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Perspective About How Much Practicing Should be Done at Home and about the Process of Learning Guitar:


Most students prefer to learn guitar casually.  After teaching more than 10,000 guitar lessons in a variety of commercial and acedemic environments over the past 19 years, and training scores of professional teachers how to improve their approach, I've evolved a curriculum that's proven to be the most enjoyable and successful method we've all seen.

Even with the development of a solid and enjoyable curricum, the issue of practice time spent at home continues to be a problem for most teachers.  Many parents quickly realize that their children just don't practice as much as they'd expect.  Often children not only don't appreciate the money being spent on lessons, but complain when asked to practice, especially during the first year of lessons.

The reality of the situation is that that's the norm.  Even when presented with the most favorable curriculum - only fun and easy to play music, only music that's hand picked individually by the student, and which can be played almost immediately, and which is presented in a way that's thoroughly enjoyable.  Even in a situation where lessons are looked forward to every week, and to which children like to come, many beginning students don't practice regularly at home.  And that's not just true for young students.  The most often heard phrase from nearly 100% of students is, "I didn't get to practice as much as I wanted this week".  For years, I've started virtually _every_ lesson hearing some variation of that phrase.  Virtually every student practices less than they'd hoped.  Young students are busy, and adult students are busy.  For most students, the guitar is a desirable extra-curricular activity that always seems to get pushed aside for more important required activities.  For some students it's the center of life, but even those students don't get to practice as much as they'd like.  I was never able to practice as much as I wanted - even as a professional performer.

The truth is, from experience, most dedicated students are _lucky_ to get 1/2 hour practice 2-3 times a week, on average.  For the majority of beginning students who are only casually interested, the average amount of practice is even _less_.  Most disciplined students will see their practice schedule ebb and flow - sometimes there will be periods of increased activity (when starting out with a new teacher, before a recital or special performance, when starting in a first band, etc.), but for the most part, people practice guitar when they're done with all that life has dealt, and when they're not completely worn out.  

No one likes to imagine that practicing casually a few times a week is the way they'll end up studying guitar.  It's the honest truth of the situation for most people, though.  And the thing is - that type of practice routine is genuinely maintainable and productive.  Even the most undisciplined student who's only casually interested in learning ends up picking up the guitar a couple times a week and playing a little every now and then.  The majority of the students that I've seen in the commercial teaching business (not just my own, but those of every teacher) learn to play guitar by practicing that way.  For most students, guitar becomes a positive part of life, and a well developed skill by practicing that way!

Very few teachers like to admit that.  Most like to think that their students love them and practice more because they've got the best personality and motivate their students better than any other teacher could.

The fact is, for most parents the biggest concern is how little their children practice.  I've dealt with that concern for nearly two decades.  And I've seen thousands of students learn to play guitar and make it a permanent part of their lives, despite consistent concerns that not enough practice is going on at home.  Every student learns how to play guitar.  For some students it takes longer.  For every student, it takes at least a few years to develop a broad skill set and an advanced technical level.  Even the most dramatically talented students who practice hours every day take several years to demonstrate a high level of proficiency.  But, everyone learns.  The only thing I've seen stop people from learning is quiting altogether.  And the biggest reason that students drop out of lessons is because they feel like they're not getting enough practice (that they're wasting their own time and the time of the teacher).  Once a student drops out of lessons, they don't practice at all, and they stop improving permanently.  That's an unfortuneate vicious cycle that occurs as a result of anxiety about practice time at home.  It takes a LONG time to become a proficient musician - and it takes a long time before playing guitar at home becomes a natural and enjoyable part of regular life - that has to be understood from the beginning to avoid anxiety.

When students do come to lessons, they get at least one good practice session each week, and they typically play a little during the week (the amount ebbs and flows), and they continue to improve.  And every student continues to improve by a significant amount every few months - even without significant practice at home (more than the 1/2 hour 2-3 times a week).  That's been my experience and the experience of every seasoned professional I've met.  

The only thing that interupts progress is the motivation to quit.  When a student quits, they stop improving, and eventually regress.  And, unless they're already active performers or hobbyists, most students don't play _at all_ if they're not coming to lessons.  That seems to be universal experience familiar to teachers and students alike.

Take away the guilt and motivation to quit caused by concern that practice isn't happening enough, and most students will not quit until they've reached a level of ability with which they're happy.  The reason that's true is because if the curriculum is good, and there is no pain asscociated with coming to lessons, every student continues to learn at a rate that's an acceptable norm - even with little practice at home for extended periods.  That's hard for many people to accept at first, but it's true.  The only students who I've seen quit otherwise were those who expected to play guitar at an advanced level within a period of months.  In nearly two decades, I've only seen that kind of progress once.  Most students take several years to develop to an advanced level of skill.  And every single student who has stuck with it for more than 3 years has learned to play at an advanced level.  Even those who practiced little to never.  Every single one.

