Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Secrets of Effective Practice

I’ve noticed for years that some people seem to stagnate in their journey to become better players, while other players seem to progress at an astonishing rate. One common denominator that I’ve observed, is that players that do improve quickly have by accident or on purpose, adopted a method of discipline in their practice, that makes more effective use of available time. Unfortunately, I never really had an instructor to give a lesson on HOW to practice correctly; which arguably, should be one of the most important things to understand before picking an instrument up to practice. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experiences, but I find that over the years, I’ve fallen into at least the three(3) following categories:

FORCED PRACTICE (Unproductive or very slow Progress):
I think I was about 8-years old when my folks decided that I needed to take piano lessons. My lessons were once/week and like most kids that age, I really didn’t like practicing. My folks pretty much forced me to practice about 30-minutes per day. “Go in there and practice your piano lessons!” So reluctantly, I would practice each piece starting from the beginning of the song to the end. Always making mistakes, but blundering through the song to the end. Then look at the clock, and repeat until the time was up. Yes, I gradually got better as my tiny hands became used to the keys and the eye-hand coordination of my youth helped me. But my progress was slow. I didn’t bother repeating measures that I messed-up. Looking back on it, I was actually practicing my mistakes by repeating them over & over again.

MARATHON PRACTICE WITH NO DISCIPLINE (Most people: Fun, but painfully slow Progress):
There was a time when I believed that MORE practice equaled better results. I might go to a concert and say “Wow. That dude can really play!”… “Well, he probably practices 8-hours a day!”. The marathon practice became great fun to me. After all, who doesn’t enjoy wailing away on your instrument hour after hour, just as long as you’re playing something you enjoy? I would emerge from the practice-room, hands tired, mind exhausted with the same old bad habits firmly in place. Although I was improving, I felt I wasn’t making the progress I should. My rate of improvement was stagnating. I would gloss over mistakes and sometimes even avoid the tough measures or runs because they slowed me down. I was not engaging in “effective practice”.

EFFECTIVE PRACTICE (Rapid Progress; Amaze your friends! ):
Engaging in this type of routine is not always exactly pleasant or as fun versus just playing with no Discipline at all. Having your brain commanding your hands to do one thing, and watch them do something else is extremely frustrating, but it is the demon that must be conquered. I’ve found that taking control of my practice-time has served to greatly accelerate my rate of progress on the banjo or guitar. (Insert your instrument here:_______ ) I’m still struggling to define what makes Practice-time effective for me. A few things that have helped. I would appreciate anyone that could add to this list that could further define “Effective Practice” and the discipline to follow them:

  1. Practice slowly, note by note making certain that each note is played both correctly and in correct timing. It will work against you to play fast, making mistakes. Your mistakes will become rehearsed!
  2. Every piece has difficult passages and easy passages. Mark the difficult passages with a pencil and set up “loops” to rehearse just those measures over & over again. These might consist of only one measure or even less. Then add adjoining measures as these rough-spots get ironed out. The best “gains” are often made by practicing passages that don’t come easy.
  3. Keep the goal of a practice session small. We cannot make it to Carnegie Hall in a week. Play a few songs, but focus only on the “vital few” measures that bring out the worse habits in your playing. These are the demons that need to be conquered.
  4. Minimize distractions, if they are distractions. Some “loops” that I practice for example, require hundreds of repetitions to get my fingers to obey what my brain is telling them to do, so I might put on headphones and listen to a radio show, while slowly repeating the measure going no faster than I can play it perfectly. If not perfect, then I’m going too fast!
  5. Take frequent breaks about every 10-15 minutes. It gives your muscles and mind a rest.
  6. I never put my instrument away! Keeping it handy by a chair makes it easy to pick up and practice another short session.

What would you add to this list of “Effective Practice”? I’m interested in what you do, that makes the most of your practice-time.

Thanks!
Neil (Waterloo, Iowa)

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You pretty much nailed it, Neil. I’ve only recently discovered the idea of taking a little break every 15 minutes or so. That’s especially helpful if I’m looping a tough spot in a song. I may only need 2 or 3 minutes, and usually won’t even put my banjo down. I just hop on Facebook or check email and then get back to it. The integration that takes place in that short amount of time is often surprising.

