So, you decided to step into the world of music…great! You are picking up the guitar…even better! However, as a brand-new guitarist, you might be feeling overwhelmed with the material you are trying to learn. You may be asking yourself “What should I be practicing?”, “How should I practice and for how long?”, or “How do I stay organized in my practice?”. In this article, we will be diving into these questions and I will give my advice for guitarists of all levels and all genres of playing. We will also talk about the importance of a practice journal and how to create your own to make your practice easier.
Practice vs. Playing
Before diving into the why and how of practicing music, we have to look at two words that are important to understand from the beginning; “practice” and “play”. When many musicians say they are going to practice their instruments, they actually mean they are going to play. What do I mean by this? Well, practice means to work on a concept to get better and be more efficient. Practice should have a specific goal to achieve. Playing is exactly what it sounds like; messing around and enjoying ourselves. So, when these people say they are going to practice, they usually end up playing materials they are already good at! In simpler terms, practice is work while playing is fun! We need BOTH in order to advance on the guitar!
What Should I Practice and For How Long?
These are the most common questions new guitarists ask me all the time! It is a tricky question to answer sometimes. What I tell my students is… it depends! It depends on your level, what you are working on in your lessons, as well as what genre of music you are studying. For example, my Flamenco guitar students are learning far different materials than my standard acoustic guitar students (or a classical guitarist compared to a rock guitarist)! So, how do we know what we need to work on? For the purpose of this article, I will tailor my response to the new musician.
If you are a new guitarist, I recommend studying these main concepts; introductory chords, strumming, and rhythm. When it comes to how long to practice, sometimes less is more! Using these three skills, we will create a practice journal for you which will help you to advance quicker from the very beginning.
Does This Mean I Can’t “Play” the Guitar?
Of course not! My point with this article is to prove that if we want to advance and get better at a new skill, we have to practice very carefully with specific goals in mind. We cannot just play the same thing over and over and hope it “just gets smoother”. With these ideas in mind, let’s talk about practice journals.
What is a Practice Journal and How is it Useful?
A practice journal is a log a musician can keep that helps them to organize their practice sessions. It is also a tool to see how one musician advances over time. What I want you to do is go out and buy a cheap notebook (nothing fancy is needed). We are going to dedicate this notebook as your guitar practice journal. If you do not want to buy a notebook, some scrap paper will also work for the time being. Here are some steps to organize the page layout.
First, we are going to put the date at the top right of the page. This will help us keep track of when we practice.
Next, we are going to determine how long we want to PRACTICE the guitar. This is up to you, but I would recommend a minimum of 10 minutes each time you pick up the guitar. For days you want to practice multiple concepts, of course you can practice longer, and vice versa if you only have one idea to work on. For the purpose of this article, let’s try a 15-minute session.
Now we are going to set a goal and write it on the entry. The goal should reflect what we have learned in class and should be organized. I recommend using the SMART goal concept. Let’s say that in your first guitar class, you learned the E Minor chord and how to strum up and down in 4/4 time. A goal you could create can look like this…
“Starting at 60 beats per minute on a metronome, I will be able to play down strums on an E Minor and E Major chord in 4/4 time. My goal is to increase my metronome to 65 beats per minute by the end of this 15-minute practice session”
As you can see, this goal is very organized, realistic, attainable, and has a time limit. We want our goals to be this way so that we do not get discouraged. Always start small! As we achieve these goals, we can change them; for example, if you made it to 65 beats per minute, then change the goal to get to 70!
Next, create an outline for the session. Let’s create a basic outline to practice rhythm, chords, and strumming.
- Rhythm: For 5 minutes, I will practice clapping basic rhythms in 4/4 time (whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes) with my metronome at 60bpm.
- Chords: For 5 minutes, I will practice holding an E Minor chord and E Major chord. With a metronome at 60bpm, I will switch between these chords smoothly every whole note.
- Strumming: For 5 minutes, I will practice strumming down on each quarter note on E Minor for one bar, and then do the same on E Major without breaking rhythm. Set the metronome at 60 and the goal is to get to 65bpm.
As you can see, this outline created our 15-minute practice session! Of course, you can shorthand your outline as well. If you want to be even more organized when trying this, set a timer on your cell phone for 5 minutes; once that timer goes off, move on to the next exercise! All of these topics also relate back to the goal we created earlier!
When Can We “Play”?
If you want, you can add to your outline time to play and have fun! This is great if you are really limited on time and only have an hour to be with the guitar for example. In this case, you would have 45 minutes to do whatever you want, but those 15 minutes of practice MUST be spent working through the materials!
What Do We Do When We Finish a Session?
After a session, I want you to write brief reflections of your progress. At the bottom of the journal, write down how the session went. Did we achieve our goals? Why or why not? What can we improve for next time? What did we do well? Do not focus only on the negatives! You can also set a more advanced goal for the next session.
I hope this helps you to realize how efficient this method is. The added pressures of time limits in practice and staying very organized help us to know exactly what to work on each time. You will see that if we drift focus, we will not be able to accomplish the small goals we set out for ourselves. I challenge you to try making a practice journal each time you practice this week and see how it works for you. In no time, you will be advancing these very basic concepts and will start to master them. It is all about the progression. Soon, you will look back on previous journal entries and see how once you were struggling with simple musical ideas, but now you excel at them! Give it a try!