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Deliberate practice: The secret of guitar heroes

You’ve heard it probably many times. In order to become good at playing guitar, you’ve got to practice a lot. There are many stories about well-known guitarists who practiced for ten or more hours a day. Steve Vai’s ten hour workout is quite famous. Maybe you are wondering: Is it really the only way to become good at guitar? Because if this is true then most people won’t ever become good. It is almost impossible to put ten hours a day into guitar. But maybe there is another way…

By now it is quite well known that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice only makes permanent. It is only special kind of practice that leads to a mastery in any field. It is called deliberate practice.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry so much about quantity of time spent on guitar. It is not the most important factor. You need to start focusing on the quality of your practice sessions. That is the secret of expert performers.

What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice is very focused and goal-oriented activity. It is an effortful activity with one primary goal: to improve our performance.

To practice deliberately means to be perfectly in control of what you are doing. It is usually the exact opposite of what most guitarists consider to be a good practice session. We are often inclined to think that just by repeating the same motion over and over again we are getting somehow better. Usually it is not the case because we are not consciously doing this. We are just mindlessly playing scales up and down, changing chords without thinking what is the best way to change them or playing songs with the same mistakes over and over again. That is definitely not deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice means correcting every single mistake that you might find. It means being totally present in the moment and focused 100% on the task. You must be closely monitoring your performance in order to be able to improve your playing.

There is one thing that we need to make clear when we talk about deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is not something that only some talented people posses, it is a skill that you can learn. That means, that if you want to get better, you need to learn how to practice better. It is something that you can gradually improve. There is no way that you can improve your practice sessions in one day. It is a constant process.

According to K. Anders Ericsson, father of deliberate practice, there are four key conditions under which practicing gets really effective:

1. You need to be motivated to put in the effort to improve your performance.

No teacher in the world is going to help you if you don’t feel motivated to really get better. Your passion for self improvement has to be greater than any disappointment from past failures. Finding motivation to be better than you were yesterday is your essential goal.

2. The design of the task needs to fits your current skill level

This is what Daniel Coyle, author of a great book called Talent code, calls the sweet spot. The task that is best suited for developing your performance is exactly at the edge of your current abilities. It is not very easy but at the same time it is not too difficult to frustrate you. This is were learning takes off.

3. Getting feedback

In order for you to get better, you need to know when you are doing something correctly and then build upon that. This is were a good teacher can help you. It is quite hard too be a student and a teacher at the same time. Experienced coach or teacher can show you problem areas in your playing that you are not even aware of. When your brain is fully engaged in some activity, there is not much capacity anymore to monitor your performance. If you don’t have a teacher, you need to record your performance and then analyze it later. This way you can have access to mistakes that you normally cannot hear.

4. Repeat the same task over and over again

It is said that repetition is a mother of skill. But watch out for thoughtless repetition. Even though you are repeating the same lick or progression over and over again, that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to focus. Exactly the opposite. The best learning occurs when you are totally awake and fully conscious of all subtle movements. By paying close attention to every little detail you are on your way to become great.

So what does this all mean for you? Based on my own experience as a guitar teacher I can say that there are four most obvious mistakes that people do when practicing:

1. making same mistakes over and over again without correcting

2. practicing too fast

3. no focus

4. no goals

All these four most obvious mistakes are stopping them from becoming better players. They are not using their potential to the fullest because they don’t know how to practice correctly. First thing that we need to do is become aware of these mistakes and then we need to eliminate them one by one.

As I said before, deliberate practice is a skill that you need to learn if you want to become great. Use the four principles mentioned in this article to evaluate your practice sessions and then try to eliminate your problem areas one by one. Practice slowly and consciously, do not hurry yourself. Focus on quality and stop worrying about quantity.

Please let me know if you have any questions about deliberate practice in the comments. I would be glad to answer.

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