Three ways to better practicing for beginning guitarists


It seems some people are naturally wired for practicing. They understand the value and willingly invest the time. For the rest of us it's a constant battle between knowing that practicing is the only way to get better and feeling that practicing is some kind of medieval torture. Most often, what we feel wins out over what we know so practicing takes a back seat to whatever excuse we can find.

There are, however, three simple ways to change how you feel about practicing that will give you a much better chance of doing it.

But before we dig in, a side note: The content of your lessons and of your practice sessions has a huge impact on how you feel about what you are doing. If that's not working for you, no amount of attitude adjustment will help. If you don't like your teacher's teaching style or what they are teaching, consider talking to them about it or consider making a change — but that is a topic for another time. The hints I am offering here are not about what you practice but about how you approach practicing.

Make it fun

Let's face it, there are parts of practicing that get tedious. Since we learn best when what we are learning feels fun, turn parts you don't enjoy into a game. One of my favorite toys as a kid was a paddle game with a rubber ball attached to a small wooden paddle by a rubber band. I could kill hours without even knowing it trying to paddle the ball as many times in a row as I could without missing. I got really good just by challenging myself. (If only there was a career where paddle ball was a required skill.)

The same principle can apply to your practicing. Say you are trying to learn alternate picking (picking up and down on a single string). Count how many pairs of up/down picking you can do without making a mistake. Now try to beat your record. Set a goal for each week, and keep track on a simple chart so you can see your progress. And don't forget to reward yourself when you hit your goal!

Another example would be for learning to change chords without looking. Again the idea is to challenge yourself to a game. Find a song with chords you know. Your goal will be to play the whole thing without looking and making clean changes (no buzzing, no hesitation) all the way through. Track your success from day to day or week to week. You will find that it is exciting and motivating to see your progress.

Make it short

A common excuse we all use is that we don't have time to practice. Setting aside a half hour can feel impossible with the other demands of life. Or maybe you just can't stand the thought of sitting down to practice for that length of time. Well how about 10 minutes? That's right, change your image of practicing from being long sessions to being short bursts.

There are numerous studies demonstrating that we stop learning as efficiently (or at all) past a certain amount of time. (Probably why pre-exam cramming never worked for me.) Our brains just get tired. Choose a length of time that feels right to you and go with that. Not only will you enjoy it, you will see better results.

Make it focused

This goes hand in hand with the length of your practice sessions. When sessions are too long people tend to try a bunch of things to keep from getting bored. Or when they get frustrated they jump all over to find something that is working for them. Instead, take a minute when you start to choose exactly what you want to work on. Whether its being able to maintain a consistent strumming pattern or learning a new finger picking pattern or maybe memorizing a song, choose one thing and put all your intention behind it. You're practicing will be more fulfilling and you will look forward to your next session.

We all learn differently and are motivated by different things. As a beginner, the most important goal of practicing is to learn a way that works for you. After all, the only practicing that makes a difference is the practicing you do.