Sometimes our guitar practice sessions just don't reap the kind of rewards we want it to, whether that be not achieving the goal you set out to reach, not enjoying the session and coming away feeling deflated or even feeling like you might have done more harm than good. 

Practice is an elusive concept at the best of times and this is reflected in how little we learn about the functionality and optimisation of it throughout our educational journeys. 

In this three part series we will look at different applications of practice and how to best structure your time to come away from each of them feeling accomplished. 

Learning new repertoire 

1. Decide which processes are being used In order to succeed in planning an effective practice session, the first step is always to figure out which mental systems are at work given the goal we hope to achieve. 

When it comes to learning new repertoire many of us fall into the trap of spending hours upon hours picking through a new piece to ‘get to know’ it, ultimately coming back the next day and feeling like we have to start all over again. 

The reason is simple - we are using a process suited to maintaining repertoire rather than one intended for learning repertoire with which we are not yet acquainted. When it comes to learning new music the processes we engage are decision making, analysis and choreography. 

Learning new repertoire is a mostly inventive and reactionary process and is one where we have the most control, thus time playing through a piece without engaging our decisive or critical faculties is time wasted. 

We must structure our time in a way that we can make an efficient mental feedback loop between musical decision making and analysis, and based on the success of that process a secondary feedback loop between decision making, analysis and technical choreography. 

2. Decide which processes are the most taxing 

To be able to put these mental processes into use with the most efficacy and efficiency, we must now work out which of them is the most and the least taxing in each passage of the piece we are playing. Either a passage is: 

1. Musically layered and textured, but technically simple. This makes the analysis and decision making more and the choreography less taxing. 

2. Musically simple, but technically challenging. This makes the choreography more and the analysis and decision making less taxing. 

3. Musically layered and textured and technically challenging. This makes both the choreography and the analysis and decision making equally taxing. 

Divide the piece with a pencil on the music into passages that align with either option 1,2 or 3 and then move to step 3. Note that occasionally dividing a piece into musical and technical passages will create overlaps in where a passage begins and ends. Makes Musical Decision Makes Musical Analysis a. Makes Musical Decision Choreographs Technical Movement Makes Technical & Musical Analysis b. 

3. Assess your current inspiration 

Once you have localised where the most taxing element of each passage lies, it is time to turn inward and decide which of these processes you have the most energy for in this particular session. 

Perhaps you are feeling creative and want to get stuck into some meaty analysis without bearing a lot of weight on the hands, or perhaps you are feeling fuzzy in the brain and simply want to get stuck into some work that feels productive. 

Choose options 1 and 2 accordingly. (For passages in which option 3 is true, you must tackle the passage by alternating between an option 1 focus and an option 2 focus) 

4. Chunk according to effort 

Once you have chosen your desired passage divide your time into half hour chunks with breaks of ten minutes in between. 

Concentrate for the first five minutes of your session on the least taxing process and then use what you have learnt to inform the most taxing process for the next 20 minutes, followed by a further 5 minutes of assessment. In option 2 from the previous section this might look like: 

Session 1 

First 5 minutes - Reading through a passage whilst listening to a recording and deciding that you want the melody in the treble register to be legato over a staccato base accompaniment. 

Middle 20 minutes - Creating a fingering pattern in the right hand that consolidates this musical decision. 

Last 5 minutes - Assessing the functionality of this fingering and realising that this is a skill you must hone. 

Session 2 

First 5 minutes - Reading through the fingering created in session 1 and assessing its musical efficacy. 

Middle 20 minutes - Creating a fingering pattern in the left hand that matches the right hand fingering from session 1 

Last 5 minutes - Assessing how these fingers function together 

Session 3 

First 5 minutes - Reading through the fingerings created in sessions 1 and 2 and assessing musical efficacy. 

Middle 20 minutes - Practising the synchronised fingering whilst paying attention to the articulation Last 5 minutes - Assessing how your hands feel, assessing whether the simultaneous staccato and legato needs separate technical work. 

This system can go on and on depending on how much time you have to work, each time first assessing, working and then reassessing. 

One of the traps of practice is working on a problem until it is ‘worked out’, then putting down the instrument as if something has been accomplished and then upon return it feels as though nothing has been accomplished at all. 

By breaking up practice into time constrained chunks, each small session is left with an idea or challenge to come back to with a fresh mind and body in the next. As long as a piece is undergoing considerable alteration it can be classed as ‘new repertoire’ and the processes of decision, analysis and choreography are the pillars from which to hang practice. 

In these sessions it is important to not get stuck on execution in and of itself and instead to focus on sketching as much of the draft for the final performance as possible. These sessions are the creative, explorative force behind your final interpretation, so enjoy your position in the driving seat and try to remain level headed!

Conclusion

Now that we understand how to assess new repertoire and structure practice chunks, we should be well on our way to using our practice time much more efficiently.

Learned something new from this post? Click here to check out the second part to this blog, “technique”.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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