7 Time-Wasting Mistakes in Daily Guitar Practice

Learning to play the classical guitar is actually learning to practice the classical guitar.

99% of our time is spent alone, practicing and playing. Not performing. And practice is skill that we can build and hone.

Below you’ll find seven common ways guitarists go wrong in their daily practice. These time-wasting practice mistakes lead to paltry results and progress.

Avoid these, and you’ll see more steady improvement and enjoy your daily practice more. Enjoy!

Mistake #1: Failing to prepare ahead of time

In a perfect scenario, we can sit down, pick up the guitar, and get right to it. No time spent wondering what to do. No time looking for a tuner or a piece of sheet music.

But this means we’re prepared before we sit down.

Here are some ways to prepare for a great practice:

Have everything to hand

Reduce distractions

  • close the door
  • face a corner
  • tidy visual field
  • turn off notifications, beeps, screens
  • Have a practice plan (know exactly how you’ll spend the first 5 minutes at least)

Decide what to practice in advance

One of the best ways to have a productive practice is to know what you’ll do before you start.

A simple plan can help you get into the zone and focus on doing good work.

This plan can be as general as

  • “First, I’ll do some warmup stretches
  • Then I’ll play some slow scales.
  • Next, I’ll review right-hand patterns.
  • Then I’ll do left-hand exercises.”

Keeping this consistent from day to day makes starting practice a breeze. And this has another benefit…

Bonus: No More Procrastination

The most common reason we procrastinate is because we feel that
a) Something is confusing – We don’t quite know how to get started
b) Something feels too big and intimidating.

When we have a simple practice plan that can be shortened or lengthened, we remove much of the friction of getting started.

And once we’ve started, we’ve succeeded. Guitar is a long game.  And even short practices move the ball down the field.

So in many ways, starting is the most important part.

Mistake #2: Playing too fast too soon

Many injuries come from playing too fast before fully warmed up.

Here’s how it works:
To use our hands on the guitar, the moving parts are muscles and tendons.
Muscles warm up faster than tendons. Cold tendons are like cold silly puddy. They can crack and tear. When warmed up, they are supple and flexible.
When our muscles move more vigorously than tendons can bear, we get small tears in them.
And this is painful. It causes inflammation and soreness, called Tendonitis.

The preventative here is to play slowly at the start of all practices. Rubbing, stretching, and using the full range of movement – can help warm up the connective tissues and prepare for playing.

Double-whammy: speed creates the illusion of perfection

There’s another downside of playing fast. When we play fast, we are more likely to miss small mistakes and sloppiness.

When the notes go by quickly, we often hear them as correct and clean. Even if they’re not.

We ingrain bad habits and train in mistakes and excess tension.

Later, when we have ingrained good movements and habits, we need to play fast more often, so we’re comfortable with it. But until we have that training behind us, slower is more productive.

Mistake #3: Not working on technique

There are two main parts of classical guitar practice.
Technique practice
Pieces of music.

There is an overlap, of course. We can work on technique through pieces of music. And there are techniques of practicing new pieces, working out the bugs etc.

One of the fastest ways to reach a new level of ability is to focus more on technique.

Technique is HOW we play the notes.

When we spend time on our form, positioning, and movement, we raise the level of everything we play.

It can be tempting to spend all our practice time on pieces of music. Music is lovely. It’s exciting to hear the notes coming out.

But unless we train our hands to work well, our pieces will not be as beautiful as they could be.

Mistake #4: Not working to make specific things better

As a daily practice, we may fall into familiar routines. This is great because it reduces the brainpower needed to structure our time.

However, we can also fall into the trap of “checking the box”, rather than actively improving.

In the best practice, we stay focused on specific challenges. For each practice area, we find and zero in on specific elements to improve.

For example, in scales, we may focus on synchronizing our hands. Or tone quality. Or rhythm. Or the right-hand movements. Any specific element will do.

We then find a point of challenge that is hard, but not too hard. We ride the edge of possible (with attention) and impossible (i.e. too fast).

Practicing this way trains us to stay aware and present. We innoculate ourselves against tuning out and playing by rote (more on this below).

The fastest way into “flow” or “the zone” is to choose a challenge and work on it. We need the risk of failure and the demand of attention and existing skills.

Mistake #5: Mindless repetition

Whether it’s a piece of music, a scale, or an exercise, it’s not hard to lose focus and play by rote.

Mindless repetition wastes time and does us no good. Quite possibly the opposite.

  • Playing a piece from start to finish over and over.
  • Exercises while thinking of other things.
  • Just going through the motions.

When we don’t engage, we’re more likely to train in bad habits.

We certainly train the mental habit of mind-wandering. And this shows up when we play for people because we then become more aware of the voices in our heads.

We’d often be better off not practicing at all.

Instead, we can constantly recalibrate. When the mind wanders, we train ourselves to recognize it and bring it back to the task at hand. Over and over.

It’s fine if our mind does stray, so long as we bring it back as soon as we notice it.

Mistake #6: Polishing shiny objects

There is a big difference between practice and playing. Practice is working to improve our skills. It is active learning.

Playing is performing, whether alone or for other people.

We need both. To paraphrase, “All practice and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

When we spend our practice time playing, we don’t get the full benefit of either. We don’t improve, and we don’t fully enjoy performing.

The sweet spot of practice is at the edge of our abilities. We find this edge and gently push on it.

When we “polish shiny objects,” we are not near the edge. We’re not working with challenges. We are repeating work we’ve already finished.

We can equate this to washing dishes that are already clean. Or tidying a room that doesn’t need tidying.

Practice time is for practice.

Mistake #7: Negative Self-Talk

Our minds are useful tools. They are also wild beasts. They can say and do horrible things.

Learning to play guitar is something we do for ourselves. It’s to make life better. It’s a fun, stimulating, challenging pursuit.

But we can easily compare our progress to imaginary benchmarks and find ourselves wanting.

  • “I should be further along.”
  • “Other people have an easier time of this.”
  • “This just isn’t working!”
  • “I should have started earlier.”

Negative self-talk can take the fun out of practice. It creates anxiety and guilt, and it cuts us off from our mental resources. Our brain can literally turn off under this self-imposed stress.

And none of it is true. There is no “should.” And comparing ourselves or our playing to others is not productive or helpful. We’re all on the same journey, just at different stages.

If we notice that we’re using negative self-talk, we can gently chide our mind and laugh it off:

“Yes, Mind, you’re very fierce. That’s fine. I’ll be over here happily working on my fourth-finger slur technique!”

Working on specific obstacles quiets the mind

A good way to quiet the mind is to find a specific challenge and lean into it. As mentioned above in #4, working on specific challenges is great practice.

And when we put our full attention on a meaty problem, our mental chatter turns off. We enter Flow and our best faculties come online.

The general guidelines of good practice lead to more results, less inner drama, and a better time.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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