By Brian McPartland
We play the guitar because it’s such an awesome sounding instrument. Right? Maybe we can’t make it sound so awesome in the beginning, but with time and practice we become capable of producing those good vibrations that we love. However once you get there, beware of the insidious neuronal thief that lurks within our brains, for its modus operandi is to subvert. Ironically, it’s those good vibrations we love that lull us into an alpha brain wave state where time gets lost and our good intentions grind to a halt.
Here’s how it goes: you pick up your guitar and tell yourself that you’re going to practice this and that for forty-five minutes, but the next thing you know is an hour’s gone by and all you’ve done is play the same things you already know how to play––over and over. They are the songs, phrases and licks that you are already good at, and since you like to see how good you can sound, you wind up spending too much time doing what you’re already good at. I get it, that’s part of the enjoyment of guitar playing, but we must not get carried away with the transcendence it brings.
Your intentions were good, but those pleasing tones you’ve produced have tickled your auditory cortex and the subsequent alpha waves have put you into a time warp. Practice becomes less effective when you’re in a day-dream like state. You tell yourself that it’s all good...that noodling is still ‘practice.’ True, it is practice, but maybe we should think of it as ‘reinforcement practice.’ It is reinforcement, not the acquisition of a new skill. Noodling does reinforce muscle memory, but when you continue to spend your practice time surfing the wrong waves, your progress slows to a crawl. Instead, effective practice requires you to be more present. So, what to do about it?
Since we all want to improve, try dividing your practice into two halves. The first half will be focused practice––no noodling or distracted excursions into the twilight zone. Practice what needs improvement: scales, chords, music theory, a song you’ll be performing soon, experiments with new techniques, and so on. This takes mental energy, so you’ll do it first since learning new skills and developing new muscle memories are a priority. The second half of practice will be your reward. It’s fun-time, baby! This is where you may experiment, goof, noodle away, song-write, accompany yourself singing, and so on. So, in summary, effective practice is about BALANCE! A good meal, followed by some well-deserved dessert. As your skills get better, the reward part will become even more gratifying.
If you feel stuck and feel like your progress is in low gear, try this meal and dessert approach to practicing!
Brian McPartland has been a guitar enthusiast and player since 1965. He is a retired optometric physician and currently enjoys freelance writing and home recording collaborations with other musicians around the globe.