How To Create A Practice Routine That You Can Actually Stick To

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Handcuffed to the Fretboard Part IV

Welcome back to the Handcuffed to the Fretboard series. In case you missed it, in earlier posts we talked about starting a small (part 1), completely reasonable practice routine (part 2) and keeping a practice log (part 3).

When you sit down to practice guitar, you’re not just practicing the instrument itself. You’re also practicing the act of practicing—which is a totally separate set of skills, and an art unto itself.

When taking on a new practice routine, at first you may find yourself restless, easily distracted, quickly lost. You may zone out and noodle, playing long solos that go nowhere, and fiddle with pedal dials for minutes on end before remembering that you’re supposed to be working on technique.

Just as there are techniques to master on guitar, there are simple techniques that can bring you greater presence of mind and clarity. As soon as you realize you’ve drifted, you can bring your goals back into focus. And just as you gradually learn to play chords and melodies, you’ll also get better at the kind of deep, single-minded focus that leads to mastery.

Enter Your Guitar

When I say “enter your guitar”, what I really mean is: draw a clear dividing line. You are beginning practice. Be absolutely conscious of this. Draw a bold black line and step over the threshold. Or sit down and draw a mental circle around yourself. You are here. Your guitar is here. Let’s get to work.

This is especially important if you don’t have a dedicated space where you can practice. If you don’t have a rehearsal room, if you don’t have space for any kind of guitar nook in your home…it’s crucial that you find a way to transition into a mental space that’s dedicated to practice.

Me? I’d love to build a one-room shed out in the woods with a traditional Japanese interior. High ceiling. Tatami mats on the floors. A guitar. Nothing else in the house. Leave your shoes at the door. Leave the rest of your life at the door.

Until then, though, I’ve got a piano bench. It’s a creaky, hand-carved antique; it needs new nails; its prismatic paisley cushion is fading. And it’s totally dedicated to guitar work–the only time I sit on that bench is when I’m practicing guitar. I don’t pile books on it. I don’t throw clothes on it. I don’t even sit down on it to tie my shoes. That bench is for practice and practice alone.

At the feet of the piano bench I keep a disassembled music stand. I assemble it each morning and spread my practice log open. Ideally I’d be able to just leave the music stand set up, but I use the same small room for sleeping, exercising, reading, rehearsal, you name it—so to keep from tripping on it, I have to tuck it away. I always put it in the same spot at the foot of the piano bench so I always know exactly where to find it. My practice log goes inside the compartment underneath the bench’s seat every day when I’m done with it, so I always know exactly where that is, too. I make it all as effortless and streamlined as possible, because I repeat this routine every day.

If you can, if you’re fortunate enough to have the space, leave everything set up and ready to roll—especially in the beginning, when you’re trying to get some momentum with a new practice routine. That way it’s dead simple to begin your work. When you’re starting out, even the smallest logistical problems can derail you just long enough for you to lose interest, so pay attention to where things go when you’re done with them.

Overall the space doesn’t matter as much as your headspace. Whether your practice has a dedicated physical location or not, enter into practice knowing what you came here to do–and shut the door firmly behind you.

Practice Has its Own Time

I’d also recommend sticking to the same time of day for your practice, just because it lends consistency and order to the routine. I love mornings, myself—when it’s quiet and my mind is clear. Over time I’ve come to crave morning practice just as much as I crave that first steaming, delicious cup of coffee. It feels great to accomplish a little something for myself before I’ve even showered or eaten or gone to work. Sets the right tone for the whole day.

Maybe you’re different; maybe you feel more inspired at night. Any time of day for your practice is fine—you can even split your effort into two different sessions—but keep the times roughly consistent from day to day. Write this plan on the inside cover of your practice log.

Over time your practice sinks its roots into a regular place and time, and it becomes a rhythm of your daily life. Missed beats will be fewer and farther between.

Clear Distractions

So. Let’s say you’re nestled inside your practice space. You came to do one thing, and one thing only: practice.

Anything that isn’t helping you meet that goal should be left at the door. For example: a beeping, buzzing, blinking phone. What could that text message be? Surely it’s a miraculous 140 characters of life-changing wonder! I’d better check it right away!

I’m one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t own a cell phone, but I do own a tablet computer and an iPod. They’re not invited to my one man practice party unless I absolutely need them, and if they do get invited in—which is rare—I disconnect them from the internet by turning the wireless connection off. Otherwise it’s far too easy to succumb to the million glittering entertainments that the internet offers.

Having banished or silenced all those glowing rectangles, I set a timer. That way I don’t have to keep one eye on the clock; I can just wait for the bell. This is important, because otherwise I’ll check the time constantly. With the timer set, I can avoid that temptation.

At some point during the session, your thoughts will flit to whatever hopes or troubles are on your mind. You’ll likely get the urge to go do something else. You’ll want to turn on TV, go surf the web, check email, mow the lawn, watch cat videos… notice these desires. Set them aside for now. They’re not what you came here to do. This is not the place or time for those things.

After today’s practice is over, you can celebrate. You can indulge in some small reward, and you can enjoy the quiet sense of fulfillment that comes from putting in the work and slowly mastering a craft.

Finding Your Rhythm

If you show up every day in the same place at the same time, putting in the same small effort, soon enough you’ll reach a tipping point where you no longer have to remind yourself to practice—it’ll take root in your life as a daily ritual. By then you’ll have tasted a bit of success; you’ll be playing better than you were; you might be using the new chords, scales, techniques, or music theory concepts you’ve learned to write music of your own. Food will taste sweeter. Colors will look brighter. You’re putting time and effort into something creative and meaningful, and that satisfaction will bleed through into the rest of your life. Is there a better feeling?

At that point you may naturally start to think about stretching your session length just a little longer, even just by five or ten minutes. No sudden tempo lurches, no abrupt key changes; just steady, sustained work that slowly deepens.

Even aside from the pleasure of making music, there’s the pleasure of knowing you’re doing justice to your own talent.

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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