The 20-Minute Practice: How to Get the Most from a Short Practice Routine
In the hubbub of daily life, we may not always have time for a long guitar practice.
Luckily, short practices can be surprisingly effective.
Below you’ll find general strategy ideas for a 20-minute practice. You can mix the order as you see fit.
A Time Strategy for Your 20-Minute Guitar Practice: Interleaved Practice
With a short practice, we need to have a plan. If we don’t, the time will fritter away and we won’t make much progress.
One way to get a lot done is using “Interleaved Practice.” This is when we bounce from one thing to another, circling back around so we touch on many things more than once.
This practice method was presented in the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown (et al.).
If we have a list of areas to work on, including specific exercises or music to include, we can spend just a minute or two on each before moving to the next.
This strategy works best with material we are already familiar with.
For new lessons or music, it may be worth setting aside a large block of time (such as a separate 20 minutes).
A programable timer can help
If you like, you can use a programable timer to chime every minute for your allotted time (say, 20 minutes).
This way, we can turn on the timer, and it will cue us every 60 seconds. We can then move to the next practice area.
For some areas, we may spend 2 minutes. But in general, the strategy is to bounce.
Quality is the Goal for Short Practices
We learn while we sleep. The brain processes and stores what we learn in the night.
If we are distracted in our practice, making the mistakes you’ll find below, it will take longer to see results and make progress.
There are two main goals in a short practice. They are to reinforce good fundamentals and make correct repetitions.
Reinforce Good Fundamentals
Ideally, every note we play will be intentional. We’ll use good form, position, and movement.
To know what good technique is, we need to study with a teacher or online program. Virtually no one gets it right on their own, because much of it is counterintuitive.
To keep everything high-quality, we can stay at relatively slow tempos (speeds) and stay aware and mindful of our playing.
Next, we want correct repetitions. This is because what we repeat in practice, the brain will label as “correct” and store in long-term memory.
So each repetition is a message to our brain telling it what to learn.
When learning something completely new, or when practicing sight-reading, mistakes are common. This is how we learn new material.
But if we are practicing something we already know, we should aim for correct repetitions.
Each repetition can also have a purpose and focus.
For example, we can play an exercise and focus alternately on…
What to Include in Your Short Practice: The Curtain Rises (How to start your practice)
It is helpful to have an opening ritual to your practice.
When we know exactly what we do for the first few minutes, we are less likely to procrastinate.
We can instead pick up the guitar and get right to it.
If we do the same opening ritual every day, it will form a trigger for the mind.
When we sit down with the guitar and go through that short routine, our brain will know to settle down and put it’s attention on playing.
Guitar Technique Practice
The main point when practicing to improve technique is that we focus on something specific. And the goal is to improve that specific something.
In other words, there is no inherent benefit to playing a scale. But there are benefits if we pay close attention to how each note connects to the next. (Or the volume, rhythm, tone, clarity, or anything else specific.)
In a short practice, everything we play should be for a reason, chosen with intention.
Speed is not the point
In a short practice, it’s usually best to focus on quality of movement, rather than speed.
Touch on many areas
As we practice technique in a short practice, it’s better to spend very little time on each of the many different exercises.
For example, we can spend 1–2 minutes each on:
- a scale
- a right-hand pattern
- a different scale, with a chosen volume scheme (i.e. quiet going up, louder going down)
- a right-hand string crossing exercise
We can have a number of these at hand so we can jump from one to the next with minimal mental effort.
And as said, the goal of each should be high-quality movements, placement, form, and positioning. Not speed or number of repetitions.
New Music or Memory Review
Even in a short practice, we can learn new pieces.
It’s best to limit the time we have for this because we can easily get drawn in and spend all our time here.
If learning a new piece, we can also limit the amount we’ll work on.
Instead of playing through everything we have previously learned, we can go straight to the new section and work on it.
We can also review previously learned sections in an intentional way.
If memorizing, we can force ourselves to recall the notes. This means we do not look at the music, but test our memory.
The important point in this area is that we stay aware and present. We do not zone out or become entranced and play through music mindlessly “just to hear it.” Plenty of time for that later.
Detail Rough Patches in Your Pieces
We can also spend our short practice segments (of a minute or two) polishing the trouble spots in the pieces we play.
For these, it’s best to have identified the exact location and issue for each spot. We can mark these in our music, and/or have a list at hand.
There are many ways we could work these spots. But as a rule, we go slow and play them perfectly. We remind ourselves of anything we want to notice or think at that point in the music.
One excellent way to work through tricky spots is to play in single-take cycles.
Let’s assume we have a piece of music with five trouble spots. We have identified each and know how they should be played.
We then play each in turn just once. This will take very little time.
We can play through the cycle of spots as many times as we like.
The benefit of this is that when we play the full piece, we will only have one chance to play the spot. We will not be afforded many repetitions of the same bar.
So in practicing this way, we get a real idea of how consistently we can play the spot well.
Again, these repetitions can be as slow as they need to be to remain in control and correct.
Stay contained: don’t play forward
The big challenge in practicing music is that we tend to want to go forward. Music moves forward, and we want to join it.
This is natural, and the better the music, the stronger the pull.
We must resist. There is a night-and-day difference between practice and playing. And practicing means staying in control of our attention.
A Quick Recap
The basic strategy of a short practice is to bounce from one to the next of many practice areas. Each lasts only a minute or two. This reminds our brain of each and lets it process it overnight while we sleep (aka learning).
In this sequence of short bursts in many areas, we touch on many things.
We stay present and alert. No time for daydreaming.
We start with the same routine for a few minutes each day. This helps us focus and set the intention for the practice.
We can focus on these general areas:
And we can also avoid the common mistakes people may make in short practices.
Common Mistakes in Short Practices
Below are a few common mistakes guitarists make in short practices.
Treating it as play
Practice is different than play. If we want to play, then great – anything goes.
But if we want to improve, then we practice.
This means intention and attention. High integrity.
It can be tempting in a short practice to hurry. After all, time is limited.
This is not the way to practice. Instead, we can give our full, calm awareness to each practice area in turn.
We neither drag nor rush. We stay in the moment and pay attention to the specific points we wish to reinforce.
Spending too much time in any one area
We can easily “get drunk” on one practice area and neglect others.
Instead, it’s better to keep bouncing so we reinforce many areas in our total session.
Playing too fast
Akin to hurrying, playing too fast is a seductive habit.
It can feel good to play fast. We feel like we’re playing very well.
But speed hides faulty technique and sloppy movements.
Speed creates the illusion of perfection.
If you want to play fast, reserve a minute or two at the end of the session to take the fingers out for a run.
But Any Practice Is Good Practice (sort of)
All the above speaks to an ideal. It’s a way to use time well so we see constant improvement.
But if you just need to play, then play.
Any practice will be better than no practice. You will reinforce whatever you do.
If you play sloppily while daydreaming, you will reinforce your habit of playing sloppily while daydreaming.
So most days, high-quality practice is the best option.
But if you need to cut loose from the structure and goof around, then go with it.
Then, the next day can be even more focused and high-quality. We can train our hands and minds intentionally, while also remaining human and sometimes flighty. So be it.
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.
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