“Practice, practice, practice!” – every music teacher ever.
“Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” – Arnold Jackson, legendary TV sitcom character, whenever his brother would drop a truth bomb on him .
Dear Guitar Student,
You’ve probably heard that you must practice diligently to become a good musician. This is a time-honored concept that has been drilled into the brains of music students for centuries.
But did you know that practicing is optional?
Really, it is.
This may seem like sacrilege coming from a music teacher, but there is no rule anywhere which states that you have to practice your guitar.
In reality, musical practice is, and always has been, entirely optional. Your instructor probably never told you that. In fact, you’ve likely been told that regular practice is the only way to get better, so you’d better get after it.
Of course, all this practice talk makes one major assumption: that your goal as a guitarist is to actually get better in some sort of timely fashion.
Diff’rent Strokes to Rule the World
Can we agree that nobody takes up an instrument so they can be bad at it? Everybody wants to achieve a level of skill that makes them happy.
The differences seem to lie in how good we’d like to be and how quickly we’d like to get there.
Some folks want to improve rapidly while others prefer to take their time. Some people say that they want to be good players, but their actions seem to indicate otherwise. Just be aware that the skill level you achieve and the speed at which you progress is in direct correlation to your practice schedule.
(Although this concept seems almost blindingly obvious, you’d be surprised at how many folks don’t seem to get it.)
Wanna be a pro-level player? Then practicing – a lot – is a requirement. Otherwise you probably won’t live long enough to see pro level.
Wanna be a hobbyist who is a good-to-very good, but maybe not great, player? Then practicing is important, but you don’t have to be obsessed about it. Put in your time consistently and you’ll get there in a reasonable amount of time.
Just want to have some fun strumming some chords and learning a little about music? Then practice whenever you feel like it!
It’ll take you a long time to improve on the guitar, but if you don’t mind moving along at a slow pace, go for it. After all, this is a voluntary endeavor; you’re not being graded on it. It’s purely for your education, self-improvement, fun, etc.
Takeaway Point: Practice is directly related to the speed at which you can expect to improve. You can improve without any dedicated practice, albeit at a snail’s pace. Practice two hours a day, however, and you’ll get very good very quickly (assuming you’re practicing correctly).
Ask Me If I Care
This may come as a shock, but to be quite blunt, I don’t really care if you practice.
After all, I can already play at a level that satisfies me, so my current practice is geared toward how I want to improve from here; your practice is totally about you. You know what your goals are, so practice – or not – accordingly.
I used to really take it personally when my students didn’t practice, but that just gave me a lot of heartache and it made lessons awkward. I wanted my goals to be their goals. I always encourage my students to practice but now I don’t hold it against them if they don’t.
I’ve had quite a revelation about this in the last year and I’d like to share some lesson scenarios with you. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in the following sections.
Grown-ups With Guitars
Adult students tend to have full lives. When they have not had time to practice, they often feel unprepared for lessons, which means that some self-loathing and embarrassment follows. The “practice optional” approach takes the burden off. We just pick up where we left off last time, no judgements.
I’ve actually had adult students talk of quitting guitar because they can’t practice at some sort of “ideal” rate.
First, I let them know that even a few minutes a day with the guitar in their hands will help them to build a comfort level with playing. Second, I tell them that it would be a bigger crime to give up their dream of playing altogether just because they are otherwise very busy.
After discussing some scheduling ideas, I leave it up to my adult students to determine how much they can comfortably do. Our mantra here is, “Do what you can and have fun with that.”
Younger students don’t want to disappoint either, but they’ll often try to convince you that they’ve practiced because they don’t want to feel ashamed in front of you. For a professional instructor, it takes all of about three notes before I can tell if someone has put any time into their material. So it’s best not to even do that dance. Just be honest. Again, we’ll pick up where we left off.
Teenage guitarists are at that sweet spot in their development – a perfect musical storm, if you will – where their mental abilities to comprehend the musical complexities and abstract concepts meet their physical abilities to coordinate their fingers and navigate the fretboard.
