Having Trouble Practicing? Some Solutions

By James Flood

Practicing, as everyone knows, is absolutely necessary to learning a musical instrument. And it can’t just involve practicing once in awhile. It needs to be a consistent pattern in one’s life in order to gain the physical skills necessary for playing.

With my beginning guitar students I recommend 20 to 30 minutes, 5 to 7 days a week. If a student can do 45 minutes, an hour, or two or three hours a day, great! But especially for the beginner, much below the above 20 minutes a day 5 days a week minimum, and the progress is going to either be so slow as to be discouraging, or it is nearly non existent. Students who have trouble progressing lose interest and quit. So my job as a guitar teacher is to spot practicing troubles in a student and recommend solutions.

I am not the type of teacher to lay on much in the way of guilt trips. That whole approach makes me uncomfortable, and I’m doubtful as to its long term effectiveness. I try to have an open discussion with the student free of reproaches. That way the two of us can have an open and honest discussion and arrive at real solutions.

When I can see a student is apparently not making time for practicing over the course of a number of weeks, I first ask them how practicing is going. If they fess up that they’re having trouble, but finding it difficult to tell me how much, then I ask them about how many days a week. If this is done in a condemnatory tone, I’m not going to get an honest answer, and our problem solving process will be limited. Once they come out and say two or three days a week, or one day, or whatever, then we start my standard set of questions, and it goes like this.

Question #1 When you practice, what time of the day do you practice?

This gets to establishing the most realistic practicing routine. If people are having trouble practicing, 9 times out of 10 they will give one of two answers: a) that there is no particular time of day or b) that it is the last thing they do after “everything is done” before going to bed.

a) Having no particular time to practice does not work for most people. People will either think to themselves “Not now, later,” or they will just forget altogether. This is where I ask them when they think is the time of day that would work best for them in terms of likelihood and quality. As soon as you get home from school/work? Right before dinner? Right after dinner? Late at night? Early in the morning? There is no answer that works universally. I let the student identify that time.

b) Waiting until you’re “done with everything else” is going to put learning the guitar on too low of a priority. Besides, for most people, when it’s late they’re feeling either too tired to practice well or to practice at all. This is especially common for children and teenagers. Here is where I deliver my shocking dictum,PRACTICE BEFORE HOMEWORK. This is truly counterintuitive for both children and their parents, because homework is a higher priority then guitar, right? “Right,” I say, “and because homework is a higher priority, this is exactly why you should practice guitar first.” Sound puzzling? Think about it. When it’s 10 or 11 at night and you still haven’t finished your homework, and you’re dog tired, will you finish it anyway? You better believe it. But it if it’s 10 or 11 and you’re exhausted, are you going to practice? I seriously doubt it. So if it’s homework before practicing, you might practice. But if it’s practice before homework, you’ll get both done.

In addition, practicing is a change from school where homework is more of the same. So practicing serves as a needed break from the day’s work which makes doing homework afterward more productive. This solution I have found to be very effective over the years.

Question #2 There are actually two parts to this question. Where do you keep your guitar? And where do you practice?

When I ask this question I get a variety of answers. From person to person, the guitar can be kept in any room in the house, bedroom, living room, dining room, den, closet, no particular place, you name it. When I ask where they practice, the same as above minus the closet. The worst answer I ever heard was for two brothers ages 5 and 6 who were having trouble practicing. The answer was: guitars kept in their cases, under their beds along with their music stand. The little guys were then supposed to carry all of that down, sometimes with mom’s help, to the living room to practice, then carry them back upstairs when they’re done. My response when I heard this? “Ain’t gonna happen.”

Two big obstacles to practicing can be inaccessibility and “out of sight, out of mind.” Picking up the guitar to practice should be as easy as a possible. Likewise, if possible, the guitar should be in a very visible place. I ask the student if they have any pets that could knock over a guitar, or toddlers who could do the same. If they do not, I recommend keeping the guitar out of the case and on a guitar stand. This helps with overcoming both obstacles as it is extremely easy to pick up the guitar, and it is easily seen and so acts as a reminder. But what if they then move to another room to practice. Not a good idea. The guitar should ideally be resting right next the place where one practices. (This assumes that the place is conducive to practicing: minimal distractions, a good chair with a music stand and music readily available.) This set up can actually “tempt” the person to start picking up the guitar outside of their usual practice schedule because it is so visible and accessible. This kind of temptation is the good kind. Getting guitars out of closets, moving it from one part of the house to another, having no particular place for it, all of these things make it less likely that one will practice. Making it easily seen, easily accessible, and a short and easy path to the practicing location make practicing far more likely.

Now if you don’t have any trouble with practicing even though you fish it out from underneath your desk and traipse down the steps, ignore all of these suggestions. But if you are having trouble, get creative and make the ideal storage and practice locations. It could be the key to your success.

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