Whether you want to be a concert musician or just play for fun, if you want your guitar playing to get to the next level, one of the most important things you need is a clear practice plan before you sit down to practice. It might sound like a boring and time-consuming task but it's actually pretty quick and easy to set up. And once you're set up, you can keep track of your progress with a simple practice journal like a notebook or a spreadsheet -- I use the latter.
Setting Up Your Practice Plan
The key is to keep it simple, practical, and goal-oriented. First separate your practice journal into 4 parts: 1) Warm-up, 2) Strategic Practice: Technique, 3) Strategic Practice: Repertoire, and 4) Performance Practice.
1. WARM-UP (5-10 minutes)
Your warm-up should consist of 2 parts: 1) simple calisthenics like arm circles, wrist circles, and light stretches that you do before sitting down, and 2) basic work on the guitar using foundational techniques at a medium intensity and medium volume -- think Goldilocks: not too loud, not too soft, not too fast, not too slow. Your repetition amount should be kept fairly low and your only goal here should be to get the fingers and hands loose and warmed up. That said, even though it's a warm-up, still play with your best sound, minimum playing effort (MPE), and maximum mental effort (i.e., concentration & problem-solving).
Here are some items you can include in your guitar warm-up routine:
1) Minimum Fretting Pressure (MFP)
2) Precision Slurs w/MFP: Hammer-ons
3) Precision Slurs w/ MFP: Pull-offs
4) Precision Slurs w/ MFP: Combination
1) Rasgueados: Extension (CAMII, AMII, IAI, I)
2) Arpeggios (forward, backward, double, random)
3) Rasgueados: Rotation (PMP, PCI)
4) Pulgar: Right thumb (singles or alzapúa)
5) Tremolo (4 & 5 note)
1) Picados: Free Strokes (IM, MI, MA, AM, IA, AI, AMI)
2) Picados: Rest Strokes (IM, MI, MA, AM, IA, AI, AMI)
3) AMI Coordination Picados
You don't need to cover every single technique every day -- in fact, in 5 minutes you won't be able to. Just pick 4-5 per day and work on each technique for 30 seconds max. You can repeat your set if your hands don't feel warmed up yet.
My warm-up looks like this and takes me 10 minutes:
Day 1: Calisthenics (5 min.), Rasgueado Extension (CAMII & IAI), Slurs (combo), Rasgueado Rotation, Picado (rest strokes), Arpeggios, Trémolo, AMI Picados, Alzapúa
Day 2: Calisthenics (5 min.), Rasgueado Extension (AMII & IAI), Slurs (combo), Rasgueado Rotation, Picado (free strokes), Arpeggios, Trémolo, AMI Picados, Pulgar Singles
2. STRATEGIC PRACTICE: TECHNIQUE (15-20 minutes)
Here, we can focus on the basic techniques we want to improve and drill them in a strategic & corrective manner in order to improve. The idea is to correct and improve your techniques on every single repetition, not just to accumulate repetitions or practice time. It is very important to pick only 3-4 techniques each day and to interleave them during your technique practice and throughout the week. If you feel like any technique needs a bit more work, revisit that technique 2-3 times that same week. For techniques that don't need more than just maintenance, a review once or twice a week is usually fine.
Here's how I structure my technique practice:
Day 1: Picado, Rasgueado Extension, Left Hand Precision on big shifts.
Day 2: Arpeggios, Picado, Rasgueado Rotation
Day 3: Slurs, Pulgar, Arpeggio-Picado Combo, Alzapúa
Day 4: Picado, Trémolo, AMI Picado
Day 5: Barre, Arpeggio, Picado, Alzapúa
Day 6: Rasguado Rotation, Picado, Trémolo Slurs
Repetitions and Breaks:
Goal = mechanical, expressive, and memorization improvement
1 error = 3-6 correct repetitions MAXIMUM per technique
1.5 to 2 minutes MAXIMUM per technique
2-5 second breaks between reps.
15-second breaks between techniques
2-3 sets (ABC, ABC, ABC)
Strategic practice requires a very high level of alertness and concentration so please turn off the TV, do not check email, and don't look at social media.
