How to Practice Guitar

As a teacher of classical guitar, I had an opportunity to observe a young student of mine, 12-years-old, I’ll call him Nick.  Nick is a student of immense talent; he seemed from the beginning to possess a sense of phrasing and an ability to play with a beautiful and powerful tone.  He had grown up from early childhood listening to his father’s recordings of the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia, which I believe imprinted him with an acute sense of tone and sound.  If you are accustomed to hearing only the best beautiful, round tone then you tend to want to imitate that standard in your own playing.

Eric With Students

Unfortunately, Nick does not practice.  His classical guitar lessons average once a week, and during his lessons I’ve had to ‘practice’ him and do the work that I hoped he would do on his own. Normally I would not put up with a student who doesn’t practice, but Nick has shown me so many things about how a young person learns and retains material that I feel he provides valuable information  that I can pass on  to others.  He inspires me continually to think outside of the box in conquering my own set of challenges.

I would like to share some insight into a technique of practice that I have found to be very efficient as a result of having to ‘practice’ Nick during his lessons.  Let’s start with how to best use your time to learn a piece of music that is brand new to you.  Let’s use Estudio No. 9 by Fernando Sor as an example; for reference, this is the one in chords that I recorded on Homage. During our guitar lesson, starting from the beginning of the piece, I would take Nick through a phrase, very slowly and deliberately.  In the case of the Sor piece it would be about three measures. My original approach to practicing a section like this would be to play it 9 times.  Obviously I could not employ this technique with Nick because we had too much material to cover in our hour-and-a-half lesson.

To use the time most efficiently, we would start with the first three measures and only do three repetitions before continuing on to the next three bars, always being careful to back up a couple of chords so that we were not starting from a completely unfamiliar place.  For example, if the phrase that we had just practiced ended in the final chord of the third measure I would have him back up two chords or even start at the beginning of the third measure and do three measures from there. In a fifteen to twenty minute period, we would typically do 2 1/2  to 3 staves of music and then go on to another piece and take the same approach.  In about an hour and a half we would have been able to ‘practice’ through parts of 3 to 4 pieces.  Bear in mind that I say an hour and a half but it is really 4 to 6 sets of fifteen to twenty minutes with short breaks between.

I would see Nick again a week later and ask him “Did you practice?” and he would answer sheepishly, “No.”  In spite of this fact he would then proceed to play surprisingly well through the material that we had ‘practiced’ the previous lesson.  There was an obvious familiarity and muscle memory that had been established during the previous classical guitar lesson.  This happened time after time, which made me re-think the necessity for repeating things nine times.
I thought about it, reflecting on the fact that Nick is 12-years-old, very quick at learning things because of his youth and having no fear.  How could I begin to capture his ability to be so efficient?  These are the conclusions that I have been able to prove thus far:

• When I sit down with my guitar and practice something with multiple repetitions, it is like telling myself that I don’t have to concentrate so hard to make each repetition count, because I could continue to repeat it until I conquered the passage.

• When I put a limit on the amount of repetition and time I spend on each passage, my subconscious grabs on to every detail with a sense of urgency.

• If I tell myself that I can learn something very fast; demanding that I learn quickly challenges any sense of fear that I don’t learn as rapidly as I did when I was younger.

• I have also found that it helps to follow this regime for the three repetitions: Play very slowly, exaggerating the left hand pressure so that you are conscientiously memorizing the movements of the fingers on the first repetition.  After that, silently read through the section you have just played – without playing it – and imagine that your fingers are going through each movement. Play it again, a tiny bit faster but still exaggerating the left hand pressure as well as playing it loudly with a lot of power.  Stop and read through the passage again, only imagining that you are playing it.  Then play the passage for the third and final time.

• It is important to remember when starting the next section of a piece to back up a few notes or chords so that you are not starting a completely new section.  I call this ‘overlapping’.

• I find it is best to limit the time that I practice on each piece of music.  I don’t leave it open-ended. This again makes me use my time with maximum efficiency.

• I usually study five or six pieces at a time, averaging around 5 staves in each piece a day, unless the piece is very easy or repetitious in which case I try to cover more material.

• I write down my practice plan before I begin practicing, listing the pieces and how much time I plan to spend on each piece.  I have found it incredibly important not to play repeatedly at the same tempo because the same tempo tends to diminish the intensity of concentration.

• I try to avoid being automatic.  Between each repetition I remove my left hand from the guitar, give what I have played a few seconds to sink in and then start again.  Just like when you are watering a plant it takes time for the water to soak into the soil, the information you garner from practicing needs to soak into your memory.

• Even if I can only get through a small section of a piece because it is difficult and I can barely play it, I still limit myself to three repetitions.  I’ve discovered that your subconscious mind learns and automatically memorizes much more than we can imagine.

• I try to reinforce my ability to learn quickly and to memorize quickly by acting (or ‘pretending’ for lack of a better term) as if I do learn quickly when I doubt my own abilities.
This is a very successful method of how to Practice Guitar that resulted from observing how young students learn and conquer classical guitar.  It is not ideal to have a student who does not practice, but once again, I am reminded how important it is to stay aware and observant of other players, students as well as pros.