Practicing not paying off?

The interesting thing about practicing, anything, is seeing the results.

These results can either create greater freedom, and proficiency on the guitar, or greater obstacles. 

Over the last few of years this topic of practice has kept coming up with my students, friends and myself, so I decided I would write a blog post about it.

So, REALLY, the question is..

What is practicing?


This is THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION to ask oneself as you set out to improve your abilities as a musician/guitarist. 

You see, you have to get crystal clear on this in the beginning to see the results you want to see in the end.

Strangely enough though, the most frequent answer to this question, when posed to most folks is, repetition. But is it really that simple?

So, when my guitar students answer the question with "repetition”  the next question I ask my students is, "why repetition?"

 Why are you repeating something over, and over, and over again?

How can you be sure that repetition alone is going to lead to the types of improvements you're wanting to see in your playing?

How can so many people be so certain that this is what practicing is when the results are so inconsistent, and so varied, from one person to next?

If the definitive answer to "what is practicing?" was simply repetition then we would all be virtuosos.

 So then the next logical question would have to be…

How many times should you repeat something? Three times? Five times? Twenty times?

This is a valid question, and one that I hear all too often, especially from my younger students preferring to spend as little time as possible practicing on their instrument.

Well, the interesting answer to that question isn't what you would expect. What follows that question is actually..... a question:


 "What are you trying to get out of this repetition?" 


The reason this question is so important is that it clarifies the focal point and value of the repetition.

Let's say you're practicing a scale. You are slowly playing the notes back and forth across the fingerboard.

Why are you doing this?


Here's some possible reasons:


  • Just beginning to learn the notes of the scale?

  • Trying to engrain that particular fingering, of that particular scale, in that particular location, for that particular key?

  • Trying to coordinate your picking with the aforementioned?

  • Working on speed with regards to the aforementioned?

  • Working on playing two octaves instead of one?


As you can see there are MANY possible reasons for "why"  you might be practicing what you're practicing, which is why clarity, with regards to those reasons, is paramount.

 So, instead of just sitting down and jumping right into practicing your scale try instead to define, in advance, what your objective is for practicing the scale.

In A Better Way To PracticeNoa illustrates an approach that I have personally used for years, and found it to be quite beneficial, as it saves LOTS of time, and really helps to uncover those things that in the past have hindered my progress.


Noa Kageyama, states in the Lifehacker article titled, A Better Way To Practice:

  • Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this note/phrase to sound like instead?)

  • Analyze the problem. (What is causing it to sound like this?)

  • Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it sound more like what I want?)

  • Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)

  • Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)

  • Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I'm looking for?


Once you've clarified what you are practicing, and why you're practicing then ask yourself, after you've practiced…

"how have I moved myself towards the end objective with this current approach?"

You have now taken an honest assessment of you efforts as it relates to the bigger picture of practicing, and you’ve established a level of quality for your efforts, and the approaches you've just taken.

Hopefully, you will find that your efforts are leading you closer to your goal, or you may not.

This is where the analysis of your approach(es) is very helpful, and time saving, as it allows you to step away from the activity of practice and move into the more observational state of analysis, which allows for a more objective perspective, and less of an emotional one.


Noa Kageyama, states in the Lifehacker article titled, A Better Way To Practice:

Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly wasn't working, I forced myself to stop. I brainstormed solutions to the problem for a day or two, and wrote down ideas as they occurred to me. When I had a list of some promising solutions, I started experimenting. 


Now, if you've gotten clear with yourself up to this point then the next question…

“What's next? What is the logical progression of events from here?”

The catch is that the next step depends on where you are now. And this leads to the issue of “The Gap.”

The gap is that space that is currently separating you from where you want to be. But you must be willing to ask yourself the important question…


"Where am I now, and where do I want to be?" 


Don't be afraid to be honest with yourself when you ask this question!


Your growth as a musician is absolutely dependent on this question.

Every day you pick up the guitar ask yourself this very question, "where am I now, and where do I want to be?" 

Every player of every level of ability should always be willing, and interested, in asking themselves this question. The answer, which will change daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, is what will lead you to the next step in your personal evolution on the guitar, and in music.


*Additional sources: