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Get better, faster by...slowing down?

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

This week I want to recommend a "simple" but extremely important change in mindset that will dramatically and ironically improve your playing faster than you may think.

Adults tend to be the usual suspects of progress-pushing and expecting significant results in small amounts of time. Unfortunately, rushing improvement -- especially in music -- can get us into a lot of trouble.

When I started studying guitar seriously, I overzealously pushed myself way too hard. And although I got pretty decent within a relatively short time (i.e., about 3 years), I was far from being the player I wanted to be and had to take many steps backward to fix all of the problems I had caused from rushing my progress. My technique suffered, I got injured A LOT, and performing often felt like I was about to jump out of a plane with a 100-year-old parachute that had never been checked. 😲

The simple truth, backed by a lot of science, is that significant improvement in music (and any high-level skill) is a result of small improvements repeated consistently over time. We can certainly cram for a performance (or a lesson) and get through it with minor or major scratches, but the progress won't stick at all. In fact, cramming encodes information into short-term memory which gets efficiently forgotten within a day or two.


When we rush our improvement we commit 3 big mistakes that can slow, halt or, worse, reverse our progress:

1) We rush through the learning stage and jump right to the repetition (i.e. improvement) stage. The problem with this is self-explanatory when we see it written down. Naturally, repeating a phrase that hasn't been learned well means that we're going to get really good at playing that phrase wrong. Instead of repeating right away, spend a lot more time in the learning stage memorizing your fingerings, rhythms, and expression slowly and correctly before moving to the improvement stage. Take your time building a solid and secure foundation before building your house.

2) We don't space out our practice enough or take enough breaks. A practice routine absent of breaks leads to short-term and/or long-term injuries -- some of which can be serious and permanent. Practice sessions that are not spaced out enough also significantly diminish our cognitive ability to consolidate information. In other words, by not spacing out our practice and taking breaks, we actually make it harder for ourselves to learn and memorize material. Instead, take plenty of breaks during and between practice sessions to improve memorization and skill development as well as to avoid injury. I made a video on Practice Breaks that you can check out here.

3) We work way too hard. For most of us that means too many repetitions, too much time in each practice session and way too much tension. Scientific research has clearly shown that progress has less to do with a high amount of repetitions or practice time and more to do with specific goal-setting and very strategic practice focused on problem-solving.

Instead of making repetition amount or practice time your goal for each practice session, make specific improvement your primary goal for whatever you are working on. Give yourself 2-3 specific improvement goals for your phrase (e.g., play phrase slowly with rhythmic accuracy, make sure shifts are smooth and accurate in time, play phrase correctly at 3 different increasing tempos, etc). Work on those goals one at a time and while you practice, focus on improving, not on how many reps. you do or on how much time you've spent doing it. Once you see a bit of progress, validate it with a few more reps. and move on to the next goal or challenge.

For your practice sessions, somewhere between 30-60 minutes/session for 1-3 sessions/day is ideal. Think about practice session time as a maximum number of minutes, not as a goal to be reached. Stop when you've reached your max (or before if you've accomplished your goals efficiently). For example, if I can accomplish my specific improvement goals in less than 60 minutes, that's excellent!

Excess tension is a result of pushing ourselves too hard. Make relaxation of your body and mind a top priority while you practice (and perform). We want to train our hands and minds to be as loose and relaxed as possible when we play so that we can do so easily and can express and enjoy our music much more. Do your best to practice with as little physical effort as possible. Remember to take plenty of deep breaths and relax often! If anything you play ever feels physically strenuous, please stop and talk to me about it ASAP so that we can find a way to make it feel more effortless.

Over the years I have adjusted my mindset to one of patience combined with consistency and LOTS of relaxation (e.g., minimal tension and lots of breaks). I have learned that a piece of music is ready when my body decides it's ready, not when I decide that my body is ready to play it. 🤔 So make sure to enjoy the process (no matter how slow it may feel) and to stay relaxed when you practice. Be consistent and patient and you'll see results sooner than you think.

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