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Practice Methods and When to Use Them. Pt 2 Instrumental Practice

A little while ago we talked about how to approach guitar practice when you have no access to an instrument. This hopefully helped you realise that not having access to your instrument is no excuse for missing out on practice. However there is, of course, no substitute for actually practicing with your instrument. Here are a few different approaches to help you achieve your goals a little more quickly.

Active Practice

This is what most people think of when they think of practicing an instrument. Sitting down with your guitar and some music/technical exercises and playing them intensively. But there’s a lot more that can be taken from this form of practice than simply robotically repeating scales and phrases over and over again.

The first mistake most people make with this sort of practice is approaching it with no clear aims in mind. A personal trainer would tell you that you need to focus on something specific when going to the gym, such as aiming to run a little farther, or lift a little more than you did in your last session. This helps you improve one specific thing greatly, rather than make very small steps in lots of areas.

But how do you decide what to practice? With all the numerous possibilities open to you when it comes to music, picking one focus can feel like disregarding hundreds of others. So I’ve included a useful troubleshooting checklist here for you to print off. This will help you prioritise your practice methods.

To start with play a song you have been learning, need to learn, or one you know fairly well...

When you can do all of these things you have completely mastered your piece. Have a little fun playing it as a treat to yourself, and then start looking for something harder to do next time!

Passive Practice

So now you’ve worked on, and made good progress with, a particular technique or idea. Time to start from scratch and work on something new? Not quite. There’s another form of practice that can be useful to you at this point. We’ll call it passive practice because it’s written all in bold and underlined up above this paragraph. See that? Are you gonna argue with it? I’m certainly not.

Put simply it’s practicing guitar without putting your full focus on it. Perhaps while watching a few episodes of something on TV, or videos of other people playing computer games on Youtube (Apparently that’s a thing that people like now for some reason).

This might sound like It won’t do much to improve your playing, but used correctly it can be helpful in consolidating the skills you have developed in your more intensive practice sessions. Take your newly learned scale, chord sequence or song or whatever you’ve been working on, and sit down with some other form of entertainment. Play the piece again and again, fast, slow, forwards and backwards. Improvise with it, try it in different keys, as many variations as you can think of.

What you should find is that, whilst normally a particular exercise can only hold your attention for half an hour or so, you should be able to focus on the same idea for a much longer time. Also the relaxed nature of this kind of practice will help eradicate the tension you sometimes feel in your arms or fingers when you try too hard to nail a difficult piece. This will really help make it a natural part of your playing, and enable you to develop the muscle memory to pull it off effortlessly.

Play With Other Musicians

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on learning to play was to never be the best player in the room. That’s not so much a licence to not practice and play shoddily, as it is an encouragement to seek out players better than you and play with them. From time to time it’s still something I try to put in to practice to this day.

When you first start out there are few things more terrifying than the thought of playing with other people for the first time. Especially if you know they are good. But musicians are generally fairly forgiving types, and they were all in your situation once. So if you’ve got some friends that play, invite them round for a few drinks and break out the guitars. Show them what you’ve learnt so far, and they’ll probably be able to jam along. They certainly won’t mind if you hit a bum note or two, everyone does it from time to time!

The best part of this kind of practice is when they start getting you to play things you would never have even thought to look at on your own. This kind of ‘out of your comfort zone’ type learning will really push you, and take your playing in to new places. If you find that you have become bored with your normal practice routine, playing with other guitarists is the quickest way to remind you of the endless possibilities that music can hold. And it’s pretty fun too.

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