Make practice interesting

An anecdote that does the rounds in guitar circles ;-) is to the effect that John Williams, in response to a student complaint that practice is boring, said "Well make it interesting". That's sound advice to intermediate/advanced players but asks rather too much if you're relatively new to the game. Here are some of my suggestions how to take the drudgery out of practice.

Generally

It's a simple fact of life that repetition breeds boredom. But "getting good" on guitar demands repetition; so what to do about the dilemma? One tactic is to broaden your practice repetoire. By practice repetoire I mean all that you do on a day to day basis to develop technique and musicianship. It overlaps but is distinct from performance repetoire - the root, stem & leaves of the plant that has your performance pieces as its flowers, so to speak.

Having a broad practice repetoire means that within each area of study, pieces, right hand studies, scales and so on, you have a range of examples amongst which you can pick and choose from one day to the next.

Building up such a repetoire takes time of course, but does become easier the longer you stick at it. Try to memorise the better examples from your earlier easier material. With a range of material ready to hand you can move through the various phases of your practice session, effectively and enjoyably rather than under sufferance.

Lutenist with legs in stocks Hope and Patience Victorious

Scales and Arpeggios

Scales can easily become occasion for the sin of mindless repetition. Don't do it! Once you have learned/refreshed your knowledge of a scale fingering set some measurable goals for yourself. A technical syllabus such as provided by the music examination boards (Trinity College, AMEB etc) can be very useful here. Find the grade that is easy for you then adopt the next level as your objective. Do use a metronome for this type of practice, at least some of the time.

Rhythmic variation of scales is not only necessary for your musical development but also helps stave off needless repetition. The technical syllabae usually have some rhythmic variation from one scale to the next. But for general scale work you might like to use the set of rhythmic variations available from the Downloads section of this site.

From a technical point of view arpeggios are dealt with in two distinct ways on guitar: (i) as linear spellings of a given chord over one, two or occasionally three octaves and (ii) as studies/execises where a right hand fingering pattern is repeated over a chord progression.

The chord spelling style of arpeggio is a strictly technical exercise which for the purposes of your practice routine is best treated in the same way as your scales - played both tirando and apoyando, with rhythmic variations and tone colour variations.

The pattern style or arpeggio, invariably played tirando, occurs as purely technical exercises, as in the Giuliani right hand exercises, as studies such as Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 and Brouwer Simple Study No. 6, and of course as passages in many beautiful guitar works.

Many accomplished players swear by the efficacy of the Giuliani studies but it is beyond most mere mortals, myself included, to apply oneself to them for any appreciable period. In my view it is more realistic to develop a small repetoire of studies - Aguado, Carcassi, Giuliani etc. These need not be difficult but should present a realistic range of right hand challenges.

Technical Exercises

Under this category I include the "finger gymnastic" type of exercise: slurs (a.k.a snaps & hammers), barre exercises, chromatic octaves, stretches and finger strengthening exercises.

These present as rather masochistic on first acquaintance but given consistent practice over time can become just another part of your normal practice routine. Care must be taken at all stages of development however - serious long term damage can occur if you push too hard in this area.

As a beginner you may think the problem is rather getting yourself to do such chores at all rather than overdoing things. To that end I recommend using a digital timer. It's probably worth the small expense to buy a dedicated device (e.g. kitchen timer) - you want something that is very quick and easy to set and re-set. Use the timer as a psychological ploy by setting it to a relatively short period - two or three minutes - and telling yourself you can suffer the pain for just that brief time. Do it, then reset for the next exercise and so on for four or five exercises. This practice will also keep your finger gymnastics within reasonable bounds from an avoidance of strain point of view.

New pieces

Motivation is not often a problem when it comes to tackling new pieces - we all like to move on to something new. Misplaced motivation however can lead to frustration and disappointment. And however much you may want to play a particular piece your motivation will be misplaced if the piece is technically too far from your grasp. Acceptance of this fact seems to be among the hardest of lessons an aspiring guitarist must learn, and it is in this area that the guidance of an experienced teacher makes a serious difference to your longer term achievement.

It's hard to generalise, but a couple of tactics I recommend are:

  • Rehearse rhythm separately - i.e. analyse the rhythm components of the piece and practice them away from the guitar by clapping, tapping, reciting time names etc.
  • Remove the fingering - (this advice is directed to non-beginners). The fingering in published editions is just one person's opinion of how it should be done, albeit they may be highly accomplished and respected. But they're not you, and they don't have your hands or your particular strengths and weaknesses. It's a worthwhile exercise to take a copy of a piece, remove all the fingering with correction fluid and re-finger it from scratch. While this can be done any time during your history with a piece, it makes more sense to do it before you have established muscle memories that may need to be unlearned.

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