The Classical Guitar Practice Approach of A Very Busy Person!

To all of you, dear readers, who are playing or learning guitar, at whatever level, whilst studying, working, raising a family, looking after loved ones and/ or generally running around like the proverbial fly with a blue backside, I salute you!

Its not an easy thing to dedicate oneself to learning and developing a craft such as the classical guitar in amongst life. And I know that only too well first hand.

But just because something is challenging does not mean it is impossible. It means one has to think a little differently about what, where and how you practice, what that practice entails, calibrating expectations of yourself (and the self-induced pressure that that all too often entails), what outcomes you’re aiming to achiveve and of course a smattering of discipline and will.

Little Miss Busy - Penguin Books
Little Miss Busy – Penguin Books

I can go into the taking pressure off yourself, calibrating expectations, looking at what you want to achieve and so on in another post, but today I thought it may be helpful to share with you my general approach to practice now that my life has become rather busy. For newcomers here, I took on a fantastic and exciting role about 18 months ago which sees me with some longer hours and travel to some part of Australia on a very frequent basis.

I say “general” approach, as the specifics about what and how I practice can and will change depending on what I’m learning and if I have any concerts coming up. And the specifics will change for you too depending on your current level, what you’re aiming to achieve and so on. The general principles, however, apply just the same across the board,

My practice schedule, almost needless to say, has had to change to reflect my change in circumstance. And that’s fine – to be otherwise would be tantamount to stupidity and a sure fire way of giving myself a nervous breakdown. Which I’m sure you’ll agree is less than desirable!

So here are some of the key insights into the practice regime of a very busy person!

Consistency

One of the key principles that remains the bedrock of my practice regimen and something I’ve spoken about frequently on the blog is CONSISTENCY.

We are what we repeatedly do, or something like that, to partially quote Aristotle. In practical application that means practicing or at the very least playing the guitar (and there’s an important difference I’ll come on to) more days of the week than not. Even if that means just 15 minutes with the guitar because I’m tired and my brain is practically hanging out of my left ear. Something is most definitely better than nothing, especially when there is the potential for a very busy period to be a number of days or longer.

Focus and Purpose

When I do sit down with the guitar at the moment, its typically for one 40 minute session per day,  5 to 6 days per week. And when I do sit down to practice I do so with a very specific purpose in mind.

In recent weeks, for example, I’ve been learning the Fugue from Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998. Not a small work, and not an uncomplicated work (on the LMusA list in fact for when I get back on track with that).  I have been breaking this up into small bite sized chunks, tackling just 8 bars in a 30 – 40 minute sitting, really teasing out knits and tangles, tricky technical challenges, examining and rearranging fingerings, understanding what’s going on in the music, its direction and how I want it to sound. I might spend then 5 or 10 minutes slotting it back into context in the broader section or movement but keep the practice session focussed very much on that 8 bar section, knowing prior to starting that it’s that 8 bar section I want to work on and what I want to have achieved by the end of my session.

I’ll also either start or finish my practice session with a major scale and relative minor with full combination of right hand fingerings. I’ll make my way through the whole range of diatonic scales over a number of days and then go back to beginning.

Breathing Space

Focus and purpose goes out of the window though if I am feeling very tired with poor concentration ability. There’s no point in torturing myself! I have to be very tired though, and in this case I’ll still pick up the guitar and play through either a piece, part of a piece or a few scales just to keep the fingers moving.

I definitely don’t do this for more than one day, but giving myself permission one or two days a week to have some less involved practice time and just playing for the heck of it is as important as it is relaxing. Which is key when one is very busy!

8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

I read a great article recently that really supports some of my own thinking and experience in practice and playing and what really gets you bang for your practice buck. Or in other words what actually works and what doesn’t. The article references a study undertaken a few years ago at the University of Texas at Austin looking at pianists. Different instrument admittedly, but the same principles most definitely apply.

One of the most important of these 8 things that apparently top practicers do differently that I find works extremely well for m (and used to recommend highly to my students), is not practicing in mistakes. Play something through very slowly, be confident of where you’re placing your left hand and right hand fingers before playing. Even if it means you’re playing reeeeaaaaaaaaallllly sllllllooooooooooooooowwwwwly. Much better this way, that encourages the correct learning of a phrase or piece, with the correct physiology, building the correct habit, than literally practicing in a incorrect movement and then doing the work all over again to unpick it and learn it correctly.

Yes, it may not sound so fluid initially, but stopping and just taking the time to make sense of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it will pay musical dividends in the long run. I promise you.

It also has a couple of interesting concepts that I had been thinking about too recently, including does aiming to play with ‘feeling’ right away assist in the learning? My instinct in has been yes for some time, and there seems to be something to it according to this study referenced by the article. My figuring is that you’re not only using your practice to build in a physiological habit, but also a musical one, and getting to know the music itself not just the fingering. That can only strengthen ones learning of a piece in my opinion.

Classical Guitar

So here are the 8 things that top practicers do differently:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice (OK this is quite a piano-based one, but in applying this to the guitar think knowing what fingering you’re using for both left and right hands, not just your fingerboard hand)

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection. (See!!)

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s. (i.e. don’t just go through the motions – 10 minutes of thoughtful, focussed practice is worth way more than 30 minutes of just going through motions)

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes. (Stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared. (And again stop playing those mistakes in every time!)

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected. (Shall I say it one more time?!)

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

To read the whole article, and I strongly encourage you to do so particularly for the top three practice strategies and one strategy to rule them all, head along to:  http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/8_things_top_practicers_do_differently