“We work more effectively when we continually alter our study routines and abandon any 'dedicated space' in favor of varied locations. Sticking to one learning ritual, in other words, slows us down."
—Benedict Carey, How We Learn
All of us, musicians and non-musicians alike, tend to share an image of what “practice” looks like. You sit down in a quiet room. You focus. You have concrete goals, broken down into tasks—ideally in written form—and you address each of them conscientiously. You use your metronome. It’s hard work, but you do it because you want to get better. That’s how it works, right?
Well, sure—but not always. Practice can take many forms. The thing is, we don’t commonly characterize all of them as “practice”—but we should.
There are myriad ways to practice, and as you continue to learn and grow as a musician, you will no doubt identify some of your own. Here, I’d like to discuss four modes of practice that I’ve found useful. I’ll call them: deliberate, casual, diverted, and empty-handed.
This is the “hard work” type of practice I described above. The term “deliberate practice”—which comes from a paper by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson—has been much in vogue lately, and with good reason: it’s the single best way to get better at anything, and in the shortest amount of time.
A good article on deliberate practice summarizes this approach as:
- Intentional [i.e., internally motivated and actively engaged]
- Aimed at improving performance
- Designed for your current skill level
- Receiving immediate feedback
In other words: exactly what we aim for with private instruction. Deliberate practice is always the goal, and most teachers—myself included—structure practice tasks with this model in mind. The best musicians spend hours every day in this mode, over a period of many years, and in a perfect world, we might not even talk about alternative modes of practice.
But let’s face it: we’re human. We have limits on the amount of deliberate practice we can sustain each day. Identifying your own reasonable limit, in fact, should be one of your goals as a musician. If you exceed that limit, you risk boredom or burnout.
Here’s the good news: your practice doesn’t have to end there. There are other ways to keep your instrument in your hands, other ways to keep growing as a musician and deepening your connection to the music you love.
Also known as “playing for fun.” You grab your instrument and play stuff you already know and like, because that’s why you took up an instrument in the first place. This is where you get to enjoy the fruits of your labors. No lists (unless it’s a list of songs you know), no keeping track of time—just fun.
Obvious, right? Well, not necessarily. Ironically, many of the most conscientious and motivated students don’t think of this as practice at all. They might feel guilty “just playing songs.” The truth is, there is always room to improve, even with songs you find easy. Chances are good you’ll find a squeaky wheel that needs some grease—especially on a song you’ve learned recently—or maybe you’ll discover a new way to approach a piece of music you’ve done the same way a hundred times.
This prompts a word of caution. I recently read a great quote: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” Take note of your squeaky wheels as you play casually, and plan to work on them during your next session of deliberate practice. If you don’t, you’ll be doomed to repeat your mistakes.
Nonetheless, remember: this is all about joy. Close your eyes, turn off the right hemisphere of your brain, and just play.
This one can be controversial.
My middle school music teacher, Mr. Huwiler, once got very upset with me when I mentioned that I sometimes practiced in front of the TV. “You should never practice in front of the TV!” he bellowed. I could practically see the righteous indignation billowing out of his nostrils.
Sorry, Mr. Huwiler. I still practice in front of the TV. Or with the radio. Or a podcast. And I encourage my students to do the same.
Why? Because it works. Diverted Practice is great for those times you just don’t have the energy to engage in deliberate practice, but have just enough energy to watch a Warriors game. Most passive activities like this only require about half a brain. So combine one with a practice task that also only requires half a brain and…swish! Win!
BUT—and this is a big but—this only works for a very specific kind of task. It must be something you’ve already learned, but which requires voluminous repetition to master. It is primarily mechanical, and because the learning part is already out of the way, you don’t need a lot of brain power. Let’s be honest; many practice tasks qualify:
• Technique exercises. Once you’ve learned a technical exercise, the goal is generally to improve that technique incrementally, through repetition. On the guitar, examples include practicing chord shapes and transitions, right hand speed exercises, hammer-on/pull-off exercises, scales, and finger independence exercises.
It’s certainly possible to get into a Zen kind of flow with this type of practice—no diversions required. But it’s also possible to get bored out of your skull, stop, and never start again. If you combine it with something fun, you’re way more likely to want to do more of it. Psychologists call this “temptation bundling”:
Boring-but-good-for-you + Guilty Pleasure = Success.
