How to Dominate the Guitar One Beer at a Time

Coors: The Banquet Guitar Slide

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If you’ve had trouble sticking to a practice routine, you’re not alone.

I struggled for years to establish a regimen – and failed, and failed, and failed again. I was totally sold on the benefits of practice, totally on board with the benefits of learning theory. I knew practice was key. I wanted mastery.

I also knew that I should be eating more spinach, planning a monthly budget, and getting up early to run.

Yes, on an intellectual level I understand all of those behaviors bring great benefits… but knowing something’s good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy to turn it into practice.

Eventually – mostly by dumb luck – I fell into a daily practice routine that works. But only recently, when reading a book called The Power of Habit, did I uncover some of the secrets of making a practice routine truly take root in my life and the lives of my guitar students.

They’re surprisingly simple.

First, You Need a Cue.

Coors: The Banquet Guitar Slide
Coors: The Banquet Guitar Slide

First, you’ll need to figure out what I call a practice trigger: something that’s going to serve as a cue and a reminder to practice.

If you follow a pretty consistent routine from day to day, you might be able to just program a reminder into your phone that goes off at a certain time. At 7:30pm, for example, your ringer goes off and displays a reminder that it’s time to practice for 20-30 minutes. If that method works for you, it’s simple: the phone alarm is your trigger.

That approach didn’t work so well for me, though, because I never know whether I’m going to be eating dinner or writing a Guitar-Muse post or busy with who-knows-what at 7:30pm… so instead of practicing at a specific time, I practice just after lunch, whenever lunch happens on a given day. That way my schedule has plenty of flexibility, but practice still happens regularly – because I now associate guitar practice with lunch. Lunch is my practice trigger.

You can take a similar approach. Look for a spot in your daily routine where you can fit in at least 20 minutes of daily practice. Possible times:

  • Right after waking up, just before brushing teeth
  • The second you arrive home from work
  • After putting the kids to bed

Any of these will work, and so will any other window of time you can find. The only requirement is that your practice trigger recurs daily. You want the cue to serve as a consistent, routine trigger.

When your chosen practice time rolls around, pull up your music stand. Pick up your guitar. Tune that thing. Begin.

A Few Pointers

Early on, while you’re still trying to kickstart the habit, it can be a bit fragile. Leave yourself notes and reminders in strategic places where you know you’ll see them.

Anything that shakes up your daily routine might also shake up your practice regimen, so it’s probably best not to start a new practice habit during a vacation or over the holidays.

Focused, deliberate practice is difficult. Stick to short practice sessions that you can completely recover from on a daily basis.

There are some excellent apps out there that help you track goals and new routines; personally, I like Lift.

The Payoff

Here’s the best part: after each practice session, give yourself a reward.

Most of the benefits of practice take time to kick in, so in the meantime give yourself some kind of immediate reward. This reward might be anything from playing a song you love to a cold beer and some television. You might even find that just the pride of having practiced is reward enough.

Whatever you choose, the reward should be something you’re going to crave. My reward for a hard, focused, 30-minute practice session is a cup of coffee. As soon as my fingers touch the strings, I’m already dreaming about that delicious cup of French roast.

After practicing, enjoy that sensation of tired forearm muscles. Savor the mental fatigue that comes from focusing hard on music theory concepts. These are rewarding in the way that a post-workout muscle burn is a reward – they’re sensations that let you know you worked hard, and they let you know that you’re making progress. Day after day, you’re building yourself up. It’s a great feeling.

Practice itself may not get any easier, but sitting down to practice eventually becomes automatic. And that’s worth celebrating – hell, in our Age of Distraction, just showing up is practically an art unto itself.

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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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9 years ago

Hey Nicholas,

you are right. Habits are much more powerful than any kind of motivation. My practice session starts always after breakfast with a cup of coffee. This way I can put 2-3 hours of serious practice into my schedule before noon.

Since I created this habit, I never had problem with practicing regularly.

Thanks for the article.

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