Learning guitar: how to drastically increase your productivity

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Every guitarist whether self taught or taking lessons will have been told, or read, that in order to progress you need to practice. Not only that but that you need to use repetitive tasks such as scales and arpeggios, chord progressions etc. to commit the building blocks of playing songs to memory before you can attempt to play entire tracks. The problem is that practicing scales for an hour with a metronome is mind numbingly boring, especially for beginners. What makes things worse is picking up the next day and feeling like you’ve barely made any progress, or worse, your fingers seem to have forgotten all that time you spent yesterday memorising a scale, exercise or guitar solo. So there must be an easier way right? Well Dr. Christine Carter, a clarinetist who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, believes so and wrote her dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick.

A while ago I published a post called it’s not what you practice, it’s how you practice, which talks about breaking down difficult tasks into bite sized chunks in order to focus on the mechanics of the task first in order to achieve correct technique. The methodology in that article should used in conjunction with Dr. Carter’s methodology.

If you’ve ever been to a gym class, bootcamp or similar you will already be aware of the concept of contextual interference. A personal trainer will ensure that you are doing different exercises in fairly quick session rather than sticking to one activity in order to boost your overall fitness and make your body work harder without wearing you out to the point you want to give up. This is the basic premise, you need to make sure you are not burning out on a single task which slows down your brain and body’s ability to retain the information and movements.

“Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. ” – Dr Carter via Bulletproofmusician.com.

Dr. Carter’s theory is that once a repetitive task becomes comfortable you are no longer practicing at your peak level and you should move on to a new challenge. So how can we do this while still keeping the focus on learning something in particular, say the major scale? The idea is that for example you could play the major scale in first position 3 times, then move to 2nd position, 3rd position etc up and down the neck. Or maybe you could randomise the order in which you play the scale, choose an interval such as a third and play I III II IV III V IV VI V VII (C E D F E G F A), then fourths etc.

“…my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.”

So what about if you are learning a difficult passage of a song, obviously randomising the chords, riffs or solo isn’t really the ideal situation. Instead spend a short amount of time playing the passage but interrupt yourself with scale, arpeggio or technique practice. When you go back to the passage you will have to concentrate just as hard as the first time so your focus will be enhanced. Then every few minutes interrupt yourself again with another unrelated task such as an alternate picking exercise. This may seem unnatural so it is probably best you write up a quick practice plan before you begin, it can be the same plan every day for a week if you like as you long as you are dividing up tasks within your allocated practice time. I would still factor in one fun day a week where you don’t practice anything in particular and just jam over backing tracks, write riffs or play along to your favourite tracks. This, in my opinion, is an incredibly important part of practicing guitar that helps remind you why you wanted to learn how to play in the first place and will offset any feelings of frustration encountered when trying to learn something difficult.

I hope that this helps to improve your practice results and please let me know in the comments if you have any additional suggestions.

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