Updated: May 27, 2020
Everybody knows that regular practice is an essential part of becoming a better musician. What many people don’t consider is that how you practice drastically influences how quickly and efficiently you can reach your musical goals.
Inefficient practice can be frustrating, sometimes leading bored, frustrated students to give up on their instrument altogether. Effective practice enables a steady sequence of “little victories” that help build students’ enthusiasm for music.
Here are a few ideas to help you practice better:
Use a metronome.
Many players have a tendency to slow down when they reach hard passages to make the part easier to play. Once it’s done, they speed back up until they reach the next difficult section. This feels fine when you’re playing alone, but it builds bad habits that make it very challenging to play with other people, especially if they’re used to doing the same thing! The steady pulse of a metronome or drum machine provides a rock-solid rhythmic point of reference that highlights any inconsistencies in tempo or subdivision.
Start practicing at a lower BPM than the original. Once you can play the song perfectly at the slow tempo, increase the metronome by small increments until you reach the correct BPM. Then if you want to really “own” the part, try playing it perfectly 10-20% faster. (Don’t forget to come back to the right BPM if you’re preparing for a performance. You want to internalize the correct tempo or you’ll play it too fast!)
Break it down.
Inefficient practice sometimes looks like this: you start playing a piece over and over again from the top, only to crash and burn at the same tough spot every time. By the time practice is over, you’re frustrated, discouraged, and you still can’t play that part. (or anything that comes after it!) Instead, try isolating the difficult phrase or section and breaking it into manageable chunks. Each chunk becomes a mini-exercise that you can loop. Once all the parts are clean and in-time, put them back together and play them in context.
Use backing chords/tracks.
Just like your metronome provides a rhythmic point of reference, playing with chords in the background provides harmonic context for whatever you’re practicing. You can use online backing tracks, a looper pedal, or an audio interface into recording software: anything that lets you hear the chord progression that you’re soloing over.
Unlike singers and wind instrumentalists, guitar players can play lots of notes for long periods of time without every stopping to breathe. This can lead to a “quantity over quality” mindset that isn’t very intentional or musical. Singing the notes as you play them helps you internalize the melody, connecting your ear to your hands. Try doing this with and without your guitar to develop better phrasing and play more musically. (It also helps with memorization.) You don’t have to sing beautifully or be perfectly in tune. Even humming along makes a big difference!