A whole book could be written on the question of how to practice. This is article is intended to offer some general guidelines that might be helpful to those starting out.
There are different strategies that can be tried. Some methods of practice might suit one person and not another. It’s up to you to discover the best approach that helps you achieve your goals. In the case of a beginner, the aim will most likely be to master the basics of playing guitar. A more advanced player might be planning a concert and needing to learn a range of different pieces. Either way it’s important to work out a practice routine and decide how much time is realistically required to achieve the results you desire.
The amount of time you spend practicing each day will vary depending on individual circumstances. Whether it be just 15 minutes or 4 hours in a day, it is important to practice regularly. That generally means practicing on a daily basis. In fact, to make significant progress and become truly proficient with any musical instrument, practice needs to become part of your life, not just something done occasionally say once or twice a week.
Of course, counterbalancing the need to practice is the reality of life. There are always other factors that dictate how much time and energy a person can realistically devote to practice. A person with a full time job and family to support, may find it impossible to find any time at all. Those enrolled in a music school will have course work and exams to allow for, possibly too a part time job.
As a rough guide, a beginner might realistically spend 15 minutes to half an hour a day whereas someone on the path to becoming a concert guitarist will want to practice for a minimum of two hours but ideally four. Normally it is not advisable to practice for more than four hours as over-practicing can lead to injury.
It is important to rest. It cannot be overstated the importance of including short breaks as part of your practice routine, assuming you are practicing for several hours each day. Have a five minute break after each half hour block. During the break, walk around and perhaps have a glass of water before going back to practising. There is always the temptation to carrying on practicing beyond half an hour, especially when you are enjoying yourself. If this happens, do try be aware of how your fingers, hand and arms are feeling. If you notice any pain at all, it is time to rest.
Highly recommended to anyone spending long hours practicing and physically able is to take time out to exercise. Go for a jog, cycle, skateboarding or a long walk to blow away the cobwebs. Exercise really does enhance the mind in more ways than you might imagine.
The next thing to consider is how to structure your practice session. You don’t want to waste the precious time that you have set aside. How do you make the most of it? Another recommendation is to divide your practice time into segments, devoting a certain amount of time to different aspects of playing. Here is an example of one practice schedule:
1. Warm up exercises - 10 minutes
2. Technical exercises - 15 minutes
3. Sight reading practice - 15 minutes
4. Learn a new piece - 30 minutes
5. Revise previously learnt pieces - 30 minutes
6. Make a recording - 15 minutes
Of course, the schedule will vary depending on the player and what happens during each step will also differ. Another thing to remember is that repetition of the same schedule over weeks and months can become very boring. The last thing you want is to end up hating your practice sessions. They should be looked forward to. For this reason, varying your practice schedule is almost of equal importance as practicing regularly. There might be times, for example, where you simply don’t feel like practicing technique and instead decide to spend the entire time playing pieces you have learnt. After all, the main point of learning to play an instrument is to play and enjoy music. There is no harm in it but just remember it is important to get back on track with your practice routine in order to achieve your aims.
Another well known way of mixing up a practice routine is to change the order of events. For example, you might decide to start with a piece of music you have learnt that happens to work well as a warm up exercise. That is a good approach and often more enjoyable than straight finger exercises that don’t involve a lot of musical interest.
Some players are not only practicing for solo playing but also allow time to rehearse ensemble music. Anyone involved with ensemble playing will quickly realise the value of sight-reading and the ability to make quick fingering decisions without pausing. It’s a great idea to include some sight reading exercises to help develop the skill which will be handy if you one day decide to form an ensemble or join a group of other musicians.
Occasionally allowing time to record a piece you have been working on can be helpful. Listening to recordings of your own playing is revealing. Don’t be discouraged if your performance doesn’t sound as good as you had hoped it might. Use it as an opportunity to work out what might be changed in order to make an improvement next time you try. You can listen out for details such as tone quality, evenness of tempo, rhythmic accuracy and effectiveness of dynamics changes. Also remember you don’t need a sophisticated setup to record yourself. Most mobile phones and computers have the ability to record sound and are more than adequate.
This advice really only scratches the surface of possibilities regarding the art of practicing guitar. The strategy taken will evolve over time and with experience. Remember we are all different and achieve results at different paces. It takes time and patience to discover what works best. Most important of all is to enjoy the process. Good luck!