Without a doubt the single most-asked question I hear from new students is - how much should I practice? The answer is harder than you might think. It's natural to try to put a quantitative value on the amount of effort we put into just about anything we do and playing the guitar is no different. With beginners that question is legitimate because they want to succeed (of course!) but also because we all live busy lives and to commit a finite amount of time to anything usually means taking time away from some other aspects of our lives. So, when I'm figuratively backed into a corner and have to answer that question for a beginner I usually say something like a half-hour to an hour a day.
What any musician has to keep in mind is that in the most basic sense, playing an instrument is exercise. And like all exercise, a moderate amount on a frequent basis is much, much better than a LOT on an infrequent basis. I've had some very interesting conversations with very good musicians about their practice habits. My brother John, who is a trumpet player with the Malaysian Philharmonic practices a lot, which is a necessity because his instrument is very demanding physically. On the other hand, I had a long correspondence a few years ago with a very fine jazz guitarist from Indiana who admitted he doesn't practice at all, his explanation being that his gigging keeps him in shape. I guess I can understand that because with playing for two years at the Daily Brew I am playing as well as I ever have and I only need to warm up for a few minutes to get ready to give lessons each day.
However, if I did practice more often I would surely be a better player, if not in terms of technical facility at least in terms of repertoire. This is something that is a very slippery slope. The more we play what we know, the better or at least the more confident about that material we become. This leads to the comfort of just playing what we know. I have a list of about two dozen acoustic guitar instrumentals that I want to learn but that list has been sitting on my desk for over six months. It's just laziness, pure and simple. I know I'd better jump into those tunes pretty soon though because in a few short months it will be fishing season again and that will take all my time when I'm not teaching or performing. Learning new material helps our overall playing in ways that are not very obvious but are essential to progress.
One of the things that can make practicing so frustrating is that we sometimes feel we are playing better at the beginning of the practice session than at the end! This is true of all players regardless of their ability level. The fact is, we are playing better as the session progresses, but we tend to hear mistakes the longer we play, mistakes that were easily overlooked when we started the practice session. I always tell my students to figure out why they are making a mistake, or stopping when they should be keeping a steady beat. The danger is that repeatedly practicing something with the idea that massive amounts of repetition will solve a problem leads to just practicing our mistakes. You must figure out what the problem is before you can solve it.
Another frustrating aspect of practicing is the self-evaluation process. I've often said that I wish I could do my first year or so of learning the guitar all over again, if for no other reason than I could see progress on a weekly or even daily basis. Now, after playing for better than four decades, I have to measure my progress in terms of "what can I play this YEAR that I couldn't play last year?" (!) That requires a lot of faith in the learning process, to say the least! This is why I often tell more experienced players to record something that is giving them trouble, then stash that recording for a couple months. After that time has passed, listen to it and I can almost guarantee that you will hear progress. This is very gratifying.
So if time allows, dedicate a certain amount of time practice every day, even if it is only a few minutes. Challenge yourself for as least part of the practice session; don't just slip back into playing the same old, same old. And don't worry about how quickly you grasp a concept or manage a difficult passage or song. It will happen in time. Have faith!
Peace & good music,