Great list! You’ve put a lot of thought in to this.

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You’ve totally nailed that catfish firmly to the tree! The thing that I do when taking a break however, is usually to run outside, do one (or two, or seven) backflip on the trampoline. Then I run back inside to keep practicing/learning. Also, I don’t know how you do it, bit I always learn a tune, then practice it 1000 (or so) times till I can play it smoothly and at speed before moving on. Once I’ve learned a tune, I usually will play it frequently for about two months, then it’ll go into my regular cycle. And don’t discount getting six hours of practice a day, as long as about five of them are pretty casual only playing peices you can play perfectly, and get about one hour of strict attentive practice, which is a good time to work out the tough spots. I made all of that up on the spot, but it’s not too far from what I do, and should work pretty well…

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Cherish this time in your life, young padawan. Unless music becomes your career, life finds a way of forbidding 6 hours of practice a day.

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Aye…Unfortunately…so true…:disappointed_relieved:

One thing I would add is to get “outside your box.” I know that I tend to do the type of things that I pick up easier. However, I get some of the best “gains” by doing things that don’t come easy. Examples: use your pinky, hammer-on / pull off with fingers that aren’t natural, play things that sound simple, but are really difficult.

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Good point. I modified #2 based on this. Thanks for the insite.

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Great thoughts, Neil! I will have to apply some of this to my practice time.

Neil: Right on! I never had forced practice on a stringed instrument, but trumpet as a kid? Oh yeah!

This business of repetition: I came to epiphany late. Playing a tune from start to finish over and over just does not cut it. Chances are one just plays the same “rocky” spots several times and ingrains them. Those rocky spots have to be isolated, slowed way down and played against a drum machine or metronome 50 or more times at a sitting. The time keeper can be moved along 5 beats faster every 10 times IF you have played the section perfectly. This is especially true of backup because the melody is not there to point the way.

I know some will disagree about the kind of timekeeper should be used. But, my take: A little metronome is not sufficient. Generally the click is to weak to hear and the little red light is distracting. For about $90 you can get a Sony (or other) small speaker with Bluetooth. Get an app on your phone (Eg., Drum Genius or Drum Beats). Charge the speaker and the phone and crank that sucker up so there is no doubt where the beat is. (No, you don’t need a power outlet.) Further, you can select a drum rhythm (instead of a constant 1 2 3 4) which will add just enough distraction so you can learn to cope with a band.

Over and over and over can be frustrating. BUT it will come clean and speed will increase. Just get those synapses trained!

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Thanks for the insite Bruce! I really think we’re on to something here. Working on the “rocky” spots as you point out, is psychologically tough at first. It forces me to slow the tempo down as you say, to play through these awkward measures accurately and then it kind of feels like going back to beginner-level temporarily; that is, until you revisit the complete song to find you’ve advanced much more rapidly! It is truly ironic, that one of the most important things in learning how to play, is to learn “HOW” to correctly practice if one wants to improve rapidly.

Hi Y’all

@Mark_Rocka is totally right that the trappings of life do certainly get in the way and what i’ve found is that my practice routine is like having snacks rather than a full sit down meal… simply picking up either the Banjo, Mondo, GTR when i can…

  1. Get in from work
  2. Take dog for a walk
  3. Grab Banjo quick and do 10 min before wife gets in
  4. Make supper and watch meaningless TV shows til 8pm
  5. Grab Banjo and try and do 30min practice
  6. Run around after teenage daughter…lol
  7. Grab 10min Banjo before its to late to practice
  8. Get to bed… it’s the same cycle tomorrow

So all that said… when i do get the chance to practice its usually focused on learning the difficult parts of the song i’m working on and looping them until it becomes second nature and then embedding that into the full song.

