Chunking in your guitar practice is really quite simple in principle. Take something large and unmanageable and break it up into smaller, more manageable chunks. The obvious analogy that comes to mind is your food: you might not be able to swallow a whole fish like a pelican does, but if you cut it up into smaller bite-size chunks it’s much easier to handle (and digest!).
Practice is no different: if we take on too much material at once it’s much more difficult to handle. As soon as we break it up into smaller chunks, however, the larger material suddenly becomes a lot easier.
So how do we use the principle of chunking in our guitar practice? I’d like to offer three ways chunking can take your guitar practice to the next level and help you make learning guitar much easier.
Chunking Your Practice Schedule
Before you practice anything at all, you need to know what to practice. Creating a practice schedule requires that you know what things need the most development, what elements need to be maintained, and what things are in good shape and need less attention. So how do we do that?
Chunking Your Goals
First, you need to have some clearly defined goals. Goals give you direction and intention and can help offer some structure to your practice. What’s your ultimate goal? Why do you play the guitar? Maybe your long-term goal is to be able to play Recuerdos de la Alhambra because that is the piece that most made you want to play the guitar. Then you can break up that larger goal into smaller, more achievable goals, all the way down to daily practice goals. Hey, that’s chunking!
Next, once you have some goals that give you an aim for your practice, we need to focus in on those elements that will help us achieve each goal. And here, let’s take a long view: What tools do I need to play Recuerdos in five years? Well, if you’re just getting started with right-hand technique, you’ll need to be able to play arpeggios well before tackling tremolo technique. And you need those arpeggios to be simple before you add in right-hand independence (which is so important for tremolo). These are all steps you have to develop one at a time. Again, this is chunking!
Having a Chunking Mindset
Finally, as you begin to identify the things that need development to help you reach your goals, it’s important to recognize that you can’t and don’t need to practice everything in one day. Instead, allow for things to develop over time. Thinking through priorities and then being consistent in your practice will always pay off more than simply practicing a lot at once. This is all about mindset.
The same is true for taking a long view of your progress. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to make progress too quickly and thus skipping over the fine details that will actually help you progress. This is effectively like cramming for a test in school rather than studying effectively over the course of several weeks or months so you’re well prepared. Chunking is an important part of this process and the mindset behind it.
How to Practice Chunking
Let’s say you have two hours set aside for practice each day. Great! That’s a lot of time to get things done. So where do you begin? Well, this will differ for each person, which is why it’s so important to know what to prioritize. Maybe Recuerdos is your long-term goal, but you’d love to learn other things along the way.
So let’s break up those two hours into manageable chunks. Then I’ll offer you a sample practice schedule.
Neurologists have discovered that the brain has a difficult time continuing to focus on something after about 45 minutes. That means you never want to practice longer than 45 minutes without a break. But you may find you need more frequent breaks—this will differ for each person. Taking frequent practice breaks gives our mind a chance to refresh. To make things simple and keep our minds alert and aware, let’s break up our two hours into four 30-minute chunks.
If your technique needs a lot of development, you may want to spend two full 30-minute chunks just focused on different technical elements. However, in most cases 30 minutes will work really well for technical practice. Again, this is why it’s so important to know your own strengths and areas that need development so you can know what to prioritize. (A teacher can help here as well.) You’ll find over time that some technical elements need a lot of maintenance. These are things you want to practice everyday. Scales and arpeggios definitely fit in this category. Other elements will take less time once they’re established. These might include left-hand independence exercises or right-hand string crossing.
Before we get started on technique it’s great to do some light warming up so that you don’t injure yourself. How long to warm up will, you guessed it, differ for each person. But let’s say you give about 10 minutes for your warmup. So if we break down our 30 minutes of technical practice, we might end up with something like this (this is only one possible way to break up this time!):
- 10 minutes: Warmup
- 15 minutes: Scales and Arpeggios (about 7-8 minutes on each)
- 5 minutes: Left-hand independence spider exercise
For each chunk make sure to set a timer so that you don’t give too much time to one element. Remember that there’s always tomorrow, and the next day. If you discover, however, that you still need more time, you may need to reevaluate your goals and adjust your overall practice schedule.
Next we may want to have quite a bit more time devoted to repertoire. Let’s say you’re preparing for a Grade Exam. That will require certain technical elements, but also a handful of repertoire pieces to learn. The same is true if you want to play a short concert for friends and family. Either way, to learn more than one repertoire piece at a time, we need to give sufficient time so we can learn them well. Learning repertoire requires us to learn correct notes and rhythms, to understand and learn phrasing and stylistic elements, and to identify problem areas and create solutions.
Again, this will mean we need a pretty hefty chunk of time devoted to repertoire. Whether you use up all your remaining hour and a half on just repertoire, or only part of it will depend on your goals, how much repertoire you need to learn, and whether you want to allow for time for other things. These other things might include playing for fun, performance practice, practicing memorization, or harmonic analysis (among other things).
Now we can once again break up each of those 30-minute chunks into smaller 15-minute chunks. (You can make this as granular as you wish.) So we might break up our first 30 minutes into two 15-minute chunks, each of which focus on just one small section of music—1 to 2 phrases. What I recommend at this point is combining a phrase or two from one piece in one 15-minute chunk with another phrase or two from a completely different piece for the second. This is sometimes referred to as “interleaved” practice and is a great way to randomize what you’re working on. Neurologists have shown that challenging your brain to shift gears through randomization is better for your memory and retention.
Thus we might end up with a repertoire practice something like this:
- 30 minutes
- 15 minutes on Bach, Bourree BWV 996, mm. 16-20;
- 15 minutes on Sor, Study in D Op 35, No 17, mm. 14-22
- 30 minutes
- 15 minutes on Ryan, Birds Flew over the Spire, mm.11-18;
- 15 minutes on Visée, Prelude in Dm, mm. 5-8
- 30 minutes: Performance Practice
Chunking Your Repertoire
One of the most beneficial ways of using chunking is to break up your repertoire into small chunks that you can practice in isolation. This is something we use at Classical Guitar Corner Academy in one of our Member Challenges. In this challenge we ask everyone to focus on just one chunk of repertoire for an entire month.
A “chunk” might be as small as one chord transition, but it shouldn’t be longer than one phrase. Imagine how smooth you could make that one chord transition if you had a whole month to work on it. Moreover, giving yourself more time to focus in on just one thing at a macro level allows you to see things you couldn’t see when dealing with larger sections of music. But it also opens up other elements you can focus on, like musicality that may have been harder to do in a larger context.
In addition, if you incorporate these chunks into your practice schedule so that you are working on them consistently each day, you’ll notice over time you have to spend less time on each chunk. Eventually chunking, therefore, saves you time in your practice.
Chunking Everything in Your Guitar Practice
Hopefully by now you can see that you can apply chunking in your guitar practice to almost anything. We have talked about goals, practice schedule, repertoire, and how to have a chunking mindset. But you can also chunk the smallest individual elements, like scales. Taking a long scale run and breaking it up into small chunks makes it much more manageable. Once you have seen the benefit of chunking and learned to apply it to elements like your practice schedule and goals, it makes sense to also use it at a macro level.