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Practice Makes Perfect

(But only when you do it right!)

· Performing

As musicians, we’ve heard the importance of practicing our entire lives. My private teachers would get mad at me for not practicing enough. My mom used to make me set a timer for the amount of practice I had to do each day. She even told me she would stop paying for music lessons if I didn’t practice.

We’ve had beaten over our heads how important it is that we practice. But the truth is, the amount of time you practice doesn't dictate how well you progress. It's actually more important that understand how to practice effectively and efficiently. And a lot of musicians never learn that. I know I didn't when I first started learning how to play.

But when I did have a teacher who walked me through the best way to organize my practice time, it changed my life. (Like, suddenly I could learn new pieces twice as fast and I had no problem staying focused for hours at a time.)

I wanted to share some of those strategies I learned to help me stay focused and learn music efficiently:

Set goals.

This is the most important step. Without goals, you’ll just be aimlessly wandering. You might improve eventually, but you’ll waste a lot of time along the way.

Your goals need to be specific. “Practice for 30 minutes” isn't the best goal. “Repeat that tricky guitar part in the bridge of this song until it’s committed to muscle memory. Then play it in the context of the song with a metronome until I can play it consistently.” …THAT’S a goal.

I like to take a second to write down my goals before I practice. If your main goal is to “learn X song with both guitar and vocals” then break it down into steps. Here’s an example of how to do that:

  • Play through the chord progression and make sure you can switch from chord to chord seamlessly.
  • If there’s a chord transition that’s difficult, practice switching between those chords on a loop.
  • Play through the entire song with guitar without stopping.
  • Add in the vocals. Play through the whole song and take note of any tricky spots.
  • Isolate the tricky spots and practice them on a loop.
  • Put it all together - Play through the whole song without stopping.

Identify, then isolate.

The fastest way to learn a song is not to play it 100 times straight through. The fastest way is to identify the tricky spots. Isolate them. Play them until you could do it in your sleep.

Sometimes, when I’m lazy, I’m in denial about those spots. I just think, “all I need is to play through the entire song again and I’ll get it this time.” When I could have solved the problem MUCH faster if I had just worked out the tricky spot on its own.

So do yourself a favor. Admit to yourself that every section of the song is not an equal level of difficulty (it NEVER is!). So give the more difficult spots the attention they deserve.

Sometimes, when I’m lazy, I’m in denial about those spots. I just think, “all I need is to play through the entire song again and I’ll get it this time.” When I could have solved the problem MUCH faster if I had just worked out the tricky spot on its own.

So do yourself a favor. Admit to yourself that every section of the song is not an equal level of difficulty (it NEVER is!). So give the more difficult spots the attention they deserve.

Start with the most difficult task.

This is something I personally have noticed. When I save the hard spots til the end of my practice session, I often get too burnt out to give them the attention they need - or even worse, I call it quits before I even get to them.

I find I’m most motivated at the beginning of my practice sessions – and when I tackle those dreaded tasks first thing, I have SO much more energy for the rest of the practice session because that weight has been lifted and I can focus solely on the fun stuff.

When you save the hardest tasks til the end of your practice session, you’re procrastinating. It’s not helping you or your music. Get that baby over with, then move on.

Use a metronome.

Oh the dreaded metronome…

If you’ve never used a metronome to practice before, you might be surprised at how difficult it is to stay with the beat. It takes some serious focus and the ability to adjust your tempo with every beat.

Once you get the hang of it, though, it will change your life.

You’ll realize you were rushing certain sections, slowing down in other sections, and suddenly those little inconsistencies in your tempo will become glaringly obvious. (Don't worry, that’s normal!) We’re not robots, and those little tempo changes throughout the song are what make us human. But the metronome can help illuminate major tempo changes that we weren’t even aware of.

It also will help you with practicing those tricky sections – it’s SO hard to slow down a section that you’re used to playing full-speed. The metronome will help force you to maintain a slower speed for the sake of practice.

P.S. Here's a tip, If the clicking of the metronome just drives you CRAZY, use a drum beat instead! As long as you have the ability to control the tempo of the drum beat, it serves the same purpose as a metronome. Just don't choose a drum beat that's so complex you can't even hear the beat or stay with it. :D

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