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How to Use an Ordinary Timer to Supercharge Your Classical Guitar Practice

Have you ever felt overwhelmed at the sheer number of different things you could practice on classical guitar?

Or have you had only a few minutes to spare for practice, and didn’t know exactly how to use the time most constructively?

Or, conversely, have you ever had all day to practice at your leisure, only to find at the end that you didn’t get much of anything done?

While freedom is great, sometimes structure makes everything easier, more productive, and more manageable.

Common Challenges in Classical Guitar Practice

Learning to play classical guitar is actually learning how to practice classical guitar.

Over 90% of our time on the instrument is spent practicing. Practice is the daily act that comprises our lives and our musical experiences.

But practice isn’t always easy. There are common challenges we encounter in classical guitar practice.

Overwhelm: Too Much to Do

Scales, right hand patterns, chords, exercises, sight-reading. And we haven’t even gotten to the music yet! Any piece may have a dozen or more little tricky spots that need attention.

With all these different areas of practice, it’s easy to feel overwhelm.

Classical guitar practice is supposed to make life better. It’s supposed to be a challenging but rewarding endeavor we can explore for years and decades.

When we feel overwhelmed, we can remember, “Yes, there is a lot that I could do. But I can only do one thing at time, and might as well enjoy it.” Or, as in the Bill Murray movie, What About Bob, we can “baby-step” through the guitar practice.

Feelings of overwhelm drain our energy and obliterate our motivation to pick up the guitar. Especially if it’s combined with…..

Not Enough Time

Many people have busy lives. And it can be difficult to carve out the time each day to practice. Practice is rarely, if ever, urgent. So other, more urgent things are apt to take up our time and energy.

One of the most common frustrations and regrets among classical guitarists is the feeling of “not enough time”.

(As an aside, I’ve frequently heard this complaint from guitarists only able to practice a few minutes daily. But also from some who are frustrated because they only have two hours each day, and feel they need four or more. It’s all relative!)

A reframe for this could be “I have enough time for something. Perhaps not as much as I would like, but I can sit down and do good work, if only for a few minutes.”

Too Much Time

Likewise, for the retired or vacationing, too much time can be an issue.

When nothing is scheduled, it becomes easy to put practice off until later. Or to practice with no plan or structure.

This often leads to….

Mind-wandering

Mind-wandering is probably the biggest antagonist of the practice story. For every minute we spend with wandering mind, we have not only lost that moment of practice, but also ingrained a bad habit.

Focus is one of the elements that creates beautiful music and the performances we can be proud of. But focus is trained, like a muscle. And mind-wandering, or “anti-focus” is automatically ingrained unless we actively focus.

“We don’t rise to the occasion, we fall to the level of our training.”

As many in the military community say, “We don’t rise to the occasion, we fall to the level of our training.”

Related: Are You Practicing, or Exercising?

One Dynamite Solution: Use a Timer

One simple tool we can use to erase many of the challenges above is a basic timer.

By using a timer, we create a framework for our practice. We create limitations and restraints, and increase focus.

The Brain Likes Urgency

When we only have a few minutes to do something, we feel a sense of urgency.

If I told you this page would self-destruct in three minutes, you’d probably start reading faster, and perhaps put more attention on the main the points.  (Or run from the room….)

When we introduce scarcity (in this case, of time), we make each moment more valuable. Our minds pay more attention and put more importance on each moment.

This means we learn faster, and recall more of what we learn.

How to Use a Timer in Guitar Practice

There are numerous ways you can use a timer in your guitar practice. Which you choose is up to you. If you try a few of the following practice methods, you may find one or two that you enjoy more than the others. If so, use those and ignore the others.

Limit Overall Time

If you have all day to practice, decide beforehand how long you’ll dedicate to practicing.

If it’s one hour, then set your timer for the hour and stop when it signals the end of the hour.

Knowing that you only have the hour (or whatever length of time you choose) will help to keep you alert and focused during your practice.

If you have several areas in which you wish to spend time, you’ll likely be more focused and aware of the quality of practice in each area.

Especially when you…

Define Blocks of Time for Different Practice Areas

We can also split our practice time into large sections dedicated to a specific area of practice.

The main areas are

  • technique,
  • new music,
  • and existing pieces.

