Have you ever been in a situation like this? You get your guitar, practice for hours, focus and concentrate for weeks on a particular exercise (or exercises), but it seems that you are making little to no improvement. “What is wrong? I thought putting time in and being tenacious would make me improve!” Well, you are right! Improving in music is a matter of discipline and tenacity, no doubt about it, but also a matter of knowing what your goals are. Here are a few tips that will help you improve.
Set long term goals
Find out what your long-term goals are. Have some ‘Zen’ time to think about what is it you want to accomplish. How do you see yourself three years from today? What kind of skills do you want to have?
Set short term goals
Now that you have a direction, it’s time to break it down to figure out what the steps to get there are. Organize your exercises weekly and make sure you can be successful. Your goals should be balanced and reachable. When the week is over, be honest with yourself. How did it go? Were those the right ‘doable’ exercises that you truly needed? How have they made you a better player? Use your own answers to re-evaluate your strategy for the following week and make some changes. “Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is non-sense” - Albert Einstein. Do not underestimate the importance of learning a simple lick or understanding a basic concept that everyone else knows: they are called ‘the basics’ for a reason. Every step counts!
If you are a guitar player who has never played a tapping lick, then Van Halen’s Eruption should not be one of your first projects. Just like you would never build a house starting with the roof, you need to learn the basics first, and then expand from there. There is no shame in not knowing something. Take a breath and get on it. You can accomplish nearly anything, but you need to be honest with yourself about taking the right steps toward reaching your objectives. "When it is obvious that your goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps” – Confucius.
Know your strengths
Steve Vai once said, “Take what you do best, and then exaggerate it!” By now, you probably know what is it that makes you shine, and what does not. Use that self-knowledge to your advantage. Yngwie Malmsteen has great picking skills, Joe Satriani is a fantastic composer, Van Halen knows how to kill it with the whammy bar like no other, and Allan Holdsworth plays the most strange scales at the speed of light. They found out what they were best at and then exploited it. Ask yourself what is it that sets you apart and use it to your advantage. Make this a goal of yours.
Play for fun
"Play for fun time" is often confused with practice time. They are two completely different animals. "Playing for fun" is what keep us excited and brings joy to us. However, it is practicing exercises methodically that will provide the improvement that you are seeking. Thirty minutes a day of practice time will go a long way. Make time for it, and you will be investing in a much more fun "play for fun" time without even knowing it.
Have a routine
Many think that because 2+2=4, practicing 30 min a day for a week = practicing 3 hours and 30 minutes on Sunday. Unfortunately, this math will not do. We learn by routine and repetition. Our brain and fingers will become more efficient when presented with the same challenges on a daily basis. Think about athletes, they train every day to keep their skills sharp. The same principle applies to musicians since part of the act of playing requires physical strength and repetitive patterns.
Organization, consistency and realism are some of the tools that will make your practice time successful. Take the time to think about those things that excite you and motivate you to play. Your goals are right there, waiting for you to reach them. Go get them!