You can leverage this principle for your deliberate practice as well. How about a cookie if you practice for 30 minutes (or an hour, or two)? Dang it, you’ve earned it. See what sort of guilty pleasure gets you motivated.
More fodder for Diverted Practice:
* Difficult passages. Isolate particular passages of music that are giving you trouble, slow them way down, and play them over and over again while you enjoy a game of baseball, or a Game of Thrones.
• Solidifying and re-establishing repertoire. I’ve found that once a piece has been learned and good habits have been well established, I often don’t need more deliberate practice to master it—I just have to play it a whole lot. So much, in fact, that I may come to hate that piece with the heat of a thousand suns if I don’t have something to divert my attention a little. This helped me a lot when I was preparing my parts for The Portable Nutcracker (my guitar duo’s arrangement of The Nutcracker) for the third consecutive holiday season.
In fact, I’m not sure my classical guitar technique has ever been quite so ferocious. I binge-watched the first two seasons of Dexter, and spent every minute of it practicing. I did feel a little guilty at first, but after I crushed those Nutcracker concerts, I felt just fine. (Though I did have some Dexter-themed nightmares. Be sure to choose your content carefully. For me, sporting events and podcasts are the best; they have the least amount of background music to clash with what you’re practicing, and the content is generally benign.)
Remember: Diverted Practice should supplement Deliberate Practice, not replace it. But if you want to log extra practice time and just don’t have the energy for more deliberate practice, try this—and watch the hours fly by.
In other words: practicing without your instrument. Do you travel a lot? Have a long commute? That will inevitably squeeze out your regular practice time. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to productively use this time for the benefit of your musicianship. Here are some I’ve made use of:
• Active listening. Put on your headphones and listen—just listen, no multi-tasking—to a piece of music you’re working on. There are a million and one questions you can investigate without laying a finger on your instrument. What’s the time signature? How is the piece structured? Bring your notebook along, and map it while you listen. Get specific: how many times do they play that riff in the verse? How many measures in the chorus? If you have the sheet music: what key is it in? Does it modulate? Can you map out the chord progression with roman numerals?
OK, now get personal: how does this music make you feel? What does it make you think about? Jot it down in your notebook. Interact with the music on whatever level gets you excited. Artistic? Draw a picture as you listen. Literary? Create a story to go along with the music. Into history? Learn everything you can about this music—who created it and when, what their artistic milieu was like. Think about who might have influenced the composer, and investigate their music.
Studies show that the more angles we use to approach a piece of music, the better we learn it and the deeper we connect to it. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish without an instrument in your hands.
• Air guitar. Listen to a song you’re working on, and mime your part. Close your eyes and picture yourself with the band, or picture the score as the music flows past.
• Book work. Travel is the perfect opportunity to crack a book on theory, fretboard geography, music history, or any other important topic for which you ordinarily might not want to sacrifice instrument time.
• Build your calluses. I know—weird. But for us guitar players, especially beginners, good calluses are a major asset. In an idle moment, press the toothy part of a key into your fingertips, over and over, hard enough that it’s just mildly stingy. That roughly mimics the effect of the guitar’s metal strings. No keys handy? Any thin, hard edge will do (including nails on your right hand, if you have those).
Timing is Everything
One of the things I like about these different practice modes is how they can fit a wide range of moods, energy levels, and circumstances. Deliberate Practice is essential if you want to improve as a musician, but there’s no doubt you need plenty of energy and focus to sustain it. That makes it tricky to schedule. But if you can manage to carve out a consistent time (some popular choices: first thing in the morning, your lunch break, or right after school/work), you’re well on your way.
Still, that time is usually limited, and often displaced by competing demands. You will inevitably often find yourself at 9pm, exhausted, not having touched your guitar all day, and not exactly in the mood for hard work. Diverted Practice time. Likewise, you might look at your guitar at 4pm on a lazy Saturday and just feel like playing some tunes, no pressure. Casual Practice time. But who knows: you could find yourself at any time just burning to get that new song in your fingers, or motivated to polish your chops for an upcoming jam session; time to buckle down for some Deliberate Practice.
Balancing hard work and good fun is a perennial challenge for musicians of all levels, so don’t get discouraged. I hope that incorporating these different approaches to practice will help you maximize both the quantity and quality of your precious time with your instrument. Have fun—and tell Dexter I said hello.