Practice DOES NOT make Perfect

“Practice makes perfect.” is an often repeated phrase in the world of music lessons, but it’s a misleading one at best. Truth is, practice doesn’t make perfect. If that were true the person who practices the greatest amount of time will achieve the most. However,there are many students who “practice” diligently but never make progress in the ways that our necessary. There are others who seemingly practice little but progress in great strides. What’s happening?

The reality is, Perfect practice makes perfect.”

What’s the difference?

The difference is in the quality of practice, not quantity, and it makes all the difference.

Here are examples of bad practice:

  • Consuming study material as fast as possible without completely internalizing the lessons within.
  • Continually repeating mistakes with the hope that it will work itself out eventually.
  • Always starting from the beginning of whatever study material.
  • Trying to play fast without being accurate.
  • Practicing without an understanding of rhythmic placement.

While you might make initial progress while practicing badly, you will quickly plateau if you never address the core problems. Worse yet, you may learn bad habits and will have to spend more time fixing those than had you practiced properly.

Here are some examples of perfect practice:

  • Extracting as many musical lessons as you can from a single piece of material.
  • Practicing good technique slowly, and gradually increasing the speed as the movements become internalized.
  • Extrapolating problem areas in a piece of music and fixing them before reintroducing them into the full context.
  • Practicing with a metronome click placed on different beats to reinforce your internal sense of rhythm.

Perfect practicing will make sure that you address all of your problems and ensure steady musical progress.

Perfect practice is also a great time saver! This is a powerful motivator for me, or anyone who finds limited time for practice. If you don’t practice perfectly, you will inevitably have to correct the bad habits you pickup. As a result you will be spending more time on material that could have been conquered if you did it correctly from the start.




Practice with a Plan

Let’s face it, we all have times when we are short on practice time. Work, school, and social commitments cut into your time that could otherwise be spent improving your guitar abilities. We simply can’t abandon certain responsibilities, so it’s important that we make the most of the little time we do have. The most effective means to do this is to plan out exactly what is going to happen in your practice session.

How should a practice session be structured? There is an infinite amount of material you can practice. What is important is that we challenge ourselves continuously. In other words, we should be prioritizing that which we are not good at and to decrease the amount of time we spend reviewing what we are already good at. Many students can fall under the illusion that they are practicing by simply playing their favourite songs, which they are likely performing well already. Even worse, they’ll do it while watching TV and only be passively engaged with the material. This is not effective practicing, it’s simply maintenance of what you already know. Reviewing material has its place, but it should be less of a priority.

The first thing you should practice, perhaps after a short warm-up, is the most difficult challenge on the menu. Difficulty is subjective, so don’t pick a topic that is way beyond your reach. Simply do something that challenges you and keeps your mind engaged. Depending on the time constraint, you might not even get through the entirety of the topic at hand. That matters less if you consider that you will have opportunities in the future to revisit it. Repeat this process until you’ve mastered the topic, then move on to a new one. You may not be satisfied with the small progresses that are made in each session but over the long term you will be able to make far more progress than if you were to choose the easy stuff. The easy stuff is gratifying in the short term but will leave you feeling like you’ve wasted time when there is no progress over the long term.

I guarantee that if you can practice with this mindset, progress is certain and you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish even with limited time!

Pomodoro Technique for Practicing

The Pomodoro technique is a useful time management tool that can make your practice more focused and effective. This is a tool that has many applications and we will take a look at how we can use this technique to improve our music practice.

The concept is simple: work in short but focused bursts of uninterrupted productivity. The name pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

Traditionally, the pomodoro technique uses 25 minute intervals of work followed by a short break of three to five minutes, but there is no reason to be attached to these numbers. I’ve used the technique to practice in shorter intervals when the practice material took shorter to complete than that, or were particularly mentally demanding. I find the interval lengths should have an inverse relationship with the amount of energy and focus being used: IE shorter lengths with high intensity, longer lengths with low intensity. My breaks were generally around the 5 minute mark.

The full method goes a little bit beyond just breaking up work into chunks. The complete process goes like this:

  1. Plan out what the practice item is
  2. Set the timer
  3. Uninterrupted work until the timer goes off
  4. Record the completion of this interval
  5. If you’ve completed less than 4 intervals, take a short break (3-5 min is suggested)
  6. If you’ve completed 4 intervals, take a longer break and reset this count

We all have about a million things that we can improve on, so prioritization is going to be an important part of the planning stage. It’s fairly simple: practice the most difficult items first.

The greatest benefit to this method is the sense of achievement you will feel as you cross off completed tasks from your list. As a part of using this method you will also have a record of your tasks completed which adds to this feeling. It will motivate you to complete even more tasks!

Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is the Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!

How to Play Fast: Putting it All Together

I hope that my “How to Play Fast” series has been helpful to you.

Part 1 was about relaxation. Part 2 was efficiency. Part 3 was about playing accurately.

Now we will talk about the practical applications of the three principles.

The first application is to play as quietly as possible. Electric guitar players should turn up their amps to compensate. This accomplishes relaxation and efficiency because people will lighten up on their touch when trying to play quietly. Once you gain enough control over this new way of playing, you will find it easier to control the volume and tone you get from the strings. You will be able to make it “yell” or “whisper” for example.

The second application involves using a metronome. This will improve your accuracy. Start slowly, around 60bpm if you are playing eighth notes. After no less than three perfect repetitions of a piece of music, increase the tempo by 2bpm.  Within a half-hour, you will be reaching tempos you were unable to before. At a certain point you will no longer be able to keep up with the metronome. Take note of this tempo and aim to break the record next time, even by 1bpm. With daily practice, after a month you will be playing 30bpm faster! I also encourage the use of various metronome exercises that involve placing the clicks on different beats (2&4, only 4, etc.)

It can be hard to remind ourselves of all of the principles as a practice session progresses. A full length mirror is a useful tool to observe these principles being applied to ourselves. If you don’t look relaxed, you likely aren’t relaxed. Make sure no matter which angle you observe yourself, that you always look and feel no tension. Be patient with yourself as your body learns these new approaches and practice them until they become a habit.

That’s it! I hope you found this useful and good luck on your journey.