It’s an old joke, but one that can be told in only two sentences because the punch line is something everyone understands: to get better at something, you must practice. And the more you practice, the better you get.
But telling you to practice isn’t any more helpful than telling you to diet or to exercise. You have to know how to practice in order to achieve success.
Imagine you are embarking on a weight-training program. Your trainer would no doubt place a lot of emphasis on training consistently, rather than on how intensely you train, or even how long you spend on each session. If you rush off to the gym and attack every machine as if there were no tomorrow, you will only end up sore and discouraged. Worse, you might overtrain, a condition in which you have burned your body out to such an extent that you become unable to continue training.
Believe it or not, learning to play a musical instrument (or any other endeavor that requires practice) is precisely the same. You may find this hard to believe. After all, not too many people work up a sweat practicing a musical instrument. There are few differences, though, between a guitarist in training and an athlete, when it comes to the mental aspects of the task.
So, what are the keys to good practice?
Practice must be deliberate. Just because you have picked up your guitar doesn’t mean that you are practicing. Sitting down and noodling your favorite tune is not practice. Practice, by definition, is working on something you can’t do until it becomes something you can do.
Rest is as important as practice. As we said above, Practice is working on something you can’t do until it becomes something you can do. That sounds hard, and it is. Deliberate practice is mentally (and often physically) taxing, and your brain needs plenty of rest between sessions. Research performed at Germany’s top school for violinists showed that the best students not only practiced more, they slept more, too.
So the bad news is that no, you can’t do a week’s worth of practicing the night before the lesson, any more than you could do all your weight training the day before the big game. It just doesn’t work that way. Sorry.
Your ability to practice builds over time. Again, think of training for a sport. If you trained deliberately and intently, how much time could you spend in the gym on your first day? Probably not very long. As you progress, however, not only do you become stronger, but you become better able to train.
Practicing music is no different. We all probably overtrained in our first days as a newly-minted musician. Our hands got sore from the barre chords (“Played it till my fingers bled” as Bryan Adams sang) and the mental exhaustion from the drills began to set in. Many students give up at this point, in just the same way many people only used their gym memberships for the first few weeks. There are a million guitars gathering dust in attics and basements across this planet, and a great many were only played for a few weeks.
To avoid this fate, remember that it takes time to build up your practicing muscles. Practice deliberately, but not too much at a a time (at first), giving yourself plenty of time to rest. Over time, you will find that you can practice for longer periods and with greater concentration.
Note: For the scientific background behind this article, please refer to The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, published in Psychological Review, 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406.