments until you can easily follow through on them.
“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” – John Hagee
If all you can commit to is one day of practicing X, then start by planning only one day ahead. Then go for two and so on. This is a matter of practice like anything else. I personally find it difficult to commit myself beyond four weeks in general. Simply because the excitement and passion evolves and changes and so the practice plan tends to become obsolete when I plan too far ahead.
DEVELOPING A PARALLEL FOCUS
Another idea I take into consideration is having a parallel focus. Learning fretboard shapes, chord shapes or understanding and remembering theoretical concepts, requires you to learn and forget as many times a day as you can during the day or week. In other words: When you practice technique, hours is required – but when you practice “remembering” minutes or seconds is all you need.
When you practice remembering something like a fret board pattern, you learn them and quickly move on so you can forget as much as possible and then re-learn it again. This means short practice sessions of a few minutes as many times a day as possible. And, these combine perfectly with your primary target for the week.
You could start every practice session with just two minutes of learning scale or arpeggio shapes. This could be a rule you followed from now on which would virtually guarantee that you constantly get better at scales and arpeggios. And, because it takes so little time per practice session, it combines amazingly with your primary target.
So combining one type of practice with another can give you equally effective results even though the time spent on each practice routine is far from equal.
PERFECTION IS NOT IN THE PLAN – BUT IN THE FACT THAT THERE IS A PLAN
Deciding what to practice and when – is not easy. But doing your best to find the most effective path will give you vastly better results overall than if you do nothing. So don’t be too concerned with the quality of your choice, just do your best and I promise you, clarity will improve as you grow and it will become increasingly easier to make the best choices for yourself.
The world is not perfect and will never be. The same thing applies to your practice schedule. The best you can do is attempt to create the ultimate practice plan and then attempt to follow it. It’s not the perfect practice plan that gives you results, it’s the constant trying to create an even better plan this time.