How to practice your instrument efficiently

[This article is written by guest contributor Joe Marson.]

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Somehow this notion made its way into the mainstream consciousness and is considered by most to be fact. It’s a statement that attaches an objective number value to a completely subjective outcome.

What is a master and who determines that status?

I have my personal heroes and people I think are masters, but, to loosely quote The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like my opinion, man.”

There is no objective Master Zone that you can work toward by punching a time clock. No one makes it to the top of Mastery Mountain and resides there in ecstasy. In fact, most “masters” I’ve heard talk about their craft clearly state that they still feel like beginners. I don’t think that’s false modesty speaking. I believe it’s indicative of just how high they have set their sights – and how relative mastery is.

Quality of practice, not quantity

In my younger years, when I thought I wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix on the guitar, I used to practice five hours at a time. Because that’s what I was told to do – to “shed.” So I would put on the timer and do my exercises mindlessly with an “I just need to hit that five-hour mark” mentality. Years later, I discovered meditation and the power of a focused mind. I realized I would get a lot further if I practiced less and concentrated more. After all, there are not many on Earth who could really concentrate at 100% for five hours.

Break it down

I began breaking down guitar licks to only a few notes. Then, I would put my entire being into playing them over and over. With intention and focus. Really just concentrating for as long as I could before giving myself “brain breaks.” Like sprinting and walking, sprinting and walking. I found this method to be exponentially more effective than sprinting, then walking, then crawling to a five-hour finish.

Practice with intention, as many hours as it takes to get to where you want to be. Don’t focus on how much time you practice as the benchmark for your skill. Rather, focus on repeating that song, that vocal line, the trumpet lick until it becomes part of your body, resonating in your bones. Translate it from numbers and charts into feeling – a much deeper source of memory.

Want to exponentially improve?

Record yourself. That simple.

Record yourself, listen back, and work on getting right whatever you got wrong. Then record that and listen back. Take someone doing that for an hour every day and watch that person grow exponentially faster than someone just cramming for hours. There is nothing more honest and sometimes brutal, but if you can sound great when recorded in a live atmosphere, then you are truly on point. A lot of you reading this right now will avoid it, guaranteed. I know I did for quite awhile because you come face to face with your ego. Even worse, you come to terms with the fact that you might not sound as good as you do in your head. That’s the case at all levels. Be brave enough to take it out of your head and see how it matches up with a strong dose of recorded reality, and you will reap the benefits.

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[Image of guitarist from Shutterstock.]