The point is not to say that guitar practice shouldn't be expected, and that taking lessons alone is enough.  I do my best to motivate as much practice as possible.  I love to see students improve quickly.  There's nothing more painful in lessons than to deal with the agony of slow learning - it's the main thing I'm paid to overcome as a teacher.  Without a doubt, the more a student repeats each example every week, the more quickly he or she will build habits and improve.  No matter what the talent and interest level of any student - given the same curriculum - the rate of progress will ultimately be affected most significantly by the amount of time spent practicing each week.  More practice will speed improvement along much more quickly.  The point is that to continue improving in the long run, and for continued interest in music to develop, practice needs to happen at a rate that's _consistent, enjoyable, and sustainable_ over the long haul.  And for most casual students - sitting down 2-3 times a week for 1/2 hour is at the high end of the spectrum in most lifestyles.  _And it's enough_.  Most casual players enjoy sitting down several times a week, playing, and learning some new material.  That type of practice is generally enjoyable and sustainable indefinitely.  Sometimes practice rates will increase, and sometimes they will drop to nothing.  That's _normal_ for the overwhelming majority of students I've seen, and I understand that to be the norm throughout the profession.  If a student simply has no interest in playing, and simply never wants to practice or play guitar, then they should stop playing guitar.  But, if the interest and desire is there, then coming to lessons produces satisfying improvement, and helps move the ebb and flow of interest back into the high end, and keeps the learning process moving along at a sustainable and consistent level.  If the interest to play maintains, then lessons are productive, and at least one significant and focused practice is had every week.  That happens to every student for periods of time.  The only thing that truly ends the development is a choice to give up playing completely.  When that happens, progress stops.

I had a profound experience teaching a student who came to lessons for 3 years without ever once practicing outside the lesson.  He was a busy doctor who just didn't have the opportunity or motivation to fit guitar into his daily schedule.  He wanted to play, though, and he loved coming to lessons.  We had a good time - it was a joke in the beginning that he never practiced, and it turned into a pattern that he maintained.  The lesson was a weekly escape from his regular life, and he was grateful to have a teacher who didn't force him to make it more than that.  After about 6 months, to my surprise, he started showing some genuine improvement.  After several years he got to be a pretty good guitarist.  I showed him something new every week, unless he asked to go over previous material (which he did regularly), and he picked up what he could every time.  Eventually, the chord shapes and basic techniques became familiar, and he developed some skill.  I worked with him every week, and I never once felt I didn't earn my pay.  He never once expressed dissatisfaction with the way lessons progressed, and guitar is now a big part of his social life (he still takes lessons with a teacher in his area, and now plays with friends during the week).  All his initial development happened without a single practice session at home.  If I had grilled him to practice more, I would've driven him to quit, and neither of us would've been happy.

Beyond the fact that significant and satisfactory improvement can happen without lots of outside practice, many students find the motivation to keep learning by simply coming to a lesson every week.  When the atmosphere in music lessons is enjoyable and friendly, and the material is fun, most students begin to look forward to their weekly session.  Adults see it as an escape from their work and family routines, and children look forward to it as something fun to do.  Children especially receive the positive influence of an adult who genuinely cares about developing their interest and improving their skill in an art that's truly rewarding throughout life.  Everyone who works as a musician knows that satisfaction and wants to share it.  It's one of the great experiences in life.  And, it's possible for every student who perceveres to achieve that satisfaction to a degree that is fulfilling.  Children who didn't like practicing at first will begin to pick up the instrument more and more on their own once the basics get easier and they start to sound "musical" - especially if they have opportunities to perform and play music with others.  Some people simply see lessons themselves as a form of weekly entertainment, some see them as inexpensive therapy, and many enjoy the social aspect - that's satisfying in its own way, and many find their skill development only part of the reason to go to lessons.  That's well within the normal experience of every guitar teacher.  As a teacher, I'm interested in developing musical skills first and foremost - that's what I'm paid to do.  But a personal relationship does form with each student over a period of months and years, and that's a big part of taking lessons.  That relationship only serves to strengthen the motivation of most students to continue playing.  By working with an experienced performer for an extented period of time, students begin to intuitively understand the satisfaction gained from, and the approach required to aquire skill on the instrument.

