Most musicians have had the experience of going through a practicing slump—a time when they knew they should be hitting the woodshed but found themselves avoiding it by procrastinating. Why does this happen? You may feel overwhelmed: There are just too many things you could work on, musically, and you don’t know where to start or what to do. It may be that when you do find time to practice, you can’t summon the energy. Or you may feel stuck in a rut, just spinning your wheels and not making progress. It’s time to get back in touch with that love/hunger/yearning that made you want to play guitar in the first place.
One of the reasons we often lose enthusiasm for practicing is that as we get more accomplished, daily improvements in our playing become more subtle. The fact that you don’t always see daily progress actually goes hand in hand with becoming a better guitarist. And the problem is that when you can’t tell you’re improving, practicing quickly loses its allure.
This article details how you can set yourself up to illuminate your progress as you make it—and have more fun as you do it. Before you start, remind yourself what initially made you choose the guitar. What has inspired you since then? It might be a style of music, a particular artist, or the sound of the instrument. Maybe you found it a practical way to accompany yourself or others. Keep those things in mind as you work through the steps below.
Set a Clear and Achievable Practice Goal
Take a minute and think about something you want to get out of your playing, jotting down a few notes if that helps. Choose something you think you could make progress on in about six weeks. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just doing this step can quickly clear a way forward. Knowing exactly what you’re aiming for will help you focus as you practice, play, and even listen to music.
For now, stick with just one goal. It might be playing up the neck, integrating a new scale into your breaks, improving your flatpicking skills, playing in DADGAD tuning, learning a backup pattern for jigs, getting more relaxed with singing and playing, knowing the I, IV, and V chords in three new keys, etc.
Try to distinguish between achieving a practice goal and learning a new tune or song. Think of songs or tunes—whether Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing,” Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” or Kaki King’s “Goby”—as the tools you use to accomplish your practice goals.
Measure Your Progress
Get a notepad or digital device and write down your goal, today’s date, and an end date. Every time you practice, spend a few minutes working on your goal. You can spend five minutes, ten, or 20—it’s up to you. More than that is fine, but don’t get too stressed out about spending a lot of time. The most important things are to be consistent and to write down what you did.
Make your notes brief: “D and A chords in three positions”; “Accuracy! Top four strings only!”; “Gm, Bm, Cm blues scales—practice (5 mins), blues improv over looped backing track—70 bpm.” The next time you pull out the guitar you can quickly pick up where you left off. Run through those minor blues scales again, spend a little more time on the stickiest one and maybe add a new one. Push the metronome up a couple of clicks. Feeling OK with DADGAD in one tune? Move on to another.
When you can, give yourself a pat on the back. Write it down! “Flatpicking: ‘Soldier’s Joy’ 90 bpm!!!” Highlight it, underline it, draw a star, whatever. Give your brain a reason to remember your milestones. Daily notes will help remind you that you’re moving forward. You can even flip back through your notes occasionally to see what you’ve been working on. That may inspire you to revisit something, or just give you a mental boost.
Make It Fun
Watch for signs that practicing is becoming a chore. As soon as you start to feel that way, take action. You may want to make your daily goals less ambitious. Cut out something entirely if it’s not inspiring you today. For me, the first thing to go is technical exercises. Some days I love them, but definitely not always.
Try going slower. When you slow down enough that you can actually play what you’re working on, frustrations melt away. Dial down the metronome or backing track; tap your foot more slowly. Try to ignore the fact that you’re playing at only 57 percent of Doc Watson’s speed. It’s OK, really.
If you feel physically and emotionally drained when you’re done, that’s not going to help you get excited about playing next time. Try practicing for a shorter time or take more breaks. Set a timer. End your practice session with a feel-good tune that you play well.
Assess Your Progress
When you get to the end date you wrote in your notebook, take a look back. Did you make more or less progress than you expected? What specifically helped you get there? What worked and what didn’t? Is there anything else you might like to try?
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The purpose of your assessment is to help you do even better next time. Try not to get hung up in negative self-evaluation. Instead, congratulate yourself on the fact that you stuck with the program for six weeks, no matter how imperfectly. Now you have some great choices to make: Do you want to move on to a new goal? Explore this one more deeply? Is six weeks a good length of time?
By working just a little more methodically, you can turn practicing into something you look forward to. Your time in the woodshed can rejuvenate you, fill you with energy, and make you want to go back and do it again tomorrow.
Judy Minot is the author of Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.