10 Hard Truths About Practicing (What Your Guitar Teacher Won't Tell You)

Hey everyone. I'm here to divulge some secret information about (what seems to be the lost art of) practicing your instrument. I'll try to keep it short and to the point, but that doesn't mean it's any less important. It means today is my day off from teaching and I want to go home and watch Black Mirror on Netflix so.....

1. I can't feel bad if you don't practice. This might sound harsh, but I remember the days when I'd get all bent out of shape every time a student "forgot" to practice. It became clear that if I wanted to live past the age of 30 and not die of a heart attack, I'd have to change my ways. I still remember the day of revelation: My student walked in and for the hundredth time told me he didn't have time to play. I didn't react as he expected but instead said, "Oh man, that's a bummer for you," and continued on with the lesson. He seemed shocked and acted weird for most of the class. I half-expected a phone call the next day from his mom saying he was going to "take a break" but that call never came. He instead quit making excuses and began to play a little more often. Before he went off to college he actually became a decent musician and even though he might not remember that exact moment, the moment I finally snapped, I know a part of it stayed with him. 

2. If you don't put in the time, you don't receive the rewards. (and would you even value the rewards if they came easy?) It's no different than exercise. Let's say you challenge yourself to do 100 pushups in a row in a month's time. I guarantee you're going to feel great the day all your hard work pays off and you make it to that 100th pushup. That's a feeling that will stay with you forever. Now imagine you lied and just told everyone you did 100 pushups. Compare that feeling. Don't cheapen your life by expecting a sense of fulfillment without putting in the work. I've had "naturally talented" students learn guitar fairly fast but got little joy from the experience. Because they barely had to work to sound decent, they only experienced maybe a fraction of the joy they could have had if they had to struggle to get there. Sadly, when we got to the higher, more difficult levels of lessons, they couldn't handle it and some quit shortly afterward. 

3. You're probably neglecting your metronome. Just today I asked a student how often she uses a metronome. "What's a metronome," she asked. My heart ached. You'd think everyone would be using a metronome now that they're widely available on any device, many for free, but the opposite seems to be true. (Gone are the days of buying that small wooden pyramid that annoyingly clicks to remind you of the sad state of your timing.) If you're not devoting at least a portion of your practice time to playing with a click (another term for a metronome) you aren't doing yourself any favors when it comes to developing your rhythm, or inner pulse. Metronomes give you a tangible number or beats per minute, that you can use to measure your progress both in speed and consistency. I'll cover metronome playing much more on the site in the near future but for now check out my "intro to metronomes" lesson click here and/or download an app and play around. Make it your friend and it will help your playing tremendously..oh and will always be on time. ;)

4. It's okay not to practice (once in a while) when life gets busy or even if you just don't feel like it. I know how crazy life can get. There are a ton of things I should be working on right now but I don't always get to them, and honestly sometimes I just don't feel like practicing...period. Like today for example: I had a three-hour show the night before and then another gig this afternoon. I saw my guitar sitting next to me when I got home and had no desire to pick it up, and didn't feel bad about it at all. As an instructor for over twenty years, I've come to realize that not everyone has the burning desire to put in the time it takes to become a Steve Vai or Jimi Hendrix. Some people just like to play for fun and that's totally fine.

5. Don't treat practice like you treat school homework. Guitar practice is NOT homework and if you love it enough, it won't really feel like work. Too many student are brain-washed into thinking that all of life is like school. Why? Because it's all we know for the first few decades of our existence. Wake up, go somewhere for 8 hours, come home and veg out, do homework against our will, and then go to bed just to do it all over again. Because you might dread the idea of homework, you lump music practice in with that feeling. Don't make this mistake. The consequence is that you'll only practice enough to skim the surface (just like memorizing just enough school work to pass a test) and this can keep you from advancing as well as you could be. Playing an instrument, although can feel like a lot of work at first, eventually becomes a complete joy to play once you get past the first few awkward stages. It can even be a great way to escape or relieve the stress you DO get from life's obligations. I've never heard someone say, "Man I'm stressed, I think I'll do a bunch of homework!" But I have heard people describe how just a few minutes of playing can calm their mind.   

