Long before the ubiquity of the world wide web, my least favourite piece of advice was commonly spread, gleefully by word of mouth and written word (Magazines? Wait, what’s that?!) as if it was the golden rule. A timeless wisdom, “words to live by” worthy of being shared and assimilated into one’s musical philosophy: Practise makes perfect.
I despise this phrase. You may be thinking, “What? Why?! That one is has been around for ages! It’s excellent advice!” Allow me to make my case.
I believe one’s philosophy and the psychological approach any student of music subscribes to shapes their habits and determines their successes or failures. Like most things in life, learning an instrument is not easy and more importantly, it is not simple. “Practise makes perfect” is nothing more than a platitude. An attempt to simplify the learning process into a nice three-word-nugget. It makes things absolute and progress in music is rarely so reliable.
I take exception with the wording. Specifically, “makes perfect”. This planting of an ideal of perfection into the minds of the beginning guitarist dooms them to view themselves as being in a false dichotomy of either perfect or imperfect. So, the goal becomes perfection and you either achieve it or you don’t. You “make” perfect and its sole requirement is practise. Still imperfect? Practise more. Still imperfect? Well, I guess it’s just your own damn fault. You aren’t practising enough. A variation of PMP exists, but really it’s no better: Perfect practise makes perfect. It’s still essentially the same thing. Perhaps, even more extreme. Now, it’s not enough to practise enough to “make” perfect. You better damned well be practising perfectly! Exactly, how one even does that, I do not know and no one cares to explain.
Here’s one bit of advice that has survived the test of time and deserves to be passed on: It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. PMP nor its variation don’t take this into consideration. Rather than focus on such a concrete goal as “perfect”, which is unreasonable and nearly impossible to attain, focus on HOW you practise. Practising for 3 hours a day does not guarantee success. Punching nails for hours each day does nothing to help you use a hammer. Practising shouldn’t be about hitting an arbitrary goal of X hours each day. It should be about how you practise. This is not to say that practising 5 minutes a day will make you a virtuoso. I would still strive for no less than 30m a day. But, effective practise can yield noticeable improvement even if you only put in a less than ideal 15m a day.
This raises the question, “How do I practise well, then? Is there a right and a wrong way to practise?” These are the best questions you can ask. The answer can’t be summed up in a neat 3-word sound bite that encompasses every musical concept from scales, techniques to theory. If it were that easy the world would be overflowing with master musicians. The truth is...it’s complex. I have never stopped learning. Yousician has become a part of that journey, but it’s only one element of many. I know this may sound unsatisfying as it appears like the answer that isn’t an answer. But, each technique, scale, chord, song, theory has its own approaches, philosophies or methods that help make your practise time the most effective it can be to that specific concept. I suggest to my students to “learn how to learn”.
I am constantly revising my practise routine and approaches per each concept even after 25 years of playing the guitar. I wish there was a simpler answer, something that guaranteed success. But, I have learned to embrace the reality that is learning anything in life. It isn’t static. Sometimes a certain kind of approach makes sense only temporarily. Something that worked as a 16-year-old may not work as well after a week, month or years. That didn’t make it wrong. It’s just that the approach served its purpose and now your approach needs to evolve. There are also some methods or philosophies that work for every facet of practise that just never change no matter your skill level. The Rabbit. Hole. Is Deep.
When it comes to the “best” way to practise it's best to ask this only contextually. “What’s the best way to practise: alternate picking, tapping, chord changes, legato, intervals? Etc.” Each one will have its own answer unique to the concept and sometimes, unique to the player depending on their knowledge and skill level. It can be difficult finding the right person or medium to provide this advice, which is why the internet can sometimes be a blessing and a curse.
Practise doesn’t make perfect. First of all, try not to chase perfection. Chase improvement. Improvement is attainable. Perfection is a moving goal post. No matter how close you get, it seems to be just out of reach. It puts unrealistic expectations on yourself. According to perfection, one mistake is failure. As far as I’m concerned, playing well should be praised. Credit where it is due. Playing well sets no number to how many mistakes are “allowable”. In the end, playing well is ultimately a judgement call only you can make. Are you a contestant on stage on X-Factor? No? Then, don’t count your mistakes. Did you play well for where you currently are now in your development? Have you improved since last week? Now, contrast that with asking yourself, “Was that perfect?” Does that seem reasonable?
So, what does practise make? Practise makes...well, practise. How you choose to do it is what’s important, and it’s in your control. Strive to improve. Strive to learn how to learn. Improving may be a little or a lot. But, it’s a gradient where all and any progress is noteworthy. Perfect demands one result. Black & white, failure or success. I’ve long abandoned seeking perfection and the funny thing is, ever since doing so the more error-free performances seem to come naturally. Without expectation or the pressure, the notion of “must not screw up!”
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