At least so I thought.
I didn’t really understand what does becoming the best mean or what does it take; all I wanted was to prove to myself that I can become the best.
I said to myself:
“From now on, you are going to spend every free minute of your time playing and practicing guitar no matter what. No excuses, no whining.”
And so it happened. With my full time job as a guitar teacher, I’ve managed to cram 50 hours of guitar “practice” into every week. Yes, that’s 7 hours a day.
I didn’t waste my time thinking too much about my plan. It seemed obvious that with my determination I will reap the rewards over time.
I practiced as much as I could. I practiced when I was happy and full of optimism, and I also practiced when I didn’t feel like it, when I felt lousy and tired.
Few months passed by and I started to become little impatient. I was not satisfied with the results I was getting. I had thought that by this time my hard work would show up. But somehow it didn’t.
I started to feel more and more frustrated. I started to doubt myself and my ability to ever become any good. Just thinking about picking up my guitar made me sick. I still practiced long hours but every minute spent practicing felt like living hell. There was no joy, no passion and no drive anymore. Slowly, but surely I was heading down. Rock bottom was waiting for me. And of course, few weeks later I hit it.
My impatience combined with frustration sucked all the joy out of my life. I didn’t enjoy playing the guitar anymore. It was just something I had to do. All those hours spent practicing guitar almost made me quit playing altogether. But down there in my despair I began to understand what went wrong and it started to become obvious to me that practicing a lot is not the answer to my problems.
Slowly I started to turn my practice habits around. The first and most important step was to cut the hours.
Why “practice as much as you can” is bad and useless advice?
1. Practicing too much without knowing what you are doing can be as harmful to your progress as not practicing at all. You can literally physically destroy your hands and not be able to play for months ahead. Overusing one part of your body while neglecting the rest might be dangerous.
I was once in a music shop, just wandering around when I overheard a conversation between guy from the music shop and a guitar player who wanted to buy new set of strings. He was asking for the lightest strings possible because his hands hurt so bad that super light strings where too hard for him to play!
2. How much you practice is just one part of the equation. The second, and more important part is how well you are practicing. In order to progress fast, you need to combine quantity with quality. Practicing long hours only make sense if you can stay focused on the task at hand. If you are becoming tired, frustrated or irritated, you know it is time to stop and take a rest.
3. Pushing yourself hard can be a good thing if you know when to stop. Taking your guitar practice seriously and making the most out of is fine as long as you don’t neglect anything. If you are practicing a lot but losing sight of the details, you are getting yourself into trouble. Bad posture, too much tension in your hands, sloppy playing – that’s what you are practicing even though you don’t know about that. Your subconscious mind picks up all this bad habits whether you are aware of it or not.
4. “Practice as much as you can” is a non-specific advice. For people like me that is very dangerous because if I don’t have a finish line, I won’t ever feel satisfied. For a long-term success I have to play a game that I can win and having no milestones along the way makes it so much harder for me to stay on track. I need to set the rules so that it is obvious when I am done with something. The more specific I get, the better the results.
The myth that pro guitar players practice all the time is non-sense. Guys believe me, they don’t have time for that. If you don’t take it from me, check out this article by great fingerstyle guitar player Adam Rafferty where he debunks this myth.
Next time you come across advice like those below, please don’t take it seriously.
“Practice as much as you can. Literally.”
“If you’re really good, or you have a concert coming up or something, the sky’s the limit. 8 hrs a day is not too much.”
“Practice until you fell like throwing up, then practice ten more minutes.”
Just smile and be sure that you know better than that. Practicing guitar or any other musical instrument is not just about how many hours you put in. Practicing is about learning, whether it is a factual knowledge or development of certain skills. And for learning to happen, certain conditions must be met.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the more effort you put in, the better the learning.
Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code, calls it the sweet spot. Psychologist Robert A. Bjork, calls it desirable difficulties. Expert perfomance researcher Anders K. Ericsson calls it deliberate practice.
Whatever you decide to practice, make sure that you are not mindlessly repeating the same movements over and over again. Find the sweet spot where things are not too easy, nor too hard. (I’ve already written an article on how to make any exercise insanely effective, so you might want to check it out for inspiration.)
If possible, space out your practice session during the day, do not practice for 3 hours straight. Interleave various practice tasks and move on before you reach fluency in your movements.
Truly effective practice session is about smart design not about putting in hours of mindless noodling. Understand this and your progress will skyrocket.
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