The Art Of Practicing - How To See Real Results

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I have always believed that success, in practically any subject you can think of, is a direct result of "clear thinking". That is, the ability to understand very clearly what needs to be achieved and the action to set about surmounting very necessary hurdles in order to reach those goals. Less than successful people are either not clear in their goals or for one reason or another give up along the way. It's leveling that rough terrain, along with a clearly defined end result in mind that will get you there in the end. The success roadmap might go something like this:

Visualize goal => Surmount problems => Score

Sounds simple doesn't it? However, this clear thinking is all very well but it's usually the thought required before step 1 (visualization) that causes problems. Very often the goal does not manifest in mind because the process is so overwhelming.

And so it is with practicing the guitar, or any instrument for that matter. In more laymen's terms it's more like "What the hell should I be practicing?".

Practice is a constant struggle for many people. There is so much to learn and often so little time to allocate to it. For the jazz musician, clear thinking can be as simple as "I really like that Charlie Parker 2, 5 - how does he do that?". Then transcribing the line, practicing it in all keys and working the phrase into your own vocabulary. The 'score' as I like to call it is the ability to work it in to your own playing. I want to talk a little about that in a minute.

First, I think the most important thing to talk about is how to make best use of your practice time. There was a time when I started playing where I used to sit in my room and allocate 15 minutes to practicing scales and arpeggios, 10 minutes on technique exercises, 20 minutes on sight reading and 1/2 an hour on practicing my classical guitar repertoire. Why? because my teacher told me I had to. Years later once I started to study jazz guitar on my own I didn't feel the need to be practicing this way. It wasn't really benefiting me fully.

I started to have my own goals in mind that I wanted to reach. I wanted to learn to play like one or two of my heroes, but more importantly because I liked what they played. Even more under the microscope were certain melodic lines and licks that tweaked my ear and fueled me to transcribe or simply copy the way they phrased or 'felt' a phrase. Once I clearly had in mind what I wanted to achieve I could go about achieving it - I knew what I had to do.

It's important to sit down to practice and be really clear about what you are going to do during that practice time. Now, one thing that helped me tremendously was when I made a huge commitment to scheduled practicing. In other words, deciding that every single day, no matter what, I would sit down and dedicate exactly one hour to working at this instrument. The amazing thing I found is that my regularly scheduled practice literally fueled my regularly scheduled practice!

Does this make sense? What this means is that, the more I practiced, the more I wanted to practice. What started out as a committed hour turned into committed six hour sessions. Once I got into music college in London I remember waking up in the morning and practicing until I went to bed at night, remembering to eat on occasion. I was so fueled by the commitment to practice that the drive to play took over completely.

Regular practice clearly keeps your guitar technique on tip top form. There's nothing like picking up the guitar and playing a few short runs and being on top of your game, simply because you are playing regularly.

The other wonderful thing about committing to regular practice is that it actually helps you to think much more clearly, because you start to see results. Once you start to see results the concept of learning is much less overwhelming and you are able to make decisions about what you want to work on much more easily.

So do yourself a huge favor, first, make the decision to want to get much better at your guitar playing. Then once you have decided that, make a clear commitment right now and allocate a certain time of day to your guitar practice. If you only have limited time then give yourself what you know you can afford. Once you get your teeth into this system, if you don't have more time, trust me you will want to find more time. You might just want to wake up earlier. The drive to learn will take over.

Quality practice is key. I find now I am older that, if I let myself, I can get more and more distracted because there are so many other facets to my life. When I make the decision to focus 100% on my guitar problems and how I can surmount them, I find I can get completely absorbed for hours once I get going. Sometimes it helps to avoid those distractions from the outset. Maybe turn the phone off!

There is a huge difference between playing the guitar and practicing the guitar. I can play for days quite happily but am I learning anything new? Not unless I stop myself and work on my weaknesses. And there are plenty of those trust me! Many years ago I wanted to learn licks from my favorite players. I would hear a line and transcribe it. Many times I found that those musical phrases would not come out in my playing and I asked myself why. It dawned on me that there were three possible reasons:

1) I found the phrase too technically difficult to pull off.
2) It just didn't feel like it belonged in my vocabulary.
3) I hadn't fully explored the idea enough - perhaps I didn't fully understand how to use it in a practical sense.

Let's talk about these briefly.

Sometimes a horn line does not necessarily fit under the fingers on the guitar. The line might sound just terrific on a sax but if I can't play it on my guitar it's not going to have the same effect. In fact quite the opposite! Everyone is somewhat limited technically (although there are a few players that keep my head scratching I must admit!), every player has a ceiling in their own mind and I think it's perfectly OK to let some things go because they are just two gymnastic on the guitar. It's of course relative to each player's ability and comfort zone.

Occasionally I'll try and work something into my music vocabulary and it just doesn't feel like me. Some players sound great playing certain things and when I play them them they either sound too much like that other great player or I just don't feel it. Music has to be personal, it's OK to weed out stuff that you don't want to use, even when those 'weeds' are a rose garden to others.

The last idea is something very important I think. That is the idea that when you work on some new vocabulary or a new harmonic idea, that you fully understand how to use it and just as importantly, how to work it into your playing so it comes out naturally. Let's assume you are transcribing a lick on a CD you like. The first thing to do is to make sure you get the notes right. You might slow it down (there is plenty of software on the market that enables you to do this now). Whatever it takes, make sure the notes you are transcribing are correct. Then it is a matter of practicing that phrase so it feels good when you play it.

Now most folks stop right there and wonder why the phrase never shows up in their playing. The secret is to figure out exactly what chord (or group of chords) is being played underneath that line. After that, figure out what other chords could also be played underneath that phrase. Next, learn how to play that phrase everywhere on the fretboard, in different positions and keys. Finally and the most important, work the phrase into your own playing. To do this, start by improvising in any way that you normally might and focus on ways to connect that new phrase you want to play. The new phrase starts on a certain note and you will need to focus on that starting note in order to make a connection to it. Practice improvising freely and connecting to that new phrase, focusing on its starting note. Do this in all keys. Pretty soon you will know if the phrase is going to come out into your playing or not.

The art of practice is a huge subject and musicians have written complete books on it. But I do believe the real success starts with clear thinking. Make a decision to focus on something specific. Here is a more detailed roadmap to take on board:

1) Visualize. What do you want to work on - what do you want to achieve?
2) Plan. What exactly do you have to do in order to achieve that goal?
3) Action. Explore the subject in enough detail.
4) Surmount. Expect problems along the way - this is normal - don't give up! Just level the terrain.
5) Score - making sure that the subject is fully absorbed and part of your new musical make up, unless you decide otherwise.

Great players really got to grips with practicing in the early stages. It became fascinating to them and the results they saw fueled more practice. It's a self perpetuating phenomenon. By simply not practicing, the incentive to pick up your instrument diminishes over time. Then the excuses start to pour out in torrents. Then regrets. Then a very dusty guitar possibly in a dark attic somewhere.

Get practicing. Quality practice. Ask yourself questions. Look for the answers. Insist on results. This is the key to improving.

Chris Standring is an international jazz recording artist and educator. For more info about him and his highly acclaimed home study guitar course please visit

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