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procrastinating guitar scale practice

Why You Procrastinate Practicing Scales (and how to stop)

Why is it so easy to put off practicing scales?

We all know that we’re “supposed” to be “practicing scales” and scale shapes every day, but for reasons we’ll get into, it’s very easy to procrastinate doing them.

In this article, we’ll look at what makes a task, like scales, aversive, and what to do about it.

The Anatomy of Ick: Why Procrastinate?

There is a LOT of research on procrastination. It costs companies big money, so the research is well-funded and well-documented.

Researchers have identified six common traits of tasks that make them more aversive (meaning we don’t want to do them).

They are:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Ambiguous
  • Unstructured
  • Lacking Intrinsic Value (fun, personal meaning)

An activity like “practicing scales” can have several or all of these. (Whereas “watching Netflix” has none of them. That’s why procrastinating watching Netflix is very rarely a problem.)

We’ll go through each of these, and come up with some ideas to counteract them.

Are Scales Boring?

If you find practicing scales boring, you have to find a way to make them more interesting.

One way is to use an incentive.

This could be working on the scale shapes just before something you’re very excited about, so that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel”.

You could have a special beverage or treat while practicing scales. (Allow yourself a bite of cake and a sip of coffee for each repetition!)

Another tactic is to gamify your scales.

Working up to a given metronome speed is a good way to add some excitement. (of course, speed is only one aspect of scale technique, and perhaps the least important, but it’s fun.)

You could also set a challenge, such as four times through perfectly at X beats-per-minute.  If you mess up, you have to start over at “1”.

A third is to more clearly define the challenges.

Using accents (notes that stand out), prescribed dynamics (swells and fades), or articulations (slurs, staccato notes, etc), or other variations can quickly up the interest level.

The important part is that you do something to add interest and hold your attention, even for just a few minutes.

One of my favorites is to play slow scales and focus on bodily awareness and the tension levels of all the parts of my body.  This feels really good, and trains ease into your playing.

**Find more ways to make scales fun down in the “Intrinsic Value” section below!

Are Scales Frustrating?

If you find scales frustrating, perhaps simplifying them or shortening your practice time would help.

Simplify your work.

You may be having a hard time balancing all the aspects of playing a scale.

Playing scales involves:

That’s a lot. You can simplify this so that you can have a better chance at feeling successful.

Ways to simplify scales:

  • Play hands separately (one hand at a time)
  • Simplify the LH pattern (such as just 1234 on each string)
  • Slow down
  • Clarify which aspect you’re focusing on and let the others go by the wayside. You can focus on a different aspect with repetition, and focus only on that one. (then two at a time, then three, etc).
  • Limit your scale practice time.

By giving yourself a set number of minutes, you ensure that the end is in sight. This makes it all easier to take.

Another benefit is that if you only allow yourself, say, 5 minutes on scales and not a second more, you’ll likely increase your focus and awareness for that 5 minutes.

So you can often have a 5 minute practice that does you more good than a 15 minute practice, because of your focus and attention levels, and have also be more fun and rewarding (or at least less frustrating).

Are Scales Difficult?

If you find scales difficult, the answer is to simplify and slow down.

Simplify: Easy is better

We talked about simplifying scales above, and here we have it again.

In both technique practice, such as practicing scales, and in pieces of music, the ability to simplify your work is a very useful and effective skill.

Slow Down.

Someone once said that the most difficult piece of music ever written is still easy, if you play it slowly enough.

If your brain is having a hard time keeping up with everything, you could just be going too fast.

Develop the awareness to notice when speed is working against you, and the discipline to slow it down to the point where it’s doable. (of course, if you slow it down to the point that it’s boring, you’ve gone too far.)

Is Your Scale Practice Ambiguous?

I think this is a common one. When we think about “practicing scales”, we may not have a clear picture of what that actually means.

Words like “practice”, “play” and “do” are very ambiguous words. The remedy for ambiguity is clarity. Clearer goals and a definite time frame help to crystalize the image of scale practice in our heads.

Define clearer goals.

Instead of saying, “practice scales”, you could say something like,
“25 repetitions of the the E-shape major scale, moving up and down the fretboard, at 100 beats-per-minute, with I and M alternation, listening for consistent tone and volume.”

There’s nothing ambiguous about that. You know exactly what to do, and how to do it.

Of course, make sure that you clear instructions don’t trigger any of the other traits, such as being too frustrating or difficult.

Limit your practice time.

Just as we talked about above, less is often more.

For a long time, I wore a watch (remember those? this was the pre-iphone era.) with a timer.

For each little part of my practice, I would give myself just a few minutes, and when the timer ding-ed, I had to move on.

This worked very well, not just for technique work, but also for detailing tricky spots in music.

There’s something about racing the clock that raises the pulse and creates a sense of urgency.

Is Your Scale Practice Unstructured?

It’s very easy for tasks such as scale practice (or doing your taxes, or organizing your house) to lack a noticable structure. This makes them very easy to procrastinate.

Breaking your practice into discreet sections, setting time limits, and clarifying goals and outcomes can all help to provide a sense of structure.

Break your practice into sections.

Just by breaking your practice into a few different sections, you can feel more comfortable knowing that there’s a structure in place to work within.

Just as your entire practice is likely already broken into sections (for example: technique work, new pieces, old pieces), you can break down each part of your practice into smaller sections.

