I make the point with all my students that the beginning stages of playing the guitar have to include a healthy dose of faith. Faith that following my directions and regular practice will help them conquer those first hurdles. In most cases they can intellectualize this but the immediate reality is difficult to ignore. They know what a piece of music is supposed to sound like, and they hear me do it at their lesson and on the CD that I always send home with them but what comes out when they practice is sometimes very hard to take.
I firmly believe that one of the biggest deceptions about playing the guitar is that from a non player's perspective it just looks too darn easy! You see someone strumming away, intent on singing and the guitar playing almost looks like an afterthought. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the playing has to become somewhat automatic but I guarantee that someone who is obviously not concentrating on their playing (in the very least, in a visual sense) is playing something quite basic and repetitive. The more difficult a piece is, the more a good player looks at his or her hands, anticipating the next set of moves and checking that what they're playing is correct. In the 1970s I was fortunate to hear the great Andres Segovia in concert and I was struck by the fact that he watched his left (fretting) hand the entire time!
Getting back to the deception of ease in the beginning stages I often put it to students this way. You can sit a 3-year old down in front of a piano and while it's unlikely he will play anything truly musical, the plunking he does still sounds like a piano. Not so with a guitar. Until a beginner applies some basic technique regarding finger placement and gains the strength required to push down the strings it is impossible to even make the guitar sound much like a guitar! This is often a hard reality to deal with and can be very, very frustrating. But that's where the faith comes in. Playing the guitar involves correct technique but in the beginning it is mostly about strength. There is nothing you do in everyday life that resembles playing the guitar so there is no reason the muscles in your hand and fingers are prepared for the strength required to press down the strings. Plus - it hurts. The beginner is quickly divested of the idea that playing the guitar is easy.
So what about practice? How much is enough? How much is too much? I am reluctant to tell my students they have to practice a certain amount of time each time they pick up the guitar. This can often lead to frustration because in our adult lives there are many other things that are more pressing than playing the guitar. If I tell a student they have to practice an hour a day and they just can't devote that much time they naturally assume that playing less is why they can't accomplish their goal for that week's lesson. This is just not the case, almost always.
What I do tell them is to remember two things. Playing the guitar is exercise, plain and simple. Doing a moderate amount on a regular basis is far more productive than doing a lot on an infrequent basis. And focusing on just exactly WHY that chord change or strum just won't seem to happen is essential. Many adults practice diligently but at some point in time they're doing nothing more than practicing their mistakes. You must ask yourself why that change is difficult: is one finger always late in pressing down? Then that finger must be your focus. It's sometimes valuable to practice getting just that one finger down, then fill in the others. The sound won't be great but between focusing on that one problem finger and keeping a steady beat no matter how it sounds will lead to getting the entire chord in place sooner than stopping to set up the entire chord, then resuming the beat. You can't solve a problem by pure repetition alone.
My own practice regimen is variable. I don't really count what I do while I'm teaching as practice although it certainly does help to keep me limber. What I usually do is set a goal of learning a new tune and then approximate out how much time I can reasonably expect to devote to it to play the thing in a performance worthy way. If that is a few hours, so be it. I've been playing long enough to know that something that seems almost impossible will come together at some point.
There's that faith again. It is a corner stone of the musical process. A beginner needs to hang onto small successes and with more time spent playing it will be easier to keep their own playing in perspective. I know that's difficult when all you hear are buzzes and muffled notes but if you focus on why those buzzes are happening and try to correct those small things the bigger accomplishments will follow.
Peace & good music,