And they would be right. Consistent practice is one of the keys to greatness in any skill.
Notice I said, “consistent practice”. The consistent part is pretty important.
Guitarists that practice haphazardly are likely to get haphazard results. If you wanna be awesome, you have to punch the clock regularly and get down to business.
In the fourth installment of our series, we’re going to explore why consistency is so important to your success, both mentally and physically; why short but frequent sessions always trump marathon practices; and why keeping your guitar in plain sight is one of the hidden “tricks” to guitar progress.
Awesome Step #4: Be Consistent
If you remember back to the beginning of our series, I pegged making a commitment as Awesome Step #1. Being consistent in your practice is simply an extension of that commitment.
For some guitarists with especially busy schedules, the only way to be consistent is to plan when you will practice.
I’ve had students who practiced before school because they knew that their time was scarce after school. I’ve had adult students who made it a ritual to play before bed every night. Whatever your personal schedule, find a regular time that works for your lifestyle. Then make an appointment with yourself to show up and play your guitar.
Planning practice time is especially important for adults, because they have any number of work- and family-related things that pull them in all directions. So when I take on a new adult student, one of the first things I ask is, “When do you plan on practicing?”
It’s critical to your success that you come up with a workable answer to that question.
Little and Often
While surfing the web a number of years ago, I happened upon the impressive writings of a guitar teacher from England named Nick Minnion. His simple but profound concept of “little and often” has become one of the backbones of my practice philosophy.
“Little and often” is consistency all boiled down into one catchy phrase.
You see, it’s a myth that you need long hours of practice to get good on the guitar. Even if you’ve only got 20 minutes every evening, you can still make good progress. Shorter sessions spread out across multiple days is always superior to less frequent marathon practices. There is scientific evidence to back this up.
The nervous system works best with consistent exposure to a stimulus. When the brain is able to process similar information over and over, it ingrains it in our nervous system and makes the neural pathways more efficient. The by-product of all this consistency is muscle memory.
[Note to Science Geeks: Gary Marcus clearly explains the whole proceduralization process (Chapter 4, “It Don’t Come Easy”) in his book, Guitar Zero. Highly recommended.]
Muscle memory is critical to the learning process. Without it, you will simply never play at a decent level. When I see someone struggling with the same moves for weeks and months on end, I know two things to be true:
1 – They don’t get nearly enough repetitions to build muscle memory.
2 – The reps they get are not high quality (they aren’t consistent and correct).
If you give yourself high quality repetitions each day, you can’t help but improve your muscle memory. Your brain will take those reps, process the info, and send out clearer commands to your fingers next time. Repeat that process consistently and you will not only have a finely-tuned nervous system but lightning fast fingers to match!
It all starts with “little and often”.
Use It or Lose It
The opposite of all this beautiful muscle memory stuff is true also. It is best known by the phrase, “use it or lose it”.
This is a human problem – not just a guitar problem – and no one is immune to it. The longer you go without using a skill, the more likely it is that you will have to retrain yourself to execute it.
If you’re an advanced player with thousands of hours of practice behind you, it will take some time for you to lose your skills. However if you’re a less experienced player, your muscle memory will fade pretty quickly if you don’t consistently reinforce your movements.
The bottom line: “Little and often” means you’re consistently “using it”, so you’re not “losing it”.
In Plain Sight
You may have heard the phrase, “Showing up is half the battle.”
You’ve got to show up before anything else can happen, so make sure you actually “show up” for guitar practice. In one of my all-time favorite books, Zen Guitar, Philip Sudo remarks that everything begins when you “pick up your guitar”.
One thing that will help this along – and a secret weapon of many greats – is actually pretty simple: Keep your guitar in plain sight. This will encourage you to show up at a moment’s notice.
It will also eliminate that pesky “out of sight, out of mind” thing that tends to plague us. Life is busy; sometimes we forget to do things just ’cause they’re not in front of us. Keeping your guitar out of sight is a sure-fire way to spoil your plans for practicing “little and often”.
Punch the Clock
To put things in perspective – maybe even give it a little too much perspective, as David St. Hubbins famously said in This Is Spinal Tap – let’s discuss how much practice it takes someone to achieve world-class skills.
The “10,000 Hour Rule” has become a pretty popular notion in recent years. Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, Outliers, can be credited for the resurgence of this concept, but psychologists have long held this idea to be true: It takes approximately 10,000 hours of dedicated study in a field to be considered world-class.
If you have a lot of natural talent in the field, you may be able to knock off a few hours. Less natural talent usually means you add on a few hours. But by and large, the 10,000 hours is pretty universal.
Here’s the “too much perspective” part. That means 1,000 hours per year for ten years. If we do the math, that amounts to about 3 hours of study per day. Yikes.
In the spirit of keeping it real, though, please understand that many of those hours will be “punch the clock”-type work.
Although we want to put in “productive” hours, productivity is not always about learning something new. Many times it’s about reinforcing what we already know and drilling the concepts and movements deep into our nervous system.
The Space to Learn
Here is the final point and the one that ties it all together: Be aware that practicing and playing any instrument is about self-discovery.
Your instructor will offer ideas, demystify the confusing parts, and hopefully inspire you to play. But, to quote Nick Minnion again, the space to learn is not between you and your teacher.
The space to learn is between you and your guitar.
The key to success is to make sure you’re in the learning space consistently.
Being awesome doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to punch the clock consistently for best results.
If you’ve been consistent with your guitar practice, then I’ll see you at Awesome Step #5: Be Efficient. Cheers!
QUESTION: Do you have any tips to share that help you keep a consistent practice routine? Leave me a comment below!