I ask your forgiveness in advance: I am that guy who, when asked a simple question, gives a big, long rambling answer. I aspire to be more Zen-like, and answer with short cryptic phrases involving nature words. But I’m not there yet.
Almost every beginning student I work with asks very early on, “how much should I practice?”
What they are looking for, I think, is a numerical answer. They want me to say, “You should practice 30 minutes every single day” or “45 minutes, four times a week.”
But I cannot, in good conscience, give those simple answers.
How much guitar practice? It Depends.
It depends on what you are setting out to do. (world domination, or simple enjoyment?)
It depends on how much time you have available an want to practice. If you are working full time and have 5 children under 8 years old, it will be different than if you are retired and have leisurely days.
It depends on how much mental energy you’re bringing to the table on any given day. It’s not all that fun to practice when mentally exhausted. Forcing practice at these times doesn’t excite us to play more tomorrow. On those days, a short practice (or none) is just fine. (If this happens frequently, perhaps practicing in the morning is a better option for you.)
It depends on HOW you practice. As they say, “Digging all day is only worthwhile if your hole is in the right place.” (We certainly want our hole in the right place….)
Classical guitar goals
How much time to allow for practice depends in part on what you are setting out to do.
If you sit down to practice with some solid goals, then you can simply work until you meet them.
You may have weekly goals. Either your teacher set them for you, or you decided on them yourself. If so, then it’s time to put on your “project manager hat”
Break your practice up into reasonable bits that will allow you to accomplish your goals in a week, and go at it.
If you don’t have any specific practice goals, then I recommend you get some. This is where having a practice notebook comes in extremely handy.
Guitar practice is a mental AND physical game.
There’s more to practicing just the number of minutes you sit down and do it.
The most important factor, says me, is the quality of focus that you bring to the table in your practice.
If you show up and bring your A-game, you can often get twice as much done in half the time.
If you sit down the practice, and you are distracted, thinking about all of your chores that you need to do, what so-and-so said about so-and-so, and that big sandwich waiting for you in the refrigerator, then it’s a different story.
One of the benefits of a regular practice is that it gives us the opportunity to hone our skill of focus. Practice allows us a venue to train our level of awareness.
Many people practice meditation for this exact reason. This is why, after a good practice, you may feel as though you have been meditating. We can get many of the benefits of mindfulness meditation from a focused practice. Pretty cool!Note: I am not suggesting that guitar practice is a substitute for meditation, just that we can experience SOME of the same feelings and benefits. If you meditate, don’t stop just because you read this little article!
Another interesting thing to take into account when talking about practice, is the way that the mind remembers things.
Try this: Look at this number for a full 5 seconds, then look away and remember as much as you can.
The mind prefers beginnings and endings to middles. This means that, given a list of numbers, we will typically remember the first few in the last few, but forget also the stuff in the middle. Did you remember the first and last few of this number?
This could be a weakness, or we could choose to use this tidbit of information to make our practice much more effective.
Regardless of how long we practice for in total, it helps to frequently switch up the type of work we are currently doing. This creates more beginnings and endings.
For instance, when learning a new piece of music, we could sit down and grind on it for a half an hour or 45 minutes, or we could do it differently.
Short, Focused Bursts
Instead, we could choose to focus on a small bit for a shorter amount of time, say five or 10 minutes. Then, we could change gears and move to something else. This could be within the same piece of music, or another “zone” of our practice (such as arpeggios, scales, or sight-reading).
If you really wanted to work effectively, you would then go back and review the small section that you were previously working on before moving on to something else.
Like a cat
If you have ever seen a cat stalk and catch a mouse, they do this. They pounce on it, and get the job half done. Then they move away and ignore it a little bit, licking themselves and feeling smug. Then they come back and play with it a bit more. Lather, rinse, repeat until they finally just eat the thing. Circle your piece of music like a cat!
OK, so how much do I practice?
I still have not given an answer to this question, because there is none. No single correct answer anyway.
My basic answer is:
Practice as much as you can while staying focused and enjoying the process.
On guilty feelings
One of the worst things you can do for your guitar playing is to feel guilty all the time for not practicing more. Of course you would like to practice more than you do. We would all like that. Join the club.
“Be grateful for whatever time you do get to practice.”
Instead, feel grateful for the time that you are getting to practice. Classical guitar is a beautiful instrument that challenges our mind and our body. It is a joy to learn and grow on.
Guilt is unnecessary baggage: don’t do it.
Wrapping it up
So here are your concrete takeaways from all this:
1. Make some goals
First, determine some concrete goals for the week, or some landmarks that you could hit within a week. It may be getting to a certain point in a piece of music, scale tempos, or anything else on your radar. Write them down. They don’t really exist if you don’t write them down. You may think they do, but they don’t. Sorry, but you won’t remember them. Nothing personal.
2. Bring your A-game
Next, commit to bringing your A-game. Think of your practice time as an opportunity to hone your abilities to focus like a laser. Show up with a good, positive outlook, clear mind, relaxed body, and general sense of “Up” (up is an attitude.)
When your mind strays, notice it and gently bring it back to whatever it is that you are working on. Do it over and over again. Be gentle with yourself. This is a learned skill and a muscle that has to be built.
Stay focused on the goals you set at the beginning of the week.
3. Structure your time
Then, alternate your work so that you give your mind plenty of “beginnings and endings”. Return frequently to anything new that you were working, especially if your goal is to memorize it (which I highly recommend, as a rule).
If you are practicing for a long time, remember to take breaks. Stand up and move your body. Drink water. Your brain and your body will love you for it!
4. Be grateful
Guilt gets you nowhere. Be grateful for the time you get to spend playing on a wonderful instrument. Appreciate that you make time for yourself and that you bring beauty and music into your life. Congratulate yourself for all your good work!
Over to you:
Now, please scroll down and let us know how much you usually practice and why in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you!