In my last blog we had a discussion about learning and how the brain makes it all happen. Iit’s good to know this stuff because it has implications for how we practice. If we can do it smarter it'll not only be easier but we'll get better results.

Much of our practice is simply repeating a particular set of movements, in the process engaging nerves and muscles in a specific order. Initially these movements take some conscious effort but once the neural conections are established they are more or less automatic, they’ve been learned.

What’s the best way to make this happen? The evidence tells us that for some time after a repeated series of new movements these nerve/muscle pathways continue to fire up, they will even continue during sleep.

So we’d expect that 3 hours of practice spread out regularly over a week would be more effective than one 3 hour block once a week. Regular practice lets you slowly build these pathways while large intervals between practice sessions simply give us time to forget what we did previously. Not only does the research support this idea but I can tell you from my own experience as a player and teacher over many years that it is absolutely the case.

It also has implications for what and how we practice.

  • Squeeze in a little bit of technique practice every day, even if it’s only 5 minutes.
  • When you have a longer session start it with a warm up routine. If you’re just beginning and don’t have one yet then just practice whatever you did the previous day, kick those pathways back into gear first thing.
  • If you are working on a new technique do that now while you’re warmed up but still fresh.
  • Have a piece, or at least a riff that you’re working on. Ideally it will put some of the technical stuff to work for you. Remember that all of the same rules apply. You don’t have to learn it all in one day, give yourself time for it to sink in.
  • Use everything that you’ve learned and just have a play. Improvise, explore, make mistakes, listen with intent.
  • Warm down with your warm up routine or a simple technical exercise.

As much as I hate three word slogans (won’t go into that now), they must work. So here’s mine.

Regular Relaxed Repetition

  • Practice regularly, we’ve covered that.
  • Stay relaxed, if you associate your new movements with muscle tension elsewhere then you’ll learn that too.
  • Repetition is the only way that the nerve/muscle relationships can be established and memorised.

This stuff works, the hardest part is trusting it so have a go and prove it for yourself. Of course having the right exercises and a little guided instruction helps and we all know where to get that from.

Patrick Curley

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Comment by Cris Portillo Jr. on April 21, 2014 at 12:13pm

Very cool thanks!

Comment by SlowHound on April 9, 2014 at 1:23am

Excellent post.

It was my excuse to build so many in the beginning. Need one in the shed, kitchen, computer room, for my travels and so on. So much easier to get five or ten minutes in here and there than a huge block at once.

Regular Relaxed Repetition...I like that!

Comment by Bad Finger (Eric) on April 1, 2014 at 7:12am

Like the post. :)

It is my basic excuse for having a guitar within arm's reach at nearly all times.  My wife suggests it is all my stuff just laying around.  Kitchen counter, leaning on the wall in the family room, hanging on the wall down the basement stairs, etc., etc.  But I hardly have an excuse not to practice.  Almost every day I spend 10 minutes before breakfast and then in the evening while I'm cooking dinner.  12 bars makes for good timing for flipping pancakes, BTW.  

Comment by Scruggy on March 31, 2014 at 2:55pm
Great post really into the neuro side of things, I'm a huge fan of thimothy ferris he's not a musician or anything but he's built a career out of fast learning and hacking your mind, he's got some great books, he's a big believer in the 80/20 principle 80% of results is from 20% of focused learning, 20 minute learning sessions then break for awhile then another, and learning before bedtime!! You should check him out on youtube Pat!
Comment by Richey Kay on March 28, 2014 at 7:05pm

I'm really enjoying these blog posts Patrick. Very good advice which I could take at the moment. Thinking about it, I don't think I've really tried to push into any new ground with my playing for a while, but I've been trying to learn Peaches en Regalia recently and it's taking me back to my teenage years, when I'd try something, think it was impossible, then slowly chip away at it until I'd convinced my fingers they could do it. Rewarding! :)

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