Practice Points

As of August 26, I’ve had five lessons with John. I don’t know how to accurately describe what a great experience it is. Every two weeks I leave his house with some other aspect of my playing or some new concept to consider. Sometimes he’ll say just one sentence that will completely change the way I think about what I’m doing, or what I’ve been doing inefficiently or incorrectly for the past … 30 years. Even in this short time, my practice regimen (which previously was more or less non-existent) has become organized, focused, and demonstrably productive. I’m seeing noticeable improvements in the efficiency of my playing, most especially in the more technical aspects. And my brain is absolutely swimming in theory, even though I am sure at least as much of it is going over my head as into it.

On the topic of practice, I must say carving time out of the day really hasn’t gotten any easier. When I started out, I expected that after a week or two that hour would start to seem like a normal part of the daily routine and I would just do it without even thinking about it. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps it will with more time, but as it stands right now it is still a conscious decision and effort to make sure I get that time in every day. 

The practice sessions themselves generally go pretty well. I’ve established a routine where I “warm up” with a few tunes I know. Starting slow and gradually increasing speed, I begin by going over a few chord changes, and then running through a few repetitions of one or two fiddle tunes. I’ll also spend a few minutes going over older material from my lessons. Anything that I already have in my head, as opposed to the new material I’m working with at a given time. Out of an hour’s practice time, I’ll spend between 5 and 10 minutes on the warm up. Following that, I usually focus on two main “topics” in each session. Twenty minutes on learning new triad conversions, say, and then twenty minutes on a new chord solo. Working this way seems to produce results, and it’s an organized way for me to cover everything. On some occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve gone another 20 minutes on a third piece, or returned to the first item for further work.

Lately, no matter what I’m working on, I have been trying to pay more attention to my playing posture and hand position. During a recent lesson John suggested I use my guitar strap even when seated, as I have developed a tendency to use my left (fingering) hand to support the neck. Optimally, of course, both hands need to be completely free to move around. I also tend to hold the neck like a baseball bat, rather than resting my thumb on the back as I should. Paying more attention to that, I can immediately feel how much more efficient the proper positioning is when I’m learning something new. On the other hand, everything I’ve known how to play all these years seems almost completely foreign when I play from a new physical position. Logically I know it’s the right move to make in the long run, but it is a little frustrating to suddenly struggle with tunes I’ve known for years.

Another overall concern I’m trying to focus on is what John calls making my playing “sing.” A few weeks back he had written out a little single-line solo for Oh, Lady Be Good. In practice, of course, I basically used the solo like a drill. Not surprisingly, when he and I played it together at the next lesson, John said that all the notes were in the right place, but it sounded like an exercise. He was absolutely right, of course, because that’s how I had been approaching it. Since then I’m consciously trying to always play past the notes and get to the music. 

Out of all this practice, I’m definitely seeing a difference in how I’m playing. I’m not completely sure a person who’s heard me play in the past would necessarily hear me now and consciously think, “hmm, that boy’s playing has really improved.” But I feel a considerable difference in how relaxed I am, both in my hands and in my head. I also notice that I’m able to learn new material more quickly, and correct mistakes with less effort.

Another thing I notice is that I am practicing every day, but I’m not playing much at all. I very much need to find a way to fit in some time to just simply play, without any nod toward accomplishing this task or that. This is going to be tough, because my days are pretty well maxed out as it is. As I’ve said several times, finding an hour to practice is no easy task in itself. Finding time to just doodle will really take some doing.

Ahh well…. However hard it is to fit everything in, the real truth of the matter is I’m lucky to have this opportunity and I’m loving every single minute of the ride. Looking at the whole situation, I think I’m immersed in all this just about as fully as I can be. Every few days I learn something new, or figure out how to do something better than before. And each accomplishment makes me see how far I still have to go. If I were still in junior high school with nothing but time on my hands, or if I were, say, independently wealthy (send your donations to my PayPal account), I could very easily be completely obsessed.