Every month, Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: five minute miracles.
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When I was 18 years old and I was accepted into the local classical conservatoire I had a lot of stuff I had to study. On top of the classical repertoire, techniques and harmony I had to study for the course, I was desperate to learn more about jazz and rock guitar. Luckily, I had a great teacher (thanks Johnny Mac!) who helped me sort out a proper practice routine for the first time to cover everything I needed. I was doing eight hours a day broken into half-hour chunks and I got into ticking boxes on a chart I would make up, and found it to be a very self motivating and rewarding way to practice.
The big personal breakthrough came when I realised how much better I could focus when I had a set amount of time to practice any given exercise, rather than just working on things as I felt like it and for as long as I liked. I started experimenting with the amount of time I could keep properly focused and how much time I needed between exercises. I’ve since looked more into the concept and found that many people have studied the effect of using a timer to maintain focus, and it’s pretty much proven that it is more effective to work with a set end point than not (I’ll add some links on the website link shown in the footer of this article).
What I recommend for practice is to divide your total available practice time in two. Have half for completely free fun play – just enjoy the guitar, play songs, explore sounds, techniques, whatever – and then make a routine for the other half, though I recommend doing the routine first or you might jam your way out of time for the serious stuff (eat your vegetables before dessert!).
Start small, pick yourself four technique exercises that you would like to work on and try using this timer idea. Do five minutes on each exercise and have yourself a two-minute break between exercises. I find the countdown timer on my phone easiest to use but a kitchen timer or whatever you have is fine; but try to find something with a ‘beep’ at the end so you are not clock watching. Don’t be tempted to leave out the breaks; it’s believed they help information move from short-term to long-term memory – it also allows muscles a break from physical workouts.
One thing you will find is that random thoughts can drift into your mind and you want to help them pass by renewing your focus on the exercise you are on. Try not to let your mind wander at all – it’s very likely it will when you start trying out this method so the challenge is as much to keep focus as the exercise itself! Remember you need to know what to focus on for everything you practice. If you’re not sure why you are practicing something, then either find out, or don’t practice it!
Make sure you are fully prepared before you start; get your amp on and the tone right; make sure you have any notes you need out (scale diagrams, transcriptions or whatever) so you’re ready to start playing as soon as you hit start. You’ll find it helpful to turn your phone off (or at least on silent) and don’t let yourself get distracted for five minutes unless it’s an emergency. Make tea, go to the loo, check emails or Facebook or whatever you need to do before you start. Ask family not to disturb you for the next half hour.
I found that I go into a kind of ‘practice zone’ as soon as I hit the start button on my timer and very rarely do random thoughts interrupt me, but I consistently worked on my focus to get that. The results can be profound and I had many students say that they were making noticeably more progress once they started employing the timed practice approach. I highly recommend giving it a try to see if it works for you – you might find your own five-minute miracle!
divide your practice time into two: half for fun play and a set routine for the other half
Justin suggests you practise in five-minute stints