On Practicing: Playing vs Practicing

In this series I will discuss strategies to create an effective practice routine. Creating and sticking to an effective practice routine will help students at any level- from the beginning guitarist to the most advanced professional musician. While practice materials will evolve as you progress a good practice routine will help you reach new levels at a faster pace. The first topic I want to discuss is the difference between playing and practicing. This is an idea that I have talked about with students of all levels.

A beginning guitarist fresh out of their first lesson may think she practiced for 30 minutes by playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star over and over. Likewise, a more advanced student may think that  he practiced for 3 hours by reviewing his repertoire, scales, and improvising a bit. Both of these students could do more to make the most of their practice time. In future posts I will discuss a method for effectively dividing practice time but for now I will focus on how to avoid the tendency to practice new material for a short amount of time then fall into “noodling” on familiar material.

The beginning student may have played Twinkle Twinkle ten times but with poor rhythm or without memorizing each phrase separately then putting it all together. She should focus on the sections that are giving her trouble rather than trying to tackle the entire song each time she plays it. Focusing on the more difficult sections will allow her to own the current material and advance on to new levels more efficiently.

The advanced student is similarly not making the most of his practice time. While repertoire review is important for working on memorization it is best approached by reviewing material that he has forgotten rather than material that he knows best. The same can be said for his scale practice. While playing scales is a good warm up it can often just be playing what you already know. The best approach for this type of practice is to play a scale you already know at a faster tempo, in a new position, in a new harmonic context, or any other new approach.

Simply put, playing is what you do know and practicing is what you do not know. Our goal in practicing is to retain our current skills and obtain new skills by engraining them in our memory. An effective practice routine is the number one thing you can do to take your playing to the next level.