6. You're probably not optimizing your practice time. A lot of students think that practicing guitar means jamming a few songs right before your lesson. This is an example of scattered playing, not focused practicing. I'm in the process of developing my personal practice routine and will release it very soon on this site, but for now let's just say that you can organize guitar practice just like a personal trainer can put together a workout routine. (another exercise analogy, sorry) You can get a good start now by thinking of practice not as a time for noodling around, but a time to really focus on a few key areas of playing. If you're taking lessons, ask your teacher to list your top three weakest areas of guitar and begin with those. If you have trouble with alternate picking for example, set your phone's timer for 5 minutes and do nothing but picking scales in that time (preferable with a metronome). Choose another area for the next 5 and so on. Much more to come on this topic...stay tuned. 

7. You're most likely not practicing enough to match your potential. If you ask any guitar teacher how much you should practice they're sure to say the same thing: "Practice as much as you can, but do at least 30 minutes a day." What they really want to say is, "If you're truly passionate about your instrument you wouldn't even ask that question." Do you ever hear a kid ask, "How long should I play my Playstation each week?" I used to put in 6-8 and sometimes 10 hours of playing each day. That sometimes included band practice as well. (Yes we had no internet but I could have just as well wasted my time hanging at the mall or something.) I try not to tell this to all my students since it might give them the illusion that it takes that much effort to get good. I was/am obsessed with guitar so I went all out with it. I've seen plenty of people get great just by persistent, not so obsessive, practice as well. If you simply want to improve, then play a little each day, even if it's only for 5 minutes. As you get better and start having more fun playing, you'll naturally want to do it more often.  

8. In a world full of distractions, don't let practicing music fall by the wayside. Do you know how many parents tell me they wish they'd have kept playing music? It's staggering how many times I hear that confession. Here's a cure for that, never stop playing! I know I'm being snarky but really, why would you ever want to stop playing music? Sure it's easy to be biased, but it just doesn't compute when I hear someone say, "Well I used to play guitar all the time but then I just quit doing it." To a musician, that's like saying, "One day I just decided to stop breathing!" Once again snarky I know, but it has to be said. :) Imagine yourself on your deathbed. Are you going to look back and be glad you watched Netflix all day when you were young? Are you going to reminisce about all the times you stared at your Facebook wall? Or are you more likely to look back fondly on expressing yourself, getting great at something, being creative, and possibly having had the experience of playing music with friends and/or making friends through music? 

9. The best guitar players are often those who failed the most but just kept practicing/playing. By far, the best part of teaching music has to be when a student has a breakthrough or a revelation. Why? Because I know they'll never go back to being the same player ever again. One student in particular was having trouble understanding how a G Major scale could also be an E minor scale at the same time. I explained the theory to him again, almost word-for-word as I did before, but this time it actually clicked and he almost fell backwards off his chair. He went home that night and played around with that idea and it led to a cascade of "guitar epiphanies" and his abilities skyrocketed. Just before this happened he was getting a little frustrated and didn't think he could ever understand theory or anything more complex than the basics. Remember, breakthroughs usually happen just after you climb a mountain of frustration. Imagine how many times Steve Vai went to bed in tears because he couldn't pull off a certain solo. Or think of how many "bad" notes your favorite guitar player had to play before they overcame their mistakes. Like they say in martial arts: A black belt is just a white belt that never quit. 

10. I want you to become a good person as well as a good musician. I don't care if you've mastered "blindfolded 8-finger sweep arpeggio trill tapping" <--(I may have just made that up) if you haven't also developed inwardly as a human being. Great, you can play the guitar, but that's where your growth stopped? As your guitar teacher I'm not going to feel like I succeeded. Why? Because working hard and practicing an instrument is about more than just getting good at music. Just as playing chess or doing martial arts isn't a means to its own end, it's a means to inner development, at least to me. The journey of music first takes the inner path. This is the time when you have to dig deep, put in your practice hours, and bring yourself up to a level of competency. What follows is an outward journey where you bring your music, your art, your self, into the world. I believe, that if you successfully walk both the inner and outer path, it's going to be nearly impossible not to also develop as a human being as well. Otherwise, I might as well be programming robots to play. 

Well I ended up writing way more than I planned, but I hope my words inspire you to pick up your instrument more, or at least stop you from making excuses for not practicing. And I hope it also gives you hope that with just a bit more effort you can get to that place where playing is less about work and thinking, and more about enjoyment, growth, and freedom. -Mike