The Art Of Perfect Practice Part Deux

Got a few minutes?

Try this…

Go to your local track and run a 100 yard dash. Make sure you bring a stopwatch and be sure to stretch. This may or may not hurt. After warming up, line up and time yourself while running relaxed. Relax your neck and cheeks, and don’t clinch your fists. Maintain a smooth stride and don’t try to break any track records.

Done already?

Okay, write down your time and tell me how you feel. 12 seconds? That’s pretty good, and you’ve hardly broken a sweat.


You should be warmed up so let‘s line up and do it again. This time I want you to flex every muscle in your body as hard as you can and continue doing so through the finish line.

Done yet? What? You didn’t finish? You feel exhausted? What’s wrong?

The clock is still running you know.

One would think the extra effort would lead to a better time. It seems logical. Running fast requires muscles, so if we use them as hard and often as we can, we achieve results right? Well, unless you are into some weird form of bodybuilding, probably not. Most of us wouldn’t get through the sprint without pulling a hamstring or having a heart attack.

What does this have to do with playing guitar?


We use muscles when we play guitar, albeit smaller and not quite as taxing. These smaller muscles are subject to the same stresses that larger muscles endure at the track or in the pool. Yes, you are indeed a finely tuned athlete.

You are a guitar player.

My students are passionate about their study of guitar. They want to improve so much and I can see it at the studio.

A good thing? Not necessarily.

It shows up in the form of tension. They try so hard. They try too hard.

Tension, it’s not just in their hands either. I see tension in their shoulders, neck, and back. I see tension in their face. I see tension in their feet and whenever it’s summertime and flip flops are in style, I see tension in their toes. I can only imagine the tension I don’t see.

I try not to laugh, but I’ve had students who would hold their breath during difficult chord passages. I’ve observed this tension while asking the student to count and play at the same time. “1, 2, silence, silence, silence, silence“ (face turns blue).

I honestly can’t think of anything worse than holding your breath for muscles. That’s really bad tension.

Tensions can occur anywhere and they have an accumulative effect. We tend to focus on the hands, but whenever you consider all the tensions going on inside and outside the body, it adds up considerably. The end result is inefficiency, discomfort, exhaustion, and potential injury. Tension in the smallest of muscles like the eyebrows and jaw bone can use up valuable physical and mental resources that could be applied to the instrument instead.

Do you have little tics?

I do.

I bite my lower lip during stressful situations and grit my teeth.

This is tension.

The more stressful the performance (think classical guitar concert), the more I feel it the next day. Gritting teeth can cause jaw tension, which can cause tension in neck.

This works it’s way to the back and that can lead to tension in the shoulders, arms, and consequently the hands. Whenever this happens, your technique becomes inefficient and suddenly passages that you’ve played with ease in your living room become a nightmare on stage.

All of this tension started with gritting your teeth.

Whenever we sit down to practice, we need to take inventory of what is going on in our body and learn to relax. Learn to listen to your body.

This starts with good posture, holding the guitar properly, sound left and right hand positioning, taking frequent breaks (every 15 minutes), and yes, don’t forget to breathe!

Erratic breathing caused by chewing gum or having a cold can cause tension believe it or not.

Do you crinkle your forehead, squint your eyes while reading music, or lean your head over to see the neck of the guitar?

What about your feet? Do your toes curl up whenever you play a passage?

I have a terrible habit of bouncing my leg up and down whenever I concentrate and my guitar bounces with it. This looks funny on video and I am hardly aware a the time of the performance.

That brings me to my next tip. Take a video of yourself playing and search for areas of visible tension. Knowing you are on camera causes tension so if you have issues, this will quickly expose them. It will help you to be more mindful of your tension and how it manifests in your body.

I think we have covered most areas of tension not involving the hands. Let’s talk about the hands.

Get out your guitar and push a note. How hard did you push? Did you get sound? If so, play it again but don’t push as hard this time. If you’re still getting sound do it again, only lighter, then lighter, then lighter until you hear a buzz or the sound stops.

The perfect pressure is the least amount of pressure required to get sound. You need to find that sweet spot and train yourself to play with less effort. This greatly reduces tension and helps you to relax.

In conclusion, I want you to go online and look at some of the worlds fastest guitar players whenever they are not showing off in front of the crowd. YouTube has plenty of videos of artist featuring their speed drills. Look at their faces whenever they are not trying to act dramatic or silly on stage and you will see how calm and relaxed they are.

With that in mind I want you to take a hot calming shower, relax with a soothing green tea, tune your guitar and go practice.

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