The paradox of successful practice

‘There is one common theme..that underpins success of all kinds; the capacity to learn from our mistakes’  (Matthew Syed)

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In last weekend’s paper there was an interesting article by Matthew Syed, a former table tennis champion turned journalist on what makes people successful in whatever they do. It naturally made me think of the guitar and the art of successful practice.  Whilst practicing it can be incredibly frustrating making mistake after mistake and often it’s easier to simply move onto something you are comfortable with playing. Being able to learn from your mistakes will ultimately lead to an improvement in technique and ability, but one thing will often prevent people from doing so ; their mindset. In his article, Matthew discussed his own battle with success and society – in particular aviation and the mistakes that led to progress (after some disasters)! The point that stood out for me is the idea that the ‘paradox of success is that it is built upon failure’. This could be regarded an obvious statement, but how many of us confront this and treat failure as a necessary step to progressing on our instruments?

For a long time I don’t think I every really thought how i actually felt/thought about practicing, it was just something I did.  Perhaps that is due to when being younger, failure isn’t such a worry. Whilst teaching and through my own practice I think the following points can help you in your pursuit of the best mindset for approaching practice and maximising the potential of your mistakes:

  1. Ditch negative self talk for logical problem solving: Instead of listening to the voice that says negative things like: ‘why do I bother with this?’, ‘why can’t I do this?’, treat each mistake as an opportunity to problem solve.  Your instrument is simply providing you with some information that something needs either slowing down or revising the way you play it. Logically, analyse what you are doing eg. the right hand, the left hand fingering, is the technique required not fully developed?, are you going to quickly? do you need to look back at the music? or is it a case of poor memory of material?
  2.  Embrace your mistake; Isolate, slow down and repeat: If there is a problem passage and it can be easy to think, ‘oh it should get better the more I play it’ or ‘I can do most of it and get away with that one bar not being quite right’.  What you want to do instead is deliberately focus on your mistake, use step 1 and then slow it right down to a snail’s pace. From your problem solving, focus on the element(s) that are causing you to make a mistake. It is then a case of gradually building up the tempo, perhaps with a metronome. The gradual increase in speed is essential, if you ramp up the speed too quickly you will go back to making mistakes. Slowing down is one of the most vital strategies of a practicing musician. Ignore the final tempo of the piece, yes that is your ultimate goal, but it won’t always happen as quickly as you’d like. The isolation could be of two bars or maybe even four notes! At this point you have to consider how you will practice the material effectively.
  3. Visualise: visualisation is a technique often used by athletes, but I’ve found it to be appropriate to the world of music. This can work in two ways with mistakes. Firstly, imagine how you would feel when you can it play it perfectly, use that feeling to fuel your motivation to practice and take your mistakes for what they are; information to inform practice.  Secondly, imagine playing the section perfectly, imagine this in detail, how relaxed your right wrist is, how the notes are played effortlessly and most importantly, how it sounds. This will act as positive reinforcement.

Tackling your mistakes will help you overcome any problems you face on your instrument. However, sometimes you may have to accept that a piece is perhaps too challenging for you currently and again, treat this as information to inform what you practice. For example, a song might expose your technical deficiency in playing triplets or hammer ons. In this instance it might be better to work on those aspects in isolation before returning to the piece. Overall, analyse what you do  with an inquiring rather than negative/judgemental mindset.  Remember that any of your favourite guitarists will have made countless mistakes before, don’t ignore them, welcome them and then determine what area of your playing you need to work on. I think we all know deep down that success is built on failure, it’s just that sometimes we don’t want to face it or it is simply nicer on the ego to play something we know and can play flawlessly.

How to approach learning a song

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One of the skills I often find myself teaching is how to approach learning a song from notation/tab. Take the wrong approach and you can end up frustrated and wondering why a piece of music is eluding you. Before diving into a piece of music I would suggest the following strategies:

  1. Listen to the piece of music several times. This is particularly important if the song has any tricky rhythms. If there are different versions of the song by other artists then listen to them also. You may also find it useful to find out more about the band/songwriter and the context in which the song was written. This may help you put the required feeling into playing the piece.
  2. Divide the piece up into sections. Learning a piece in chunks is a proven way to commit something to memory.  Some music will have titles for each section eg. section A,B,C etc or Verse, Chorus. If this hasn’t been done for you then look for double bar lines. Double bar lines are used to indicate the end of a section. Once you have done this take it section by section.
  3. Isolate any technically difficult parts. A phrase might be a bit quick for you or have a challenging rhythm, whatever the difficulty isolate such passages and practice them independent of the piece. If possible play them to a metronome and gradually increase the speed by no more than 5bpm. If you have the technology you could also slow down the recording and loop it. Picking is often the main barrier to the effective playing of a lead guitar parts, make sure you’ve opted for the optimum picking pattern.
  4. Look at the notation as well as the tab. If both notation and tab are present then you need to look at both. Tab is a very accessible but limited method for writing music. Ideally you should be looking to the tab to guide you on rhythm and expressive techniques/dynamics.
  5. Deal with frustration positively. Instead of feeling like giving up, ask questions to help you overcome problems. If you can’t execute a passage at speed or keep making mistakes, then ask what technical issues could be the cause of the problem rather than allowing negative self-talk to fill your head.
  6. Perform! Practice performing it at home or record it to listen back to.