CGTB 2: What Is A Practice Process and Why Have One

This process is designed to provide a guitarist with suggested goals for their practice sessions and a process to achieve those goals. This process attempts at every step to explain the goals of each step of the process, why they fit into that part of the process, and tools used at each step to achieve those goals.


One of the objectives of this practice process is to illuminate as much as possible about the musical and technical aspects of a new piece and to make as many interpretive/musical decisions as possible before addressing physical (technical) aspects of its performance on the instrument (Clickstein 33). 


The process then attempts to provide different tools (visualization, singing, rhythmic practice, slow practice, memorization exercises, etc.) for achieving on the guitar the musical, interpretive, and expressive decisions determined in the earlier parts of the process.


The ultimate goal of this document is to increase the speed of the learning process by quickly and effectively making interpretive musical assessments of a piece through analytical tools and score analysis methods that allow one to hear and understand the music before playing the instrument. The process then takes the reader through stages of actually physically learning a piece using practice tools from a variety of sources in the bibliography. Sources used for this project include guitar teachers I have taken lessons with, videos of guitarists talking about their process, and method books that discuss how to practice. A key goal of this process is to determine musical goals and how to achieve those goals in the beginning of the process as quickly as possible before touching the instrument. 


An additional purpose of this practice method is to help with memorization by giving the brain more information to associate with for each piece a performer is working on. There are several examples provided in this document of guitarists claiming that when playing from memory, and especially during a memory slip, they have other associations that help them recall music (Glise 93, Clickstein 84-86). Its easier to remember a measure of music as a chord shape of open C or the finger pattern of a G lydian scale or a ii V I chord progression than it is to remember the notes in the measure individually (Sor 28-31, Glickstein 87-89). This concept is called chunking in psychology and is similar to remembering a telephone number in three chunks such as (800-700-6000) versus all one big number (8007006000). Often novice guitarists spend so much time trying to remember the notes from the score in their proper order that they miss the larger scale or chord patterns they imply or the exercises they have done that match what is in the music (Sor 28-31). It is easy to try to memorize every note of a passage and miss completely that it is a scale one has played several times before. 



Another example of aiding memorization with multiple types of information from the score is seen in the habit of many professional performers who learn to sing pieces they are working on (Glise 93). When you learn to sing a piece, your inner ear often guides your hands when performing because you have associated sounds with physical actions (lessons I took from Rene Izquierdo and Andrew Zohn as well as sources in the bibliography including Klickstein 86, Kageyama “8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently, Romero 122-124). The ability to trigger memories of physical motions by associating them with another body sensation is similar to the triggering of normal memories from every day life. A smell can trigger visual, auditory, and emotional memories of a thanksgiving dinner for example. This ability for the brain to reinforce memories through remembering multiple aspects of the thing being remembered is a potential tool when learning music. The more ways we learn or examine the score, the easier it is to remember (Carey, Romero 122-124). 


Another element of this process is to brake the act of practicing down into individual problems. Too often teachers prescribe time spent practicing as the fix to all problems. If you can’t play it, “practice more” is often the common advice. Alternatively, it is often said that focused practice is more beneficial. It is the assertion of this blog and podcast that practice can and should be the act of identifying and solving physical (technical) problems of playing the instrument that allow a performer to express their interpretation and/or analysis as clearly and easily as possible (Carlevaro 22-23). This blog/podcast’s goal is to create a guide for how one might practice more effectively by defining what “focused practice” means. In order to practice effectively, one must be able to develop musical goals and find ways to execute those goals on the instrument. A player must also be able to identify problems in each passage preventing the execution of musical goals and then create specific solutions for those problems (Kageyama, Noa. “8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently,”).


It can’t be understated how important it is to think of technical decisions as results of previously determined musical decisions (although a performers perspective on interpretation may evolve as they spend time physically practicing a piece). Technique serves the music, it is not an end unto itself (Carlevaro 12). An example in guitar is left hand fingering. A single note on the guitar can often be played on different strings and at different positions on the neck, yielding different qualities of tone and vibrato at each location. While the location of the note is to some degree a purely technical decision, the reason to choose one location over another is also and primarily a musical one. To pick the fingering that is easiest, most familiar, or written by an editor may be technically sound but musically inappropriate compared to other available options. 


Sound technical decisions are easier to make when a performer has a concept of sound for a work in their mind (Klickstein 43). Concept of sound means a performer has some sense, ranging from partial to complete, of how they want the piece to sound when it has been practiced and at performance level. Many novices and amateurs do not know how a piece is supposed to sound, or have not been taught how to develop a piece’s concept of sound before practicing the piece on the instrument (Ryan 210). This partly explains the slow progress of beginners: if a performer does not know what a piece is supposed to sound like and does not know how to make decisions that create a concept of sound, they usually struggle to know what to listen for while practicing or what to fix. The performer must learn how to develop a concept of sound for each piece and then how to listen to themselves intently to make sure that the physical motions and technical decisions they make yield the desired sound (Carlevaro 28-29). This idea of a preconceived final sound probably explains why so many great musicians started by transcribing or imitating recordings by other great musicians by ear: they learned what the music could sound like by listening intently and meticulously to other great players.


