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8 Things I Would Do Differently if I Had to Start Over 🚀

Updated: Jun 2, 2023


8 tips for improvement in music performance

This week I found myself telling many of my students stories about how I didn’t have very good practice habits when I started out and how I’d do several things differently if I knew then what I know now. Below are the Top 8 practice strategies and mindsets that would have made my guitar journey much more efficient, enjoyable, & injury-free. I hope they help you as much as they’ve been helping me!

Shaping & Enjoying the Sound

The reason most of us started playing guitar was because we fell in love with the sound of the Spanish guitar and wanted to create the same sound on our own. Unfortunately, for many of us, our focus shifted to technique (i.e., internal focus) and we slowly forgot about why we started in the first place. The consequence of this is ironically slow progress, lots of frustration, and potential injury. To combat this we need to shift to an external focus and remind ourselves to enjoy the sound of the guitar again. We also need to focus on shaping that sound during our practice and performance by using expressive tools like dynamic, tone, & tempo variation. When I re-focused my priorities this way, my technique and tone improved, and practice became significantly gratifying again. If you find yourself too focused on technique, try resetting your focus back to your “default” setting of enjoyment and sound. Plenty of research shows how doing so improves performance (e.g., 1)

Relaxed Body & Mind

It’s common to become physically and mentally tense when learning a new motor skill and/or correcting errors. It’s also common to tense up during performances of our music as a result of our desire to avoid making mistakes. These mental and physical tensions are so common, in fact, that most of us aren’t even aware of them when they occur and inadvertently begin associating tension with the guitar. It’s crucial to become aware of mental and physical tension during practice and performance and to minimize this tension as often and as much as possible.

Mechanics Over Precision

In an effort to avoid mistakes, many of us often (and incorrectly) prioritize forced precision over relaxed, loose, and efficient mechanics. When we do this, we train our hands to either tense up while we play or to play too slowly in order to be precise. As I mentioned above, it’s absolutely essential to minimize tension when playing, but it’s also important to allow ourselves to make mistakes when we are developing a new skill. Rather than avoiding mistakes, we need to allow them to occur and simply correct them immediately. Having a “correction mindset” rather than a “prevention mindset” will improve technique and precision. You can read more about this in my blog post on mistakes.

Practice Plan

The point of practicing a piece of music is obviously to be able to play it well — probably in front of others. And in order to succeed, we need a practice plan which is basically a to-do list and task organizer all in one. It helps keep us on track and consistent with regard to what we need to do next, what problems come up that need solving, and what solutions we can implement to solve those problems. Before I had a practice plan, my success on any given piece of music was hit or miss. This was even more true as I accumulated material. If you want to reach your musical goals, make a simple practice plan that lists your goals, trouble spots, and solutions. Update it every time you practice and use it to keep yourself accountable and to gauge your progress.

Strategic and Performance Practice

Related to the practice plan above are strategic practice and performance practice. Once we have a practice plan in place, we need to be strategic about any challenges that will come up by creating a step-by-step, problem-solving strategy so that we can be as efficient as possible in practice. That said, we also need to make sure not to get stuck in Strategic Practice mode all the time. At the end of the day, we want to be able to perform our music expressively and without stopping, so we also need to practice performing very often. Make sure to include both strategic and performance practice in your routines.

Frequent Breaks

Not taking enough breaks is probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my early guitar years. The result was plenty of injuries and, ironically, slow and inconsistent progress. Breaks are a fundamental part of the learning process in terms of motor-skill development, injury prevention, and memorization. I can’t stress enough how important breaks are. In fact, they are so important that I even made an entire video about them that you’re guaranteed to enjoy!

Memorizing Right Away

Some of us get stuck reading notation or TAB and, as a result, have a hard time memorizing music. We use our sheet music as a crutch and it’s really hard to get away from it. But the sooner you can get away from your sheet music, the better it will be for your technique, musicality, and ability to perform from memory. The key is to test yourself often as you’re learning your music. Learn a short phrase and immediately try to play that phrase from memory — no cheating! You’ll make mistakes at first, but that’s part of the process. Before looking at your music, make 3 recall attempts, then look at the music to validate your attempt. Keep using this method and you’ll soon be able to memorize very quickly!

Self-Recordings

This is another extremely important strategy that I wish I had done more of in my early guitar years. The idea behind this strategy is to record yourself (audio or video) and listen or watch back immediately to identify and correct errors. This strategy is important firstly because plenty of research (e.g., 2) shows that people, including expert musicians, are really terrible at identifying errors while performing. We may ID the really big ones, but we’ll also miss most of the small ones. Recordings allow us to put our performance under a microscope in order to catch and improve everything. Secondly, recording ourselves slightly increases our stress level and gives us the opportunity to practice under minimal pressure. Doing so allows us to practice strategies like deep breathing and specifying our performance goals -- two fundamental strategies that will help us perform better when it really counts.

Practice!

Try these strategies this week and let me know in the comments how they worked for you.

Happy Practicing!


For guitar lessons, lectures, workshops, and educational performances please contact me below as well or at contact@diegoalonsomusic.com.

 

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