“How often should I practice?” is the most common question asked by my guitar students. Every student I teach has their own unique needs and goals. And they have their own unique schedules and problems too – there is work, or school, and chores, homework, friends and families to see, other hobbies, interests, and activities and they all compete for time. It’s absolutely normal that finding the time to learn an instrument, to take lessons and to practice, can be a difficult task. But no matter who my students are, how old they are, and what other things they have going on in their life, there are a few things that I recommend for everybody.
First – try to pick up your guitar every day. Even if it’s only five minutes. The best way to achieve that is not to store your guitar in a case. Take it out and put it on a guitar stand. Now your guitar is always in sight and within reach. A guitar is no use to anybody in a case. And when we only have five minutes to spare, waiting for Dad to find the car keys, or for the soup to heat up, or for someone to return a call, people tend not to open a case. But when the guitar is just ‘there’, easy to grab and play, you’ll be surprised at how much extra playing time you can get in over the course of the week. Some of my students have found that this was the single most important thing they did to improve their playing.
Second – make a very clear distinction between practice and playing. When we practice we should focus on one thing at a time. We should say to ourselves “for the next 5 minutes I will work on this chord change, or that scale, or this part of that song”. And when we decide to do that, we should do only that, nothing else.
Of course your mind will wander from time to time and you may find yourself playing something else. But that’s OK. Just bring your focus back to what you had first decided. When we play, we are enjoying ourselves, having fun, exploring the instrument. Playing is just as important as practice is, but it is NOT practice. To improve, you NEED to practice. That means we need to be clear about what our practice will be. Which brings me to the next point…
Third – when you practice be very clear about exactly what you are about to do. Let’s say you are going to work on finger exercises. It’s not enough to say, “for the next 5 minutes I’m going to work on finger exercises”. You must decide precisely which finger exercises you will do and in what order. How many for how long? You must also be very clear about what is an acceptable result. If you screw something up, go back and try it again. And when you do it right, don’t stop. Keep practising doing it right.
Finally – Don’t try to play too fast while practising. While it’s very tempting to do so, trying to play faster than we are capable of means we waste time playing badly. We need to spend more time with our fingers and muscles doing it the correct way. That means slowly at first and then we can speed up and push our limits a little. It can be frustrating at times, yes, but it is the fastest way to improve in the long run. It’s not always very musical, sure, but practice is not always musical. As I said in another article here, if we are not careful, we can end up spending our time practising doing something wrong, rather than doing it right.
As I said earlier, even if no actual practice is done, the whole point of guitar lessons is that you play and enjoy playing. If my students actually play and enjoy their instruments for even five minutes every day, rather than the guitar sitting unplayed for a few days at a stretch, I’ll be very happy. You will be too.