Learning to play any instrument is challenging but the rewards are immense. To minimise the difficulties, it’s important to practise in the most productive way possible. Musicians are taught best practice techniques from the start. Good well structured practice is not difficult but will make a huge difference, enabling you to progress faster and stop you falling into bad habits.
As a guitarist I often see Youtube videos with titles such as “Learn to play guitar in two days”. Hmm, in reality, learning to play any instrument to a proficient level takes a lot longer even if you were to practise all day every day. There’s no shortcuts. If you want to improve, practice is key.
Let’s check out how to make the most of your practice sessions.
Always warm up
To avoid injuries, spend five or ten minutes running through scales or whatever you find easy that gets the muscles moving. Make sure your hands are literally warm as well. Cold muscles are more prone to injury and strains because the muscles and connective tissues are less elastic.
Use your warm up to get yourself into the right headspace as well. You want to be fully focused on what you’re doing. Eliminate distractions and be fully present in the moment.
Little and often will always beat long sporadic sessions. Think about the realistic amount of time you can practise each day as an ongoing commitment. You might find this is only thirty minutes once you’ve factored in everything else going on in your life. That’s fine, the idea here is to create a plan you can stick to. Remember you need time to relax each day as well.
Once you decide upon a time, stick to it as best you can. Don’t worry too much if you miss the odd day. Sometimes things come up that are more important. Make sure though you get back to practise the following day.
Break up your practise
Us humans are not able to give our full concentration to one task for long periods of time. Some research suggest we lose concentration after just fourteen minutes. If you have decided you’re going to do one hour of practice a day, three twenty minute sessions will be more beneficial than a full one hour session.
Keep the maximum time you practise to around half an hour to keep your concentration levels high.
If you don’t have a tutor to set music and exercises for you, find songs or pieces that push you a little but don’t overwhelm you. Think of each accomplishment as a stepping stone. Once you’ve mastered a song or piece, you can move onto something a little more difficult. Eventually you will be able to play music that was well out of your range when you began.
You might have an ultimate goal in mind, a difficult song or piece you really want to play. Again it’s important to slowly build up to it by mastering easier songs first.
The dreaded off day
After a few days of making great progress, you suddenly find you can’t do what you were able to do a week or two ago. This is just the way it goes. Learning is not always a linear process. Sometimes you will have frustrating days or even weeks and then things start clicking again. Try not to be disheartened or lose motivation. Complete your practice and look forward to the next session which hopefully will be better.
Enjoy yourself as much as possible
This is really important. You might not feel like practising at times but it doesn’t have to be monotonous and boring. Make sure you inject as much fun as possible into your practice sessions.
Practice songs or pieces that push you a little, but that you enjoy playing. Take regular breaks. Try not to get frustrated or angry when you’re struggling, just keep chipping away and most importantly remember to recognise the progress you’re making.
Concentrate on the difficult parts
Trying to play an entire piece through from start to finish is not the best way to learn. Breaking a piece down into sections and getting each section right is a far better option. You’ll come across parts you find difficult. These bits should then be isolated and practised over and over until they become easy. You may need to repeat a hundred or more times before you find you are able to play troublesome parts correctly. Then go back to practising the section they are in. When you’ve got all the parts right, try playing the whole thing through.
When you’re learning it’s imperative you slow the tempo down and concentrate on playing the part correctly. All you’re interested in at this point is playing the part without mistakes, even if you really have to slow down to half speed or more.
Playing a part correctly is crucial for developing the required muscle memory. Slowing down gives your brain time to learn how to play a piece correctly. If you play too fast, you’ll make mistakes. If you keep making these mistakes you’ll start reinforcing them which is the last thing you want.
If you go slow enough, you could probably play almost anything. Use a metronome to keep yourself at a pace that’s comfortable. Only increase the tempo once you are able to play over and over with no mistakes at your current tempo. The idea is to play the piece slowly with great technique, slowly increasing the tempo as you learn.
Metronomes are great for fixing timing issues as well. If you find or suspect you're not keeping good time, play to the metronome over and over until you get it right.
Sometimes it can take days or even a few weeks to learn how to play a difficult section at full speed. Stick at it, persistence is key.
Once you have got to the point you can play through a piece over and over without mistakes, make sure you record yourself and listen back to it. It’s surprising the little details you hear listening back to a recording that you just didn’t notice when concentrating on playing.
Learning an instrument is difficult and takes a long time. Remember to celebrate your milestones. Set a reward to give yourself once you complete a piece or song and play your latest accomplishments to family and friends.
There’s a lot more to practise than just sitting down and having a go but it’s not difficult to learn how to make the most out of your sessions. Good practice will help you learn faster, reinforce good technique and make learning more enjoyable.
Slowing down and isolating the section you’re struggling with is crucial.