Practicing for Adults

Practicing for Adults- Road Dog, Fall ’00

Do you know any fishermen whom you can trust to accurately describe the quantities and lengths of their catches? Around here, when a friend tells me that he caught five fish averaging around eighteen inches, I immediately assume that he caught two or three and that the biggest was fifteen inches at best. I do it without thinking, and without assuming that my friends aren’t to be trusted in other aspects of their lives and their conversational reporting. It’s just the nature of the beast.

I get the same sort of response when I ask guitarists how long they practice, and of course practice in general is a hot topic at my Taylor Guitar workshops. Part of this is because most folks don’t understand that “playing the guitar” and ” practicing the guitar” are not the same activity, part of it is because they can’t remember how long they did either one last week, and of course, part of it stems from the fact that guitarists are motivated by the same desire to spread booyah as fisherman are.

When I ask folks at workshops what they practice, I don’t get exaggerations, but I do get a lot of blank looks. When I ask students to practice for me individually, they tend to launch into one song or another, waiting for me to say something. All of these confusing interactions suggest to me t(hat I might want to spend some time on these two topics, how and what to practice. The “what” portion will follow in the next issue)

How to Practice

We all love to play guitar, and don’t normally need much additional motivation to do so. The joy of playing is what led us to the guitar in the first place- we somehow had an intuition that, unlike that trombone we had in junior high, (or whatever band instrument that our parents foisted upon us in adolescence), we could have fun playing guitar almost right away. We bought or borrowed funky guitars from friends, they showed us a couple of chords, and bingo, we were sitting on the front porch singing and playing “Heart of Gold.” We’ve never stopped doing that, enjoying it immensely, and continuing to learn along those same lines. As far as practicing the guitar; isn’t that what we’ve been doing all along?

Actually, no. Here’s a definition for you all to consider:

“Playing” is going through whole songs in your repertoire, with enjoyment your primary goal, while “practice” is working on the parts of your repertoire that you don’t play well, in some systematic way that will help you play them better. That’s all there is to it.

Of course the devil is in the details. What do I mean by “working on?” Doing an hour of scales per day, plowing through complex chord books, and chaining oneself to a guitar seat and leg rest for hours at a time?

Practice expectations are different for professional players than they are for normal folks who have lives and such, so let’s spend more time talking about the latter, the larger audience by far. I’m convinced that players can see real improvement with an hour of practice per week, as I define practice. Of course putting in more time will get you there quicker, but I want to give hope to the occasional player as well as the hard core. Does it do anyone any good for me to I tell everyone that they’ll need to work 3 hours per day, with 40 minutes allotted to scales and arpeggios, 60 minutes to sight-reading from a clarinet instruction book, 60 minutes working on the new pieces that they are trying to get performance ready, and the last 20 on makeup and hair? All that this will do is make most of us feel guilty when we do play, for not practicing enough, which will start to compromise our enjoyment of the instrument, and make us want to find another way to express our creativity, find a little stress relief and enjoy communal good will that we all now get from jamming with friends and playing informally. Stress-relief, not stress-inducement is what the guitar is supposed to be about for most of us.

Let’s check out the skills and the steps towards making that practice time as productive as possible. Here’s how to practice:

The first step is logistical- find a spot that is uninterrupted and comfortable. If you’re the type who doesn’t like folks to listen in to your practice, as I am, find a spot that puts you out of audio range of the rest of your household. It’s a good idea, because listeners can make you start playing to to please them, and soon you’ll find yourself playing whole songs instead of practicing. Go somewhere where you’ll feel okay exploring new sounds and doing repetitive playing, messing around in unfamiliar tunings, and even sounding inept when need be. Plug in if you want to. Crank up the effects if you like that grand sound. Amplifying your playing and practice is a fun way to sound big and stay motivated during down times. Try headphones: a great way to isolate yourself from your background listeners, and a wonderful aid for concentrating your own listening focus. Have a cassette tape deck at hand, even a $20 hand-held one, along with some music and note paper, for capturing ideas (and torturing yourself later on playback).

The second step is a mental one, and in some ways the harder of the two- making the psychic space in which you can give yourself time and patience with your own musical inabilities. I watch students wrestle with this impatience issue time and time again, and it’s made me ponder its origin. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

My guess is that as adults we have gotten used to being competent at just about everything that we do, and have largely forgotten our childhood experience of passing through each day with a positive attitude despite the fact that we are mostly goofy as road lizards, don’t have a clue about almost everything we’re being asked to do, and are unskilled at most of the rest. As adults our pride sees any admission of even partial incompetence as a giant step backwards, but it is anything but. Getting comfortable with the idea that you’re not cool all of the musical time, and deciding to find out where these uncool parts lie in your playing, is the beginning of the real learning process.

Picture your practice time as a rewiring job on the house, where you’re a rank amateur, learning as you go, and realize that your impatience to finish the job could burn the house down. This is more than a cute metaphor, because neurologically this is exactly what we’re are doing, teaching our muscles and our larger audio-kinesthetic sense the exactly correct way to perform a set of skills that we don’t yet possess. This will take patience, and this patience can be your biggest practice gift to yourself if you’ll allow it to happen. I often describe and approach this as an almost meditative state of mind; this decision to let yourself work as slowly and painstakingly as necessary, and to recognize that bars 5-8 of the Chet Atkins arrangement on which you’re currently working needs special attention to flow as smoothly as the sections on either side of it. Glossing over the part which needs work is the same as installing faulty wiring, with the same consequences. We all know how hard it is to remove and remodel poorly-done wiring which lies underneath paint, drywall, and trim as opposed to having put it in correctly the first time around.

Some final tips for finding and staying in this practice groove: Sitting in front of a window with a view works for me. In motels I find a basketball game or nature channel to be a cheap imitation of my home window, use it with the sound off. Try doing the repetitive portion of your practice while reading a magazine or newspaper. The collective aim is to distract your visual sense, but nothing else, so that sitting and focusing on the listening and physical dimensions of practice are easier to do. More next issue.