How Long & Often Should I Practice?
In previous blogs we have put the art of the practice routine/regime under the microscope. For this offering we are addressing the more specific quandary of ‘how much time should I spend practicing?’ and how often? With the ever present influence of that mythical 10,000 hours rule, it is no wonder that we guitarists feel the pressure to stack up the hours; put more in, get more out we’re told. Whilst there is truth in this statement, the ‘how much to practice’ is almost as involved as the question of ‘how do I practice?’. Here are some points to consider when deciding how much time is right for you.
1. Practice Means Practice
Read a little further into that famous Malcolm Gladwell theory of investing 10,000 hours in order to become proficient at any skill and you will note that it states clearly 10,000 hours of practicing ‘correctly’. This is where we need to draw the line between what qualifies as ‘playing’ your guitar and what comes under the official category of practicing.
Consider practice as anything which presents a challenges or isolates a skill; are you running through that song you know inside and out for the 100th time? Cranking out a solo over that A minor backing track again with those same licks and same scale shapes? You can see where this is going. Whilst every bit of contact time with your guitar is valuable and beneficial, meaningful practice is differs from performance. Tackling a new scale, song, chord progression or, in fact any skill which challenges you, is where we can pin the practice badge. And this is where many, in fact most of us musicians have a difficulty - we tend to avoid tackling the areas in which we feel like we our progress is being put in reverse - but it is actually in these areas where the true progress lies.
In summary - play guitar, have fun and perform, but allocate your practice time to the new challenges and activities which don’t come easy. We guitarists are not build for comfort zones!
2. Divide & Conquer
The guitar playing fraternity is chock full of legendary stories of young players practicing for a trillion hours a day and emerging as fully fledged guitar wizards, following their teenage years of woodshedding. However, putting in the pilot hours isn’t where its at; the quality of your practice and how you portion your time is key - whether you commit 20 hours a day or a modest 30 minutes.
Even the most determined and single-minded person loses focus after a surprisingly short period of performing the same task. You will see this yourself, with the best intentions, distractions and loss of focus always creep in after that first burst of focused practice. With this is mind, the golden practice ‘chunk’ is said to be 10-20 minutes, depending on the activity. After that it’s time to take a break for a minute or so, leave the room or give in to that Facebook distraction for a couple of minutes. This acts as a valuable ‘reset’ for your attention span.
Another strong argument for dividing your time into small 10-20 minute sessions is the notion that we, as human beings, tend not to hold on to new information or skills for very long; all the major learning actually only takes place at the beginning and end of every session. Practicing that new song or developing your picking chops for an hour is most likely to be just as, if not less effective than the same practice over a 15 minute window!
Whatever total practice time you choose, be sure to divide your session into bite-sized sittings.
As we will discuss in the next section, becoming more proficient on the guitar is the sum of many parts; focusing on a single skill, technique or song for the whole of your practice session will not give you the result you are hoping for. Plan your session (see our how to practice blog link). From the simple exercise of thinking about what it is that you intend to practice, you will no doubt list a variety of activities.
Allow yourself a few minutes before picking up the guitar to think, and write down, what you want to cover in your guitar session (refer to point 1 to make sure you get the balance right!). Once you have a list, decide how long you will spend on each area and stick to it! As an extra tip - place your priorities or new stuff at the beginning or end of your session - you will commit these to memory much more effectively.
4. Your Level & Goals
How much time you spend practicing, in each sitting, is very much dependent on your level and, of course, your personal aims and goals (if these are a little fuzzy and undefined, list them - what do you want to achieve on the guitar?).
If you are a relative beginner, a returning guitarist or you are starting to take things seriously with more regular practice, then long practice sessions also present some physical issues and considerations - until a maintained level of finger strength, dexterity and general stretchiness is at your disposal, you can run the very real risk of hurting yourself, so it is vital that you don’t over exert yourself. 1 hour is a very generous upper limit for any single session in this case.
As your goals change and evolve then so does the list of skills you will add to your practice wish list. More activities equal longer practice sessions but your total time should still take the form of those short divisions we talked about in point 2.
Struggling to come up with a set of practice activities? Turn your goals into skills - want to be able to nail that song? Draw techniques you find within the parts and convert them into exercises, seek out similar technique drills, look at your timing, your knowledge of the song’s chords/scales, other nuances of the style or explore similar songs.
To put a finer point on it - a 90 minutes to 2.5 hours session of focused practice is a good amount for any serious player.
5. Consistency Is Key
Like any other physical activity, cramming doesn’t work. Run a mile a day and you will swiftly get fit, run seven miles on a single day, once a week and you will do yourself more harm than good!
Daily practice is the key so aim for a minimum of 5 good practice sessions a week. This is particularly crucial for retaining anything new on the guitar; it is scientifically proven we (and our fingers) are simply wired to forget new information after seven days from first encountering it. Go too many days without practicing that new riff and you might have to start all over again!
Many teachers (myself included) advocate the benefits of a day off once a week too; playing the guitar can be mentally demanding and we guitar players tend to, unduly, self deprecate, place pressure on ourselves and wallow in our music rooms without seeing daylight until dragged away from our guitars. This isn’t healthy and taking a day away from the guitar once a week is crucial for your well-being. Have a complete guitar blackout for 24 hours - don’t look at guitars, watch guitar videos or think about guitar. A day away from your guitar resets your motivation and focus. It is very easy to burnout or become too close to your playing to see the progress you are making.
This is also a valuable reminder not to take things too seriously, there is more to life than playing guitar! After all, it’s supposed to be fun - even at a pro level!
Hopefully this has given you some more direction when it comes to your practice. Remember, you can still noodle, play and have fun with the guitar (that’s why its called playing!) but when considering practice, especially if your aim is to improve, then a little structure goes a long way!
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