I've taught students of every age, with musical interests of every type, and with abilities in every range.  I've had dramatically young and dramatically old students, students with severe learning disabilities and students who were truely prodigious.  I've seen students who wanted to learn to play every type of music, and those whose universe included only the music of a single player in a single style.  I've seen students who were extraordinarily motivated and dedicated to practicing, and those who would've much rather been outside with their friends playing than sitting in each lesson.  I've had multiple successes teaching scores of students from every category.  The students with whom I've failed were those whose interest I couldn't keep.  Whether it was because I didn't have the right curriculum materials prepared, or because my personality conflicted with them, or because a student dropped out because they thought they weren't learning at a rate that was worth while, if I failed to teach a student how to play, it was because they stopped taking lessons before they really had a chance to develop a sustainable love of playing.  For years, my curriculum has been developed to a point that makes everyone learn as quickly as possible, I've gotten darn good at not conflicting with students personally, and this document is intended to solve the remaining problem - to give students and parents some perspective needed to be persistent even if practice at home seems to be a problem.

Not everyone sets out to become a virtuoso player.  And of those who do, only a few actually become extraordinary performers.  Most professionals are not even virtuoso players!  But almost everyone who persists for a few years learns to play at a level that makes music an enjoyable skill that lasts a lifetime.  That's the goal that most people have, and the intended purpose of taking lessons.  Along the way, the learning process is fun if it's approached the right way, and that becomes part of the goal.  Learning in a comfortable and painless way is part of the journey that endeares the instument to all students.  Practice will ebb and flow along the way, and even stop during periods.  But the learning process does not have to stop when that happens.

Please let me know if you need help increasing practice time at home.  The best thing that can be done is to make the guitar _easily_ available.  Put it somewhere it can be picked up instantly several times a day - stand it up next to a couch that gets sat on every day, lay it on top of a chair at the breakfast or dinner table, lay it on top of the bed you sleep in every night, or if you're an adult student, put it in a front seat of the car you take your lunch breaks in, etc.  Most people just don't think about playing all the time, and when they do, it's often a hassle to get the instrument out.  When the passing casual interest to play arrives, having to take an instrument out of the closet, remove it from its case, and tune it up is more than enough reason to procrastinate, and that procrastination can turn into a whole week of not practicing.  Often just having to unpack and pack up the instrument makes practicing seem like a chore.  Wherever you keep the guitar, take it out of its case immediately when you get home from a lesson, if you can.  That makes a huge difference.  Also, tune it every time you finish playing - that way it's ready to use the next time you pick it up.  The thought of playing an out of tune guitar is not appealing, and it's enough to keep most students from wanting to play.  For very young childen, parents can make a craft project of creating signs that remind the student to practice.  A prominent guitar poster, especially a homemade one, can serve as a consistent reminder to think about playing, even if it's only subliminal.  Developing an interest in guitar and music in general is one of the best ways to build motivation to practice.  Seeing live performances, listening to music regularly, and having friends who play are all great ways to build interest.  For young children and adults alike, getting together with friends who play guitar, to share and compare musical interests and skills, is invaluable.  Listen to music and watch videos of guitarists on DVD and on the Internet.  Those resources are available to everyone, regardless of free time and income.

All those things make guitar practice a more likely event.  I've tried asking parents and students to follow strict scheduled practice routines, and that has worked for only a very small minority.  And for most parents, that approach is simply not a reasonable expectation on a routine basis, or an enjoyable task - and it's typically resented by the student.  Regular lessons and experiences seeing guitar performance as a part of life (live, in recordings, and on CD) will provide constant motivation.  Once a student begins to learn, it's something that stays for life.  I do everything I know to make lessons enjoyable and productive, with the benefit of 19 years of professional teaching and performing experience and 27 years of time spent with the instrument.  I have a true love for the instument because it's brought so many positive things to my life, both directly and indirectly, and I do my best to share all of those experiences and benefits with students.

This document was written to express my genuine experience, hope, and perspective about the learning process that's evolved from teaching and from seeing other teachers develop students into active and satisfied players.  The more a student practices, the faster he or she will develop skills, but I genuinely hope that students don't give up learning to play, and I also hope that the experience is not made worse by concerns about time spent practicing.  I know my concept and approach is contrary to that expected traditionally, but it's certainly shown to be effective for the majority of students who just want to learn to play guitar and have a fun time doing it.  If you stay dedicated to learning in the long run, those goals will be achieved in every case.  It's up to every student to make their own decision about whether it's worth the time and expense, and if coming to lessons is ultimately an enjoyable, positive experience in life.  I do my best to make that the case!  Please talk to me if you have any concerns :)

Copyright 2004-2013 Nick Antonaccio, all rights reserved.