“One starts by hearing the appropriate sound inside the mind and, while the body recalls the physical sensation of the sound, the hands automatically go to the necessary place and make the necessary movements.” 


-Pepe Romero, (Romero 122-124)



As the performer advances and gains more experience, elements of this process may and should be adjusted as the user of this practice process discovers what works better for them. A performer’s first piece or pieces should follow this practice method closely. After those initial pieces are learned well using this process the performer should consider themselves ready to create their own process. The performer risks not knowing what tools from this system work for them and what tools do not work if they do not try everything and do so for enough time to truly determine the value.


I think many teachers are afraid to offer performers their practicing process in an organized format because they fear they are imposing their perspectives or process on their students. Often teachers also fear that because there are so many different problems to be solved in each piece, generalizing the practice process is either not beneficial or perhaps even harmful. Many musicians seem also to be unaware that they have a process because their process is so internalized that it is subconscious. There also appears to be a culture within music that ascribes talent or time spent practicing as the solution to many of the problems faced by all musicians when the solutions actually come from how the performer identifies problems and spends their time while practicing. The goal of this document is to at least make an attempt at making the practice process more organized, rigorous, and clear.


Musicians also let the culture of music as an “art” prevent the community from viewing music as a trade like engineering or welding that has skills that can be more methodically taught (perhaps a holdover from 19th century attitudes about art and artists). There is also a valid argument that what works for one musician may not work for another. These attitudes creates a reluctance of many musicians to systematizing the practice process. While individuals often have unique health circumstances, doctors are often able to prescribe the same treatment to many patients with routine problems. This document hopes to demonstrate that the same attitude can be taken with the practicing process. Yes, sometimes the cause of a headache is not something that can be treated by Advil, But doctors do not avoid trying generic solutions just because their patients are individual postmodern snowflakes. 


Musicians and academia take postmodernism too seriously and it inhibits pedagogy. To say that some of my performer learn better visually, some learn by listening, and some by touching, therefore I will provide them with very little or nothing and let them figure it out for themselves is, to me, a huge flaw in the culture of post modern education. As an instructor, I should have options and tools that all three learners can utilize, provide them with those tools, and then let them decide what works for them. To give them nothing is inefficient and a unethical.


The point of this practice process is to help teach performers how to think in the practice room. Too often lessons are set up as follows: performer practices, performer comes to lesson, teacher offers feedback, performer is expected to draw broad principals from teachers feedback. This process is an effort to teach a man to fish instead of identifying problems after the fact. I want the teaching and learning process to become proactive, not reactive.


I feel the need to say a word about analysis and music theory as it is a key component of this method. Analysis of a piece as done in many college music theory courses is often frowned upon by musicians. It is even sometimes viewed to be impractical. Some fear that analysis of the music gets in the way of the intuitive artistic process of music. However, all great performers analyze their music. 


If we define analysis as simply the act of identifying auditory patterns in the score and making determinations on phrasing, articulation, and technique to articulate those patterns, all performers do this. The reason performers believe they don’t analyze music is often because the way they do it and what they look for are different than the analysis taught in music theory. Performers may focus less on harmony than they do on texture in their analysis. Performers may internalize their analysis using their ear and their voice instead of doing so in writing or with the scale and chord vocabulary from theory. While music theory often focuses on scale and harmonic analysis because it can be done on paper in the classroom, performers may tend to focus more on rhythm in order to create articulation and phrasing. I am skeptical of any musician who says they do not analyze a piece, but I think its fair to say that each musician might analyze in different ways. One goal of this practice process is to demonstrate that music theory and analysis can be applied in ways that are more practical than simply writing roman numerals for harmony under the staff. 


It can’t be overemphasized that this document is not meant to determine how a performer practices for the rest of their life. It is a guide for how to approach a piece for a performer of any level who believes their practice time could be more effective. Readers of this document can and should modify it to suit themselves after they have attempted all the tools offered in this system.


This process is informed by my own practice experiences, observations of difficulties my students have had, tips from multiple eras of method books from Sor to Iznaola, information from non guitarists, and my own lesson experiences with Christopher Kachian, Andrew Zohn, Rene Izquerdo, Robert Sharpe, Jeff Thygeson, Jeffrey Van, and a host of videos I have watched by great guitarists who at times have provided examples of how they practice or “work up” a piece of music.


Please see the forest through the trees. Its rarely about how many times you do a particular exercise or what type of exercise you do. For example, Whether you choose to sing and play the melody on another instrument, on its own on the guitar, or while playing all the parts together on the guitar is less important than committing to being able to sing the melodic line because doing so reinforces your memory.