It’s a beautiful thing, really, and so it’s truly a shame when some teens continually come in to lessons under-prepared. But again, their goals are their own. This is why some guitarists take off like a rocket while others just spin their wheels for months or even years. I’d rather not see you spin your wheels, but it’s cool if you do. It’s your path and you must own it.
Practice Meets Goals
I hope you don’t take this to mean that I don’t want you to practice or think it’s important. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I have low standards for my guitar students. Quite the contrary!
It’s just that I’ve come to accept that everyone is not on the same path, so they shouldn’t be treated as if they are. I meet students where they are and we cultivate a love of guitar and music first, with playing ability developed to match their goals.
Of course, I’d like to see all my students practice diligently, but different goals result in different levels of practice to get there. I practice based on my goals at this point in my life. Your mileage may differ.
Wanna be a pro or elite level guitarist? Then pack a lunch, buckle up – or whatever other saying you like – and practice mindfully and diligently for the next ten years at minimum. Probably more.
Maybe you’ve heard about the “10,000 Hour Rule” (check out Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers), where it takes approximately that amount of dedicated practice time to become elite at a skill. If we do the math, that means 1000 hours per year for 10 years, or 2-3 hours a day, which is a pretty concentrated schedule. But without a heavy practice schedule, it’ll take you even more than TWO decades to get there!
In my estimation, most pro-level players get there between 10 and 20 years, as a 2-3 hour per day schedule is pretty brutal and requires otherworldly dedication. Normal humans can’t keep that up consistently, going more in stages of heavy practicing and periods of lighter practicing. Aim for 1-2 hours per day, more if you’re really feeling it and can carve out the time.
VERY GOOD LEVEL
Wanna be a very good hobbyist?
You’ll probably need to practice 30-60 minutes, at least 4-5 days per week. If you’re serious, you’ll probably be inspired to do more, but a minimum of 30 minutes almost daily is a good reference point. Within a few years you should be a strong player; between 5-10 years you’ll likely be very good.
THE CYNDI LAUPER “JUST WANNA HAVE FUN” LEVEL
In the early stages of guitar, I always recommend some time spent daily, as you’re trying to build up your muscle memory in addition to learning the intellectual concepts of music and guitar. It’s a real drag to have to go back and re-teach yourself stuff because it’s been a while since you’ve last played.
So even for the Cyndi Lauper level, I’d say 15-30 minutes per day, or at minimum, every other day. You need to get the guitar in your hands to develop a comfort level; otherwise, it’s always gonna feel like a foreign object to you. Better to do a little bit regularly than to do a marathon practice every 5 days.
Consistent practice gives your brain a chance to build up those neural pathways that are critical to improving motor skills. When you reach a point where you feel pretty good about your knowledge and skills, you can decide how you want to proceed. Inspired to take it up a notch? Awesome. Just wanna groove on what you know for a while? Awesome as well.
The Mirror Test
Take a good look in the musical mirror. Is your guitar practice matching your goals?
If so, then you have nothing to feel bad about. No apologies, no shame and no self-loathing allowed!
If your practice habits do not match your goals, then you’ll have to ask yourself why. Be honest; maybe your goals are not truly what you thought they were.
Some folks don’t realize how difficult it is and what level of dedication it takes to play at a high musical level. When they do, they sometimes adjust their goals downward, since they know in their hearts that they will likely NOT put forth that type of effort. And that’s okay. My goals do not have to be your goals. It’s all good in the musical neighborhood.
Maybe you just need a re-focus and a better plan for scheduling your guitar practice. Look for a time of day that seems to consistently be “down time” and play guitar then. (My first instinct is to look at TV time, video game time, Facebook time, or YouTube/Netflix time. Some of this can surely be sacrificed to become a better guitarist, no?)
No matter your personal situation, guitar practice should be fun, not drudgery. Keep it fun by matching it to your goals. And rock on!