Kevin McMullin and I met for breakfast the other day. Kevin has been taking time away from music and is thinking about how he wants to proceed in the future. It was a great conversation, and at some point the talk turned toward practice.
Kevin is a very fine musician, but also a gifted teacher. I’ve been taking a few guitar lessons lately, which has made a difference in my playing. Some combination of new input and time spent practicing what is new.
My main insight has been about taking difficult guitar parts and breaking them into small bits and practicing them over and over at a very slow tempo. I’ve heard great musicians talk about this as a way to improve. My way of practicing used to be to play the whole song through a couple of times and then move on. Not particularly efficient or helpful, but better than nothing. I wish someone had showed me how to practice forty years ago. Or maybe someone did, and I didn’t listen.
In any case, besides the idea of working on small parts slowly and repetitively, these are Kevin’s rules, in his words.
I call them the 4 noble truths of practice:
- Any practice is better than no practice. Even if it’s only two minutes get the instrument out and start playing it.
- Frequent practice is better than long practice. Five minutes twice a day is better than a half hour twice a week.
- Easy practice is better than hard practice. Pick the easiest time to practice. Leave the instrument out so it’s easy to pick up and play. Practice little piece many times. Reward yourself.
- Utilize the team. Practice and jam with friends. Team up with someone and support each other in practice goals. Share your music at social occasions. Music should not be a lonely endeavor. The most successful students are ones with good support.
Then I visited a great hometown guitar store in Sacramento, The Fifth String. I spoke with the owner, John Green, who talked to me a long time about how he believes people learn. Very much in congruence with the above. He offers online guitar lessons through short videos, and I think they are a good way to learn many techniques. John was also very kind to loan me a guitar for a couple of days when I unexpectedly needed one. I’m grateful for the place, the work, and the generosity.
The good news is that practice does make a difference. It doesn’t make perfect. But it does make better.