Contrary to what many people might think it is not in your lessons but rather in your practice sessions where you will improve as a musician. A lesson will shine a light on areas you need to focus on and provide guidance for continual development but it really won’t make you a better player. For this reason we need to think carefully about how we use our time while practicing.
There are two main pitfalls in the practice realm #1 aimless wandering #2 is diminishing returns. Wandering aimlessly in practice sessions is easy to do and it will result in a feeling of frustration and wasted time. To remedy this we need to practice with a structure and goals. Diminishing returns is a little more insidious, and this will happen as we forge ahead thinking that more time = more results. This is most definitely not the case and I would suggest to you that a focused and structured session for one hour is far more productive than three hours of noodling.
This site has a number of practice aids that I have developed: the CGC Membership contains a complete suite of tools that provides structure and graded materials for you to work on, and the technical routines are PDF books with structured practice materials. If you want to develop your own practice structures here are four templates to get your ideas flowing.
15 Minute Madness
We start with just that little sliver of time that we sometimes find between daily hustle and bustle. Maybe the kids are out, maybe you woke up early, but there is definitely a small window where you can pick up the guitar. If you use this window properly it can be very productive.
The name of the game here is restriction. Take just one thing and focus intently for fifteen minutes. A scale, and arpeggio, four measures of a piece, an exercise. Whatever it is, clearly state your goal and stick to it. Resist the temptation to noodle around on your repertoire. Noodles are your enemy.
Let us say you choose a C Major two octave scale. Start a timer on your phone, put the metronome on and start out with an even scale with consistent tone. From here we can add scale variations such as articulation, rhythms, dynamics or right hand fingering changes. Before you know it, your timer will go off but if you stick to just that one focused element, your time will have been productive.
The 30 Minute Practice Session
- 10 Fundamentals
- 5 Scales
- 5 Sight Reading
- 10 Repertoire
As a beginner or intermediate player you need to continually consolidate core techniques. Sound production, alternation, string crossing, scale synthesis, all these elements are crucial to your development and they can’t be quickly brushed over. So, to start each of your practice sessions, I would suggest going over your fundamentals.
Fundamentals – 10 minutes
Free stroke, alternation, string crossing, sound production. These simple elements are also great at gently warming up the hands.
Scales – 5 minutes
focus on one scale and one element of technique. i.e. C Major one octave and focus on correct right hand alternation.
Sight Reading – 5 Minutes
Simple sight reading. I say simple because we want to develop a sense of confidence and flow with reading music. In my level 1 notation course I add one element per lessons for a while and this allows the student to develop confidence in reading. You could take a basic melody like “Three Blind Mice” and write it down in three different keys, two different octaves, play it in two different positions. Keep your sight reading task simple and add difficulty through variation.
Repertoire – 10 Minutes
Ok, only ten minutes left… now we can focus on the repertoire.
This might seem like a measly portion to assign to repertoire but you can make progress if you focus. If you spend those ten minutes on two measure, or even four, then you can really get some quality work done. If you try and play the whole piece through, you will have wasted your time.
Take a bite sized chunk, and focus intensely. It yields results and will leave you feeling productive. The next session you can move ahead to the next two measures. Over time you can consolidate and form up the entire piece.
The 1 Hour Practice Session
With a little more time we can dig deeper into our individual chunks.
- 10 Fundamentals
- 10 Scales & Arpeggios
- 5 Giuliani Right Hand Studies
- 5 Sight Reading
- 15 Studies or exercises
- 15 Repertoire
Fundamentals – 10 Minutes
To reiterate, the fundamentals are perhaps the most important part of your development in the early stages. Start the sessions with open strings, alternation, tone control and extremely simple exercises
Scales & Arpeggios – 10 Minutes
With a little more time we are adding arpeggios to the mix. One or two octave arpeggios will incorporate shifting and string crossing into the mix. Choose one scale and one arpeggio in the same key to focus on for ten minutes. Be mindful of tone control consistency and efficient movement in the hands.
Giuliani Studies – 5 Minutes
The 120 Giuliani Studies provides a great framework to inject two or three studies into a practice session. They each have a slightly unique element and will develop a balanced right hand. Restrict yourself to no more than three in a period of five minutes so you can focus on tone and right hand balance.
Sight Reading – 5 Minutes
As with the 30 minute template, sight reading is an important element to develop and it will also break up the monotony of technical work.
Studies or Exercises – 15 Minutes
To develop individual elements in your technique like slurs, shifting, thirds, sixths etc. you will need to devote time to studies and exercises. This is almost like a more advanced and specific version of the fundamentals your started with.
Repertoire – 15 Minutes
As you can see we have already taken up three quarters of the practice session with technique and musicianship. Technique is more important than repertoire right now because you need to develop a strong foundation. However, with an hour we can look at spending a little more time on repertoire and studies.
With 15 minutes assigned to repertoire you can once again focus on one phrase of music or a four measure chunk. Try not to take on more than that as you will be diluting your efforts. Focus, be patient and persistent and if you feel stuck put the guitar down and think what you could do to improve these short passages. Better sound? phrasing? articulation? dynamics? I guarantee you that there is something you can improve, and you wont get to that deeper, more detailed level if you move on to different material. Stick with it.
Many beginner pieces are not much longer than 16 or 24 measures. With this focused approach you can look forward to gaining control of one piece per week. Not bad!
The 2 Hour Practice Session
Anything over an hour is a dangerous amount of time to practice. Not because your body is sedentary but because your mind will start to wander. In general I would suggest everyone practice in 45 minute chunks with a 15 minute break if possible
- 15 Fundamentals
- 15 Scales & Arpeggios
- 15 Exercises
- 15 Break & Stretch
- 15 Sight Reading
- 15 Studies
- 15 Repertoire 1
- 15 Repertoire 2
As you can see in this more substantial 2 hour practice session we can expand our time on various components and have also designated thirty minutes to repertoire study towards the end of the session. Each chunk is 15 minutes and in my experience this is an optimum amount of time to make progress without losing focus.
Take the same approach as the previous templates and be clear about the focus of each section. Use a timer to keep you on track and be sure to stretch in that 15 minute break!
These practice routine templates are just outlines which you can adapt to suit your own needs. I feel that they represent the best balance for improvement but perhaps you are more interested in playing through pieces, and that is completely OK.
The most important thing is that you take the time to think about your time so you can feel a sense of progress and achievement.
Need some help to get started?
You can use one of my graded technical routines so that you can focus on what really matters… your practice. Each routine provides a structured and balanced technical workout that is comprehensive but not overwhelming. If you don’t want to go to the effort of collecting and arranging all the exercises yourself, then these books will be very valuable to you.
Just choose the books you need and get started:
5 Practice Routines – Book 1
5 Practice Routines – Book 2
5 Practice Routines – Book 3
5 Practice Routines – Book 4