What would you consider a successful practice? If you’re like most people, you want to
- have fun
- feel successful afterward
- learn beautiful music quickly
- and see regular progress in your playing.
And if you’re like most people, sometimes these happen, and sometimes not.
But what if there was a simple way to ensure that you get more what you want out of your practice?
Moving From Short Term, to Long Term, to Embodied Memory
The ultimate goal, when learning a piece of music, or a skill, is to become so innately competent that it becomes effortless. Like using a fork, or riding a bicycle, or knowing our names, we don’t have to “try” any longer. It’s just there when we need it.
But for this to happen, we have to first learn effectively enough for the new information to enter our short-term memory.
Once there, we need to get the new information to enter our long-term memory. This way we can remember when we need to.
With practice, we don’t even need to try to recall the information or action anymore. It’s part of us: completely fluid and natural.
But this is easier said than done. Because for every correct repetition, we often also have incorrect repetitions. These serve to “muddy the water”. The brain and body can’t differentiate between right and wrong – it just learns what it’s taught.
Practice mistakes “muddy the water”.
In the end, whatever gets the most repetition will usually become what the body and mind consider “right” and that’s what it will integrate and embody (for better or for worse). Trash in, trash out, as the old computer mantra goes.
However, the math isn’t that simple. Not all repetitions are created equal, and not all get equal influence in the mind.
As it turns out, timing and chemistry both play a role as well.
Josh Waitzkin (chess prodigy and world champion martial artist) once described a conversation he had with snow-skiing legend Billy Kidd.
Kidd, who’s known for skiing in a cowboy hat, asked Waitzkin, “What are the 3 most important turns of a ski run?”
"...most people say the middle because it’s hardest, or the beginning because they’re just getting momentum. Billy describes the 3 most important turns of the ski run are the last 3 before you get on the lift. And it’s a subtle point. That’s when the slope is leveled off, there’s less challenge. Most people are very sloppy. They’re taking the weight off the muscles they’ve been using. They have bad form. The problem with that is that on the lift ride up, they’re unconsciously internalizing bad body mechanics. As Billy points out, if your last 3 turns are precise, you’re internalizing precision on the lift ride up."
So our final repetitions get more “weight” in the learning process!
If we end our practice, or any part of our practice, with a very high quality repetition (or 3), we’ll internalize those correct repetitions, and progress more quickly. We’ll learn the material faster, and have less need to go back and solve problems due to faulty memory.
End with high quality, and you internalize high quality.
Keep your Flow Afloat
Ernest Hemingway is known to have believed and worked with this concept as well.
Hemingway famously ended his writing day mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, while he was in a peak writing state. He refused to write to exhaustion, instead preferring to walk away at a time of high-quality focus and creativity.
Not only did this reinforce his confidence and skill (as he “digested” quality until he next wrote), but it also allowed him to return to a place of success. When he sat down to write, he entered into a completely comfortable place, where he already knew what he was writing. Brilliant!
Not only did this strengthen his writing (by internalizing quality), but it also triggered the reward centers of his brain, making it more appealing to return the next day.
End With Feelings of Successful Practice
When you leave feeling positive emotions, you’re more likely to return.
Our minds begin to associate that action or information with rewarding feelings. For us, the equation becomes:
Guitar practice = Pleasure (I get to feel smart, successful, and graceful? Count me in!)
However, the opposite is true as well. Habitually end tired and spent, after a string of frustrating mistakes, and you’ll subconsciously come to associate practice with difficulty, failure, and struggle. You just won’t want to practice.
Little Ends and the Big End
While we’re mainly talking about ending your entire practice on a high note, this also applies to the different zones of your practice.
End your scale work on a good, clean execution. End your exercises on strong, well-placed reps. End your work on a new piece with a perfectly memorized measure, played cleanly and intentionally. Everything you do, make sure the last one’s a good one.
End Your Guitar Practice Early if Necessary
If you hit a personal best, play more inspired than ever, or surpass your high score (however that works), it may be most advantageous to just put down your guitar and “leave the stadium”.
As they say, “Always leave ’em wanting more.”
You may get more benefit from “digesting” and internalizing your big success than you would from another few minutes of practice. This is a long game we’re playing, and growth isn’t always linear.
After a successful practice, you may be more inspired to practice well tomorrow, or to share your music with someone. You may elevate your self-image as a musician, and gain more confidence. With the positive emotions (and therefore chemicals) running through you, you may add more to your long term memory over the night.
To sum up, make sure the last few repetitions of anything you practice are of your best and highest quality. Your best focus, your best sound, your best technique, everything.
End both your practice areas (such as technique, new music, detailing tricky spots, or maintaining pieces you know) and your entire practice session in a place of energized, focused success.
Not only will you feel better about yourself and have a better musical life, you’ll also learn more quickly and ultimately play more beautifully. Ah, the joys of successful practice!