thoughts on practice

I remember when I was 15. I used to spend hours playing video games. My favorites were “Legend of Zelda” and “Metroid”. I’ll never forget the day when I finally killed the Mother Brain. So many late nights spent searching the dark, mesmerizing landscape of that classic game. Fond memories, indeed.

Finally, one Sunday afternoon I dialed in the precise combination of jumping, dumb luck, and launching of missiles necessary to destroy my nemesis. Then my character appeared sans space suit, and I realized that the whole time Samus was a woman, and not an unattractive one to boot. But I digress.

The thing about that experience, and every other similar experience I had with reaching the end of a video game (they are numerous) is that upon reaching the end there was an empty feeling. All of that time and energy, all of those Coca-Cola hangovers, a hail of indiscriminate missile fire, and it's over. Time to get a new game.

The guitar is not like this. It is a game without end. There is no Mother Brain. You will never, ever get to the end. Sure, if you're not careful you could wind up being one of those lost souls wandering aimlessly around the same level forever, but that's no fun. You've got to keep pushing and exploring. There is always more. Read any interview with any musician of merit and you'll hear them say the same thing. You've got to keep trying new things and exploring new rooms. If you are or have aspirations of becoming a pro, you'll need to think this way for your success and sanity, but even if you have no such aspirations you simply owe it to yourself to experience music as richly as you can. In other words once you get that Rush tune together, dig into some Ravel.

One thing I've been fascinated by lately is the manner in which time is perceived during practice. It’s interesting indeed to take an occasional glance at the clock during a solid practice session, and pay careful attention to what 5 minutes can feel like when you're struggling with something. I've had times when I could have sworn that 5 minutes was a half-hour. The anguish and tedium can make it feel like an eternity, but it hasn't been an eternity, it's been 5 minutes. Keep practicing.

The other thing that I cannot emphasize enough is to correctly define “practice”. It’s not simply doing something over and over again; it has to have purpose. You have to have a specific objective in mind, or you’re not going to get anywhere. The basic rule of thumb you should keep in mind is that every time you finish a practice session you should be able to do something you couldn’t do when you sat down. Stick with this philosophy and it will pay compound interest and dividends.

The objective is to get in there every day and slug it out. It’s just like so many other things in life that we avoid, but once we finally get in there and do it it’s great fun, and much more gratifying than watching television. In addition to the obvious benefit of simply getting better at the instrument, you will in fact become more alive, knowing that you have taken another step towards true proficiency at a very beautiful, and mysterious instrument. Now get in there and kill it.