While working on technique, identify and write down any challenges you run into, their causes, and a possible solution for each one.
Remember to prioritize the quality of your sound and your expression above all else. If you produce a sound or musical expression that you don't like, consider it a mistake and resolve it strategically.
Always practice technique expressively. Practicing technique in a monotonous manner will result in monotonous performance.
3. STRATEGIC PRACTICE: REPERTOIRE (35-45 minutes)
Here's where you isolate your weakest or newest Challenge Spots (CSs) in your repertoire and, again, drill them in a strategic & corrective manner in order to improve.
First, identify your top 3-4 CSs first. They can be mechanical, expressive, and/or memorization-related. You're going to work on them FIRST in sets using the same practice organization you did for the technique above. Of course, if you're learning a piece from scratch, you obviously won't start out with a list of CSs. So while learning and memorizing your music, identify the first 3-4 CSs you run into.
Once identified, write your CSs in your practice plan, and next to each one write down why it's challenging, your solution, whether or not your solution worked, and a 2nd or 3rd solution if needed. Be as reasonably specific as you can. For example:
CS 1: Bar chord in the opening phrase isn't clean.
Why: Bar finger isn't applying the correct pressure on string 3.
Solution 1: Redirect pressure to 3rd string using the middle of the Bar.
Solution 2: Raise Bar finger up 1 mm.
When working on your CSs make sure to isolate them. Make your CS phrase as small as possible so as not to waste time and to increase focus on solving that specific problem (e.g., start 1-2 notes before the CS and end 1-2 notes after). When solved, play through your CS in the context of a larger musical phrase (e.g., start a full measure before the CS and end a full measure after).
Always make sure to memorize your music by working on small sections that you can slowly chain together.
Make sure to have a clear goal for each CS.
Use the Repetition and Breaks guide above with your CSs.
And, of course, remember to always practice with expression.
4. PERFORMANCE PRACTICE
This is probably the most neglected kind of practice by most musicians. It's also one of the most important because it prepares us psychologically for any kind of performance we might do. In this section of practice, you want to focus on playing your pieces (or sections of pieces) without stopping for any reason as if you were on stage. Your main goal should be to emphasize expression and musicality. This kind of practice is important because it allows us to practice and get used to playing with a healthy level of stress (which will occur in 99% of your performances).
You're going to work on Performance Practice every day after warming up, right before your Strategic Practice for Repertoire. Here's how to do it:
Set up and start your recording device. Use audio first. A high-quality microphone is preferred so that you can capture all of the nuances in your playing. If you don't have one just use your phone.
Once set up, leave the room with your guitar and start imagining your audience & setting. Imagine a small audience and setting if you're new to performance.
Say to yourself, "I'm excited and I'm going play very expressively." (I know it sounds cheesy, but just do it. There's scientific evidence that this helps!)
Think, as vividly as possible, about how you want the first few notes of your piece to sound in terms of expression and projection.
Enter the room, smile, and bow to your imaginary audience.
Take a double-deep breath (inhale twice and exhale slowly) and again think, as vividly as possible, about how your first few notes will sound.
Sit down and start playing your piece. Do NOT stop for any reason.
Focus primarily on enjoyment and musical expression.
If you make a mistake, do NOT stop. Instead, ignore it (or recover from it) by re-focusing on your performance goals (i.e., expression and enjoyment) and continue playing.
*** Do this once for EACH piece or section of a piece you are working on. ***
Use the recording to plan the next strategic practice for each piece (or section of each piece). Listen to the audio (pencil and paper in hand) and write down your time stamps and CSs.
In your practice plan, make 3 kinds of notes when you listen to your performance 1) expressive qualities you would like to change or improve next time, 2) notes on mechanical challenge spots that need improvement & 3) memorization challenges you need to resolve.
If you are unable to solve your CSs with audio only, switch to video and see if there's something you're doing with your body that is causing the CS.
In all sections of your practice, it is of utmost importance that you emphasize relaxation and musicality. Nothing should feel strenuous and everything should sound highly expressive and musical. Always do your best to connect with your music rather than just play through it.