The 8 Ways We Practice

This article is about how you can maximize your productivity during practice sessions. It is also about rediscovering how to enjoy practicing again.

We all know that having clear goals is the most important thing you can do to accelerate your rate of learning. But what exactly does it mean to say that we should learn how to practice?

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I have noticed a decline in my own ability to focus when practicing. To cure my ill, I decided to take a really hard look at what it is that I actually do when I pick up the guitar or bass. I have discovered that I was always doing one or more of the following things. Let’s call these things modes.

The 8 Modes of Practicing

1. Site Reading
2. Assimilating (learning a piece slowly by ear or from a written score)
3. Technique building
4. Studying Theory (new chord voicings, ear training. scales, intervals, etc.)
5. Memorizing
6. Improvising
7. Composing/Arranging (Not really “practicing” but you know what I mean)
8. Rehearsing

It was a bit of an “aha” moment to realize that when you have an instrument in your hands there are only really eight things you can be doing with it (besides maybe cleaning it or fixing it).

My theory is that the reason our practice sessions don’t seem as productive as they could be is that we try to do more than one of these items on the list at a time. I would be willing to bet that the best musicians tend to know which of these things they are doing at all times and remain focused on that aspect of their work until the achieve the desired result.

How to Make the Practice Modes Work for You

If you are always aware of what it is you are setting out to achieve, you are more likely to accomplish your intended goal. Try the following method out and see if improves your productivity.

1. Decide from the above list which item you intend to work on.
2. Choose the subject of your study (song, instrumental passage, theory subject, etc…
3. Choose an arbitrary amount of time you would like to dedicate to that subject.
4. Begin playing, and remain focused on that one subject for the time you have alloted to it.
5. Examine your progress and record it in your notebook

To get the hang of this it might be a good idea to write down your goal or series of goals just before beginning your session. This is a very simple but effective habit. Let’s say you have two hours to practice and you decide to break it up into four blocks. When finished, your plan might look something like this:

Block 1: Memorize first eight bars of Bach’s Bouree
Block 2: Practice site reading random score
Block 3: Practice improvising over changes to a jazz tune
Block 4: Develop tremolo technique

The plans you create will be different for every practice session, but you will always be focused and in control. Keep these lists in a notebook so you can go back over your history and see how you are progressing. A notebook is also a great way of reminding yourself what you had previously intended to work on and may have forgotten about.

If you are practicing for an upcoming gig, recital, or recording session, then your list will be dominated by rehearsing (number 8 on the list) and you may go for weeks without needing to do much creative practicing. That’s ok, just return to this method when you are free to work on your own material.

This method is especially great for teachers who have to become and remain proficient in a wide range of styles and techniques. Because of this it is easy for teachers to feel like the proverbial “jack of all trades and master of none”. If you are aware of the eight modes of practice and keep a consistent practice notebook or journal, it’s a good bet that you will see your skill and productivity greatly increase.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is simple but planning your practice sessions in this way will have a dramatic effect on the quality of your practice time and the overall satisfaction you get out of playing your instrument. You might even start to look forward to practicing again.


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