Practice vs. Playing: The Rules for Constant Progress on Classical Guitar

When we sit down to play guitar, what do we do? How do we decide what to do?

How do we know that what we’re doing is bringing us forward? Are we improving?

In our guitar practice, we need both practice AND playing. The first step to a balanced musical life is to know the difference.

The Difference Between Practice and Playing

As we learn to play guitar, our main goal is to play beautiful music. While we may enjoy playing scales and arpeggios, the real goal is to play music.

And to play beautifully, we need practice. But practicing and playing are different actions. They have different motivations and objectives.

We can both practice and play better when we understand the difference. We can then more fully embrace whichever we choose in the moment.

Practice = Building Skills and Solving Problems

In practice, our aim is to build skills and solve problems. Just as we can lift weights to become stronger, we practice to become more able to play music.

As we practice, we ideally focus on something specific in each moment. This could be a technical skill or the musical phrasing of a set of notes. It could be training our muscle memory by switching chords. It could be actively testing our memorization.

Whatever it is, it is slightly hard. It pushes our boundaries. It forces us to stay engaged.

In other words, practice is work. It demands a positive agenda and the discipline to challenge our current abilities.

The reason we practice is so that when we play, we have the tools and training to succeed.

Playing = Playing

Playing, on the other hand, is when we play a piece with the goal of playing the piece.

The goal here is to create music. We play from beginning to end (either a whole piece or a section). We perform, whether we have an audience or not.

While in practice we ride the edge of our abilities, here we may remain in a more comfortable zone.

Conversely, we may decide to “let ’er rip”, and test the very limits of our abilities. The difference here is that the goal is to play and explore, and not to affect positive change in that moment.

Blind Repetition is not Practice – It is Playing.

One of the most common practice mistakes is to play a piece of music or exercise over and over, hoping it will get better. This is playing, not practice.

Time spent here will only reinforce what we’ve already practiced within the piece. This means mistakes will be become even more entrenched.

The level of focus and awareness we have during these repetitions will also become more habitual. So if we tune out and let our minds wander, we train this as a performance habit (to our detriment).

We Need Both Practice AND Playing

For a balanced musical life, we need both. To play music, we need to train our hands and minds. Once we gain some ability, we get to share music with others. And the more we practice, the more likely we are to enjoy the act of playing music alone.

We need practice, otherwise our skills stagnate (or grow very slowly). Practice creates progress and improvement, which is motivating and rewarding.

Too much practice, and it may feel like a grind. Too much playing, and we run the risk of becoming bored.

It’s not always an even split.

At different times in our musical lives, the balance between practice and playing will shift.

At first, we do well to practice as much as possible. This way, we see progress and stay motivated. Other times, we may find ourselves playing more. This may be as we prepare polished pieces and perform for others. Or we may just feel the need to “let our hair down” and relax.

When we know the difference between practice and play, we can better adjust to our current needs and desires.

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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