Keep picking and have a great day…

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Somehow I’m living in a parallel universe with you. :rofl::rofl:

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An interesting question. Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master something. That translates into 3 hours a day for about 1,000 hours a year for 10 years. That’s a lot and a lot of patience. I think all the recommendations are right on, but my two cents having come through the first 6,000 hours is:

  1. Don’t rely on Tab! There are dozens of ways to play a song, use tab to give you ideas, clarify difficult licks, but don’t rely on it…it is a crutch. Listen and copy the sound. Can’t say it enough , tab will slow your learning down if you rely on it solely.
  2. Listen! Listen!Listen…to the sound and copy it. Listen to recordings and play along. I like the Amazing Slow Downer program but there are others. Load it up with songs and play along…listening. This changed my level of play more than any other thing. You can select the key and speed. I import Bens rythem tracks into it too.
  3. TV time: Sit on the couch, put on something that doesn’t require a whole lot of attention and just play…and play…and play. The mindless repetition develops your ability to pick fluidly and you stop thinking about how you are playing and focus on the sound. TV time is a must ,it changed my level of play hugely. ( I have to wait until the wife is away to get away with this)
  4. Improvise. Learn to play the same song as many ways as you can. See if you can develop a number of versions. Listen to JD Crowe play the standards…lots of versions there.
  5. Learn the chords and rhythms of a song first, then pick out the melody, then build a break. ( I cheat and look at tab sometimes but rarely copy it totally) Ben has a lot of lessons on this.
  6. Timing is everything! Remember the wrong note at the right time works a lot better than the right note at the wrong time. Play with a metronome ( I use wireless headphones) , play with recordings and most importantly play with other people. Singing helps too.
  7. Have an addenda! Keep digging in, practice what you know, work on what you don’t. Always have 3 or 4 songs / lessons in development . It is amazing what you can find on you tube.
  8. Practice…you have 10,000 hours to cover!
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Great insite John! I need to incorporate these ideas into my list. I can relate to all of them for sure. For #3, like I mentioned, lately I’ve been doing radio mystery shows with headphones to repeat loops that give trouble…like you say, mindless repetition, picking slowly through and building the technique. #5 yep…so important. Building blocks of composing & playing. All of these are great. Lots of wisdom there. I appreciate you putting it down.

Yep, I’m lucky if I get 2 hours in a day or a days practise at all! :joy:
I try to practise if and when I can. I notice if I go 4-5 days without practise I start losing my finger strength and accuracy. So I try and make sure I can get at least 30 min in the day as a last resort.
Oh the joys of being able to have 6 hours, or until my fingers blead. :rofl:

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This link just popped into my inbox today. Thought it fit this topic really well.

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A lot of good stuff in there. I especially liked " HIGHLIGHTING YOUR WEAKNESSES IN YOUR PLAYING - AND FIXING THEM".

I guess for a Student, a person has to make a decision about their playing. Am I playing only for fun? Or do I really want to play well and rapidly improve how I play. Personally, I do want to improve my playing and also have fun; thus my interest in this thread. It’s especially rewarding when I can see and feel progress in my playing.

I guess in the end, a musician has to become his own ‘Doctor’ in listening to his music, observing his technique and diagnosing and correcting defects in his playing. So important for all players regardless of expertise I think anyway. Thanks Mark & Happy Picking!

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I spent the best part of five years discussing these kinds of topics over on the Banjo Hangout and just as soon as I stopped reading them and signed up with @BanjoBen. My playing skills almost instantly improved.

I am reminded of an old cartoon sketch where there is a pool of little fishes swimming round and around. On the banks of the pool are two fat wise old fishes with rods dangling in the pool as they reel in the little fishes.

Keep it simple i.e Stop the discussion and just practice. - Study @BanjoBen 's lesson path and your playing will improve. Now that’s what I consider as Effective Practice.

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That’s the Spirit! Full speed ahead!!

Gotta agree with you. @BanjoBen is the best there is on the Web, barre none (Pun intended :wink: ) The work & expertise he’s provided me, demands that I work just as hard to practice his lessons as accurately & correctly as I can. My endevour anyway. Happy Picking!!!

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Thanks for the advices Neil, , realy help and useful :slight_smile: