November 12, 2010

What is efficient?

"When working on the exercises, the guitarist must keep in mind the fact that mechanical repetition is worthless. Every time an exercise is repeated one must consciously correct and/or improve upon the previous playing."
- Ricardo Iznaola, Kitharalogus

"Practicing without thinking about what we’re doing prepares us for real world performance conditions, where we often have to work on automatic pilot mode, especially at the technical level.
I thought I was the only one doing this until a guitarist (and a famous one too, who will remain anonymous) came to visit Corpus Christi. When I went to the hotel to pick him up for the concert, I was surprised to hear, behind the door, intense practicing with the TV at full blast."
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
Both of these seemingly opposite schools of thought have their adamant supporters, and both have produced stellar musicians. How can that happen?

People are all different and some learn differently, but let's face it, not much about playing any instrument is particularly natural. Sure, some people take to it easier than others and we can use principles of nature to guide our efforts, but when it comes right down to it, everything we do is a learned adaptation to the requirements of the instrument. It will take time to develop.

Some will argue that 'mindless repetition' may not be taking the quickest path, and you are also perhaps running the risk of developing bad habits. But by letting your muscles figure things out on their own and leaving your mind out of it, you are cultivating the ability to play instinctively rather than calculatedly.

Iznaola's recommendation, on the other hand, can easily lead to end-gaining, which is often difficult to see until you're already mired in it. That doesn't mean the approach doesn't work, but I know that I tend to get obsessive about things and am prone to end-gaining, and I think that's why I have had mixed success with it.

Given the examples of success, I conclude that both approaches are valid and have their place, but perhaps aren't equally suited to everyone.

Efficiency IS Important

I'm not advocating wasting your time, and there are clearly times when efficiency is key. For example, the faster and more completely you understand a piece of music, the quicker and easier it should be to learn correctly. Having a secure and well-rounded technique will allow you to focus on the musical aspects of it without getting distracted by the technical side. That is efficient.

All the individual elements of your technique should be as efficient as possible, too. No wasted motion, no stumbling, and no delay as you prepare. While a thorough understanding of the ins and outs of technique is a great start, it offers little advantage until you put in the time imprinting the motions into your muscle memory so they become absolutely instinctive.

How long does it really take?

When I was working as a software engineer, the only times I could get a two-hour task done in two hours was when I had no interruptions. A ten minute interruption didn't make that task take two hours and ten minutes, it made it more like three hours, because of the distraction, the context-switching, and getting back into the groove.

So if a technique on the guitar is going to take 10 ideal-world hours to learn, the more time you can focus on it at a time, the sooner you'll get there. Every interruption will incur some penalty, so maybe doing it an hour a day will make it take 11-12 days, but doing it 10 minutes a day will probably take 70-80 days.

That is, if you can stay motivated and interested enough in working on that same thing 10 minutes a day for 70-80 days. If you're like most people, you'll probably get bored with it, or decide it's good enough for now, and move on to something else before you've really got it nailed down.

Mindless Repetition
One of the things I believe in is practicing in a state of no-mind. You practice without thinking too much about what you’re doing.
- Philip Hii, Art of Virtuosity for Guitar book
There's no real shortcut to developing technique. The closest thing to a shortcut is to have a clear sound-picture in your head of what you are trying to achieve, to have a sense of the right way, and guidance from a teacher.

Then you need to set your metronome for a speed where you are able to play the exercise/technique comfortably, no matter how slowly that is. Set a timer (I use for 20-30 minutes, or an hour if you can, or even two, and just have at it. Work on one thing at a time and build the muscle memory until you get to the point where your hands just do it for you. You will know recognize that feels like when it happens. And if it doesn't sound right yet, keep at it.


  1. Nice post. I like the egg timer link, I had not seen that before. I think at times I use both methods. If I am just picking a fiddle tune or something I know well I will do it while watching TV or something. But if i need to concentrate on a piece of music or a specific technique i tend to hone in and eliminate other distractions.

    I think practicing without thinking is good for real world gigs. Especially when you are in the middle of a piece and your mind suddenly goes blank. Nice to have some things in muscle memory.

  2. Hi William, good post.

    Yes, life seems to be full of paradoxes and contradictions. That's because it's complex. There's always another angle, another perspective.

    The classic example is 'out of sight, out of mind' and 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.' So which one is true? Both are.

    A few years ago, a student of mine was having a hard time keeping the beat. So I asked him to tap his foot when he plays, which he did. When he was ready to perform the piece, I told him to stop tapping his foot. He looked at me and asked, "What do you want me to do, tap my foot or not?"

    It's all context and understanding that different situations require different solutions.

    So mindless practicing has its place, so does mindful practicing. Generally, when I practice mechanics, I try to do the mindless, when I practice real pieces, I tend to do the mindful.

    In the case of the excerpt from my book, I was referring mostly to practicing technique or mechanics because that form of practicing seems to be often overlooked.

  3. Hi, guys, thanks for commenting!

    I totally agree. I should have been more clear, I guess; I have been doing purely technical practice in this way but when it's time to work on music, I put the distractions away and get down to business on that.

    I've seen something interesting regarding the foot-tapping, too. I've seen lots of people happily tap their foot along with what they are playing, but believing that they were keeping good time, because their foot tapping lined up with the right notes, even if they didn't notice it was not in line with the beat.

    It's the same brain controlling both actions, after all. The missing step was to mentally "zoom out" towards the big picture.