Thinking About Practice, Part Four

Practice By Design Or Waste Your Time

Although I can’t possibly have read everything written about practice, I’ve read, heard, taught, and done enough of my own to know that many guitarists and students are overly focused on what specific things to do. And this “what” is usually predicated on whatever it is that an author, teacher, or admired artist does—or says they do. Most writings on practice are static and seem to address a blank entity who will blithely follow the routines and procedures handed down from above. By static, I mean that these writings do not provide the means for students to work out and design what is best for them to do, why it’s necessary, and how to do it.

There are scores of books that present or attempt to corral innumerable exercises or studies that incorporate the technical skills that authors think guitarists need to master; there are books that have prescribed routines with suggested times to be spent on each area; there are syllabi that require a slavish adherence to playing through—but not necessarily studying—material from existing collections (e.g., Giuliani’s 120 right hand exercises from his Op. 1 or Segovia’s edition of twenty studies by Fernando Sor) with the assumption that playing through them will effectively shape one’s technique.1 There are also teachers who avoid the problem of helping students work out well-designed practice sessions by hewing to a fixed syllabus of graded repertoire under the assumption that just playing a piece will develop the technique required to play it.

Each of the above examples makes things easier for teachers: they can simply turn the page and say, “Do this for next week.” This approach is fine for young children, but when and how should a student acquire autonomy over his or her practice time? When and how can students be taught to recognize and solve problems? What are the criteria students need to understand to help them make good decisions? The answers are easy: they vary for each student. Helping students become independent learners is not so easy.

What is Successful Practice?

Successful practice encompasses and seeks mastery of so many activities and concepts that it is foolish and misleading to set out a template for how one is to use their practice time, except perhaps to serve as an example to inexperienced or young students. Practice, as it applies to musicians, is one of those words, like “love,” that encompasses many things, but cannot be reduced to one of its parts. And as with love, it’s the intention and integrity behind the constituent actions of practice that give practice meaning and inexhaustible possibility. Here’s an incomplete list of some things we might work towards during our practice sessions:

  • we work to acquire new physical skills and habits
  • we work to acquire new mental skills and habits
  • we learn to solve problems (although many remain stuck trying to solve a symptom)
  • we work to understand our instrument better, which for guitarists includes learning the fingerboard
  • we work to understand ourselves better (the use of our body and mind: the instrument we use to play our instrument) and how that understanding can inform our practice
  • we work to increase our sensitivity
  • we learn to use what happens in a practice session or performance to structure our next practice session
  • we study to understand the music we play
  • we learn to practice away from the instrument
  • we work towards building security in performance, which includes developing secure and reliable memory, which in turn will engender artistic freedom
  • we practice to develop continuity in the performance of our repertoire
  • although practice itself is not spontaneous, we learn to create the conditions for a later spontaneity
  • we work on sight reading
  • we work on solo literature
  • we work on chamber and ensemble literature
  • we work towards developing the knowledge and criteria to help us fashion increasingly meaningful interpretations of the literature we perform
  • we learn to “phrasestorm,” my word for exploring artistic possibilities
  • we practice performing because we understand that practice does not inexorably lead to successful performance
  • we learn to formulate short-term goals that will lead to our long-term goals

The Rôte to Ruin

What we shouldn’t do is engage in mindless repetition of material and assume that this will help us improve. The process whereby one learns something unthinkingly or mindlessly is known as learning by rôte.2

Repetition is important in practice, but one must learn to practice mindful repetition. Ellen J. Langer, author of The Power of Mindful Learning, writes: “…when people overlearn a task so that they can perform it by rôte, the individual steps that make up the skill come together in larger and larger units. As a consequence, the smaller components of the activity are essentially lost, yet it is by adjusting and varying these pieces that we can improve our performance.”3

Here’s the paradox: we need to be able to think carefully and specifically about the small components that make up a larger skill as we’re learning something. This initial mindfulness leads to acquiring the ability to adjust these small components later if we need to throw off the shackles of a bad habit and change something. If we acquire a higher level of sensitivity and musical understanding as studies progress—and we will if things are going well—we will also need to be able to continually refine our habits.

If, however, we’ve learned material through mindless repetition and try to become mindful after the fact, we’ll create a paralyzing conflict between the reflexive central nervous system and the slower decision-making process of the prefrontal cortex. This paralysis can lead to an unsettling preoccupation with technique and memory during a performance.

Mindlessness. Mindfulness. Return to Mindlessness.

I’ve begun this discussion without letting you know about the two types of mindlessness, the confusion of which causes the artistic growth of many musicians to become stunted. One of the goals of well-designed practice is to help make the transition between the first stage and the third.

Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art Of Fielding, carries with him a book by legendary (fictional) shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguiz, which contains enlightenment-provoking statements about baseball (or life):

There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

We can never reach the third stage without passing through the second. The mindlessness (or “thoughtless being”) of the first stage is the mindless work—in the sense of not being fully engaged or not knowing the implications of what one is doing—of the untrained. This is the sense in which Ellen Langer and I use the term above. The mindlessness (or “thoughtless being”) of the third stage is the mindlessness of one who has integrated skills so well with their purpose that there is no thought, only artistic action.

When one attempts to perform thinking they have achieved the mindlessness of a master, but the mindlessness has not been informed by mindful work, there will be present a layer of self-conscious monitoring, which is unartistic, distracting, and an impediment to freedom. Mindful work will liberate us from a preoccupation with technique, memory, or fear during a performance and contribute to the conditions for us to be able do that which we should be doing: spontaneously sculpting sound in each moment.

Well-Designed Practice

The above list could go on and on, and each item deserves hundreds or thousands of words to clarify how best to work.4 Lists like the above reveal an incomplete picture of practice: our practice must be designed, and if something can be designed well, as Geoffrey Colvin points out in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, it can also be designed poorly.5 Often, practice is not designed at all and is shaped by habit, imitation, or caprice. It takes experience to design exceptional practice because exceptional practice must recognize those places where we’ve gotten off track, what needs to change and why, and how to change.6

It will help to reiterate Moshe Feldenkrais’s (1904–1984) thoughts on movement and look at Achille Rivarde’s (1865–1940) advice to violinists, and see how they diverge from more breezy guidance:

The effectiveness of an action is judged first of all by the simple standard of whether it achieves its purpose. But that test is not sufficient. Action must also improve a living and developing body at least to the extent that the same action will be carried out more effectively the next time.7

In his 1921 The Violin and Its Technique As a Means to the Interpretation of Music, violinist Achille Rivarde presents a foreshadowing8 of Feldenkrais’s work as it might be applied to music study:

There should be no repetition in good practice. I do not mean that the same passage or movement should never be repeated. I mean that it should never be repeated without adding at least that touch of improvement to its performance which means that each time it will be done better and therefore differently from the last. Nothing is more stupid and lifeless than repetition, and nothing grows upon us more easily.9

Contrast the above with the advice given by Philip Toshio Sudo in Zen Guitar: “If it feels right, it is right.”10 It’s tricky because one can interpret this as either descriptive or prescriptive or both. As a description, it’s annoying: the entirety of technique and musicianship—along with the attendant skills necessary for their development—has been shoehorned into the vagueness of something “feeling right.” As prescriptive advice, it’s lazy and feckless. But I’ll not get into the unreliability of using feelings or physical sensations as guides to training here.11 I’ve written enough about this in Mastering Guitar Technique and “The Virtuoso Teacher.” What qualifies Sudo’s advice as vexed counsel, though, is that it is insidiously proscriptive: “Don’t use your brain” is the subliminal message. This encourages students to attempt the mindlessness of the third stage without having passed through mindfulness.

Advice like this may have always been around. Rivarde quotes a “violinist of enormous repute and possessed of a large following of pupils” as telling his students, “Go into the country and hear the birds sing and listen to the rippling of the brooklets. That will teach you how to play.”12

Received or Worked Out?

How can we ensure that our practice is effective and will allow for even greater ease the next time we practice? It turns out that what and how to practice must be worked out by asking the right questions, instead of something merely received. Adhering to a rigid pedagogical system or trying to infer something from a YouTube video or concert, no matter how inspiring, will probably not lead to well-designed practice. Consider these two questions:

  • Are you spending time fixing things that went wrong as a result of initial study, e.g., notes, rhythms, unreliable memory, or is your practice time spent improving something that has been learned well from the start?
  • Do you know the difference between becoming familiar with the material as opposed to mastering the material?

If practice time is devoted to fixing things, you are wasting time and stealing time from your future self. This can happen when one doesn’t realize what problems need to be solved while starting to learn a new skill and articulates one’s goal as some far-off final result. And if you only gain familiarity with your material, you will experience the unsettling feeling of insecurity when you enter a performance situation. This insecurity will trigger self-conscious monitoring—Do I know really know this passage? Where am I shifting to? These thoughts always answer themselves too late.

Familiarity or Mastery?