For the hour mentioned above, we may set the timer for 20 minutes and dive into our technique practice. At the end of that, another 20 minutes of learning a new piece. And the last 20 minutes for polishing and playing our existing repertoire.

The blocks of time don’t have to be even. You could just as easily spend 5 minutes on technique, 5 minutes on repertoire, and 50 minutes on a new piece. Whatever works best for you on any given day.

Focused Detail Work: Short Bursts of Intense Focus

When detailing tricky spots, it can help to set a timer for just a few minutes.

Allowing only 3 minutes for a tricky spot encourages us to practice deliberately, with great focus. If we know that this is all the time we have for it, quality of repetition and focus become paramount.

This is especially useful when we have numerous spots to detail and limited practice time.

Do this daily, and tricky spots tend to disappear as if by magic. After a couple of weeks of brief, intensely focused sessions on a section, we can see massive results. This also lets us avoid feelings of “grinding” on the problems.

What Makes a Good Timer?

Any timer will do. Though you may come to find one that you prefer.

A timer can be analog or digital. It can be a single-function device (the “Pomodoro Technique” was named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato), or an app on a phone, or a feature on a watch.

That said, there are some features that make life easier.

Easy/Quick to Set

The less fussing with it, the better. Any timer you use should be easy to get to and easy to set. If not, you risk getting distracted or frustrated with it.

Minimizes Distractions

If your timer is on your phone, turn off notifications from other apps. If you’re focusing on scales, and only have 4 minutes to practice them, you don’t need a Facebook notification popping up telling you what your sister’s friend from high school thinks about the new restaurant in her town.

Better yet, when practicing, turn off wi-fi and cellular altogether, and just use the timer app.

If you use a kitchen timer, make sure that you are okay with any noise it makes. The constant ticking of a kitchen timer could keep you focused, or it could make you anxious. Know thyself.

There When You Need It

Ideally, our practice timer is easy to get to, and easy to use.

If you have a routine surrounding your practice, you may incorporate setting a timer into it.

If you use a non-phone timer, you may consider leaving it in your practice space. In sight, in mind.

For the Ultra-Organized: The Programmable Timer

If you wish to step up your timer use and get very organized, you can use a programmable timer to structure an entire practice.

Programmable timers allow you to set alarms for several times. When you hear a chime, you switch to the next activity or practice area.

Using programmable timers, we can split our practice time into numerous sections, and cue the transition from one to the next.

As a couple of examples, an hour practice session could be split into

  • 6 10-minute sections
  • 9, 9, 9, 5, 7, 7, 7, 7

Likewise, we can program various lengths of practices, so that whatever time frame we have to practice each day, we have a timer already set to organize it.

For instance, we could create practice routines for 20, 30, 45, and 60 minute practices. Each day, we simply choose the appropriate one and get down to business. This immediately helps us feel in control and on task.

A Tool is Just a Tool

Timers are wonderful tools, but in the end, they are just that: tools.

No amount of structured time will counteract poor technique or lack of focus.

But when we use a timer to create structure and keep our attention on the present work, we can progress and advance at surprising rates.

And if we can use this tool to remedy feelings of overwhelm, lack of time, or lack of focus, we can feel great about our practices (regardless of length).

Simply going through the routine gives the feeling of a job well done. And some days, that’s all we need.

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2 Responses to How to Use an Ordinary Timer to Supercharge Your Classical Guitar Practice

  1. Ruben Navarro April 22, 2017 at 7:06 am #

    Thank you, Allen, for reminding me of this process. I put it to good use during my career and more so while I built a website a few years ago.
    There are so many details in building a website that I needed the app I used to get everything done.

    I hadn´t thought about it but it makes perfect sense for our guitar practice.

    I´ve used an app called “Kanbanflow.com”. It includes a “Pomodoro Timer” and you can set it to various projects/practices you set before hand. It´s very flexible and free.

    I´ll start using it and report back on my results.

    P.S. I used to be a pretty decent typist but I´m having to relearn with the longer nails on my (i,m,a) right-hand fingers. lol..

    • Allen April 22, 2017 at 7:42 am #

      Thanks for the app tip, Ruben. And good luck with the typing!

      Cheers,
      Allen

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