For scales, this could be:
1. Slow scales, listening for legato
2. Working with the metronome
3. Scale passages from pieces

You could create little areas of focus on other aspects of good technique as well. the sky’s the limit.

Work with a timer

Again, limiting and predetermining the length of time that you’ll practice scales can work wonders.

You can also work with scale practice videos, and commit to finishing the video. This sets a given amount of time as well.

Clarity Clarity Clarity

As we talked about above, get very clear on what exactly you are working on, and you’ll practice with purpose and be effective.

Skills like classical guitar scale technique are developed over time, so you can feel absolutely fine about making very specific little focus goals, and know that you’re building a great technique that will expand over time.

Do Scales Lack Intrinsic Value?

If you don’t find scales fun, or if they have no personal meaning for you, it’s difficult to talk yourself into working on them.

The trick is to remind yourself what good scale technique will get you, and find ways to enjoy them more.

Tip: Writing these down can help you to remember, and you can pull out the list if ever you need to.

Make Scales More Fun

We talked about “gamifying” scale practice earlier. Creating some sort of competition (even against yourself, or your previous bests) can give the needed boost to moral to clear this hurdle.

Other ways to make scales more fun could be:

  • Moving to a different place or turning a different direction to practice them. (like by a nice window.)
  • Throw some cookies in the oven and practice until they’re done.
  • Imagine that your scales are a piece of music and you’re performing for the Queen (or someone else grand).
  • Play your scales in the nude, or in your Sunday Best.
  • Imagine, Indiana-Jones-style, that you have to play the perfect scale or else the floor will drop away or a big rock will fall on your head.

Give your scales a future purpose.

Think of the music you hope to play in a few years. If you had amazing technique and musical abilities, what would you choose to play?

Working on scales is an investment in the future.

Working on scales is an investment in the future. It helps to have a clear picture of the future you’re creating so that your current practice has meaning.

Procrastination is a Gut Thing

Often, we procrastinate as a reaction to a visceral feeling we get when we think about an aversive task.  It’s not so much a thought, as a simple repulsion, or gut reaction.  More feeling than thought.

Use your thinking mind to triumph against your reptilian, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, non-thinking brain

Start to notice when you get this gut feeling, and use that as a cue to check with yourself on which of the above is the biggest issue.  Use your thinking mind to triumph against your reptilian, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, non-thinking brain.

Just Get Started

As you may have noticed, it often takes just as much time to dread and avoid something as it does to just do the dreaded activity.

Nike says, “Just do it”. But again, that’s ambiguous.

It takes just as much time to dread and avoid something as it does to just get started.

Instead, say to yourself, “Just get started.” If you want to quit after 30 seconds, fine. But at least you’ve gotten over the hardest part: starting.

If You’re Going to Procrastinate, Do It Right.

If you are going to procrastinate, you may as well make it productive.

Make a list of other things you can practice in lieu of your scales.

These could be:

That way, instead of just procrastinating, you’re actually compromising a bit and still doing something useful.

(Of course, at some point, practice your scales!)

If you are going to procrastinate, you may as well make it productive.

Humor and Compassion

We all procrastinate. It’s just a part of being human and having a well-developed brain. It’s natural.

It’s easy to spiral into negative self-talk and low energy when we’re avoiding or procrastinating something like practicing our scales.

If and when you notice this little cycle, just give a little laugh at yourself, as you would a child.  Take it lightly and it won’t last long.

Take yourself lightly.

Developing classical guitar technique is really hard. It takes tons of time, attention, focus, and personal discipline.

We all fall off the horse at times, and have to climb back on. Have some compassion and go easy on yourself. Dust yourself off and get back in the saddle.



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4 Responses to Why You Procrastinate Practicing Scales (and how to stop)

  1. Joe February 7, 2016 at 3:53 am #

    Hi Allen,
    I agree with everything you said and I confess that I find scales rather relaxing and meditative. And I practice them because I think they develop technique. BUT… as a struggling classical player of some years now, I don’t think they pay dividends as quickly or as obviously as they do for other styles of guitar. For example, rock/country/folk players play solos one note at a time (though sometimes at high speeds) and the scales make neat little boxes and patterns to find the notes they want. Useful stuff. But classical players often play multiple notes at once using several fingers. It is easy to just read the notes on the score and put your fingers in the right places and not really pay any attention to keys and scales. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, as you are a master guitarist however I hope you get what I’m trying to say as am amateur.

    • Allen February 7, 2016 at 8:07 am #

      Hey Joe,
      I get what you’re saying. There does seem to be more immediate or obvious payoff for other styles of music. And pound for pound, arpeggios are perhaps more useful on CG because we use them more often in music. But scales offer specific benefits as well, especially as we start caring more about sound quality, connecting notes and what not. Cheers, Allen

  2. Shmulik February 7, 2016 at 3:25 am #

    Hi Allen
    Great advices, thanks.

    Another nice benefit that can arise from practising scales,
    is that when playing C major scale on 0-th, 2-nd, 5-th, … frets it has C-A-G-E-D scale shapes accordingly.
    So it’s a good way to remember both how notes are placed on the neck and the scale shapes.

    Cheers,
    Shmulik.

    • Allen February 7, 2016 at 8:01 am #

      Great observation, Shmulik!

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