Familiarity, rather than mastery, is the result of relying on what the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning have called “massed practice,” which they define as “the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the ‘practice-practice-practice’ of conventional wisdom. …but for true mastery or durability, these strategies are largely a waste of time.”13

Not everyone should be practicing the same things—even guitarists at roughly the same level—but everyone should cultivate the ability to decide what is best to practice at any given time. The ability to create well-designed practice sessions is dependent upon the answers to these questions:

  1. Can you articulate what problem it is you’re trying to solve or are you trying to solve a symptom?14 Or are you simply following a routine set down by someone else?
  2. Do you have the ability to understand problematic technical areas as abstractions and design exercises or procedures to solve real problems in a concentrated way, the solutions to which can then be applied to repertoire?
  3. When you are asked to begin playing at, say, measure 32, can you do it, or do you have to start at the beginning of the piece or a section?
  4. Are you practicing to develop new skills or are you practicing to maintain skills or repertoire already learned?
  5. Do you have the freedom to cultivate or exercise your musical imagination and develop compelling interpretations of the literature you play?

The first of these questions obviates the rôte or mindless repetition approach, which assumes that mere repetition is enough. The second question flies in the face of the still-too-common approach of thinking that one can get all the technical work one needs through the practice of repertoire. (This can be true if one’s technique is already advanced and well-developed, but it is a faulty assumption upon which to base one’s training.) These two questions are linked by the assumption that simply doing (read: repeating) is enough. The third question specifically points to whether one has learned material in a way that creates familiarity but not mastery. It is mastery—mental and physical—that is required for secure performance, and it is security that leads to artistic freedom. The next question requires one to understand that the mind and hands need to be used differently according to the goals of a practice session. Finally, I think there are more student guitarists who repeatedly play passages thinking primarily of technical accuracy than there are those who repeat passages with a view toward exploring interpretive nuance. Rivarde agrees:

It would be interesting to know how many instrumentalists there are, even among artists of repute, who spend as much time in developing their musical ideas as they do in developing their muscles and making their fingers go.15

Why? Is it the time in which we live? But Rivarde was writing in 1921, not quite a century ago. Is it misplaced priorities? But almost everyone makes a show of talking about “the music” and “expression.” Could it be that a certain way of practicing the music actually inhibits the development of technical refinements, which in turn militate against musical imagination from developing?

Next time we’ll explore “intelligent bunglers and brainless acrobats.”

Thinking About Practice, Part One: Practice is About Thinking

Thinking About Practice, Part Two: Principles or Directives?

Thinking About Practice, Part Three: Dagobah and East Coker

Thinking About Practice: Part Five: Reducing Music to Technique: Intelligent Bunglers and Brainless Acrobats


  1. This approach may be on the wane, but the so-called Segovia/Sor studies used to be on many university syllabi. Throughout the years I’ve met countless guitarists who were told to play through these, but they were never required to memorize or perform them. This is unfortunate, especially with Sor. His studies from Op. 6, 29, 31, & 35 contain much musical value. Approaching these works solely from a mechanical point of view makes it difficult for students to develop the relationship between technique and musical expression.

  2. This is not a screed against the rôte learning that children have to do. My problem is with teachers who have yet to realize that a student’s default mode when repeating a thing over and over is mindlessness instead of mindfulness.

  3. Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997), 17, 18.

  4. I’ll return to this post and add links if I explore any of these areas in depth later.

  5. Geoffrey Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, (Updated ed. Portfolio Trade, 2010), 79.

  6. I’ve written a lot about this in Mastering Guitar Technique, 18–21.

  7. Quoted in Berg, Mastering Guitar Technique, 21.

  8. Many artists anticipate in a practical and creative way discoveries that are later confirmed by scientists. Jonah Lehrer explores this in depth in his Proust Was a Neuroscientist from 2007. Many things outstanding artists and teachers in the past have said about slow practice, mental work, and the use of the body, have later had their efficacy confirmed by scientists.

  9. Republished in 2006: Achille Rivarde, The Violin and Its Technique —As a Means to the Interpretation of Music, (Read Country Book, 2006), p. 40.

  10. Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996), 51.

  11. Every adjustment I make in my technique is based on sensation, sound, and musical creativity, but I am not a guitarist being trained. Guitarists applying new concepts in their practice or developing new skills need direction that has been distilled from intellectual and artistic rigor.

  12. Rivarde, 52.

  13. Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. (Belknap Press, 2014), 2–3.

  14. An example of this might be the student who thinks she has a problem playing scales, but perhaps the real problem is more specific: string-crossing, shifting, left-hand tension, right-hand tension. One must have the ability to understand which among the smaller components that belong to the larger skill are impeding progress.

  15. Rivarde, 47.