My Personal Work Habits

If anyone took a look at the Lesson Log for one of my students recently, you will notice that I had to give a lecture about putting in more practice time. Because he is so talented, and seems to want to become a fully developed player, I was surprised when I found out that he was only devoting a half hour a day to lesson material.

It brings up this point: teachers should maintain tight control over a students practice habits. Often, the teacher never even inquires as to what exactly the student does all week, and how much of it he does when he does practice. For some reason, teachers assume that the student is going to intuitively know how to organize their practice, how to structure their time, and what exactly to do.

I remember my first voice lessons (singing is something I have absolutely zero natural talent for). The teacher asked me after a few lessons, "so, have you been singing". I said "no, should I be". For some reason, I assumed I would learn just by taking lessons! She didn't say anything about practicing. I always say "the teacher must appreciate the incredible state of ignorance the student is often in". This is another way of saying don't take anything for granted.

I also believe the teacher should try to inspire the student in every way possible. So I usually tell my students "try to be as much like me as possible". And what does that mean? It means keep your focus, stay in touch with your desire to play the guitar, stay in touch with your need for artistic expression. Allow that to manifest and show itself in all aspects of your relationship to playing and practicing. Don't come in an tell me you have hardly practiced, and blame it on not "finding" time, as if you were even looking!

Be like me. From beginning to play at 14, I was extremely focused and organized. After all, having suffered through so many years of grammar school, learning so many things I had no connection to, I was finally doing something I wanted to do. I began to keep notebooks on my practicing. Every week I would write out a new practice schedule, detailing everything I would do, and how much time to devote. I would count up the hours at the end of every day, and every week. I would castigate myself mercilessly if I felt I hadn't practiced enough (don't be like me on that one!)

I usually practiced from three to seven hours a day. As the years went by, I made sure the realities of life never cut into my practice time. I would never take a full time job, and didn't even drive till I was 22, because I didn't want to have to work to support a car. When I did work a part time job, I'd get up at 5:30 in the morning, practice 2 1/2 hours, be in work by 8:30 am, and home at 12:30 in the afternoon. I would practice, then take a nap so I could stay up late practicing.

I have come to realize in my maturity that not everybody is like me; I am perhaps a bit extreme. Some would even say misanthropic. But if you could even be a little bit like that, have a little of that focus, you would see big things happen in your playing.
Examine your work habits, your degree of focus and organization. After knowing how to practice, knowing how to organize, structure, and re-structure your practice is the most important factor in your development.

These days, I like to do about two hours of technical things in the morning. I am usually pursuing some new ideas about playing. I will give myself a few months to focus on something I think will be an improvement in my playing. It is important to give yourself this "room", time wise, to work and experiment.

Later in the day, I will work on pieces I am playing, or want to play. In the evening, I may sit and play for an hour or so. Throughout the day, I will grab the guitar for a few minutes here and there at random, as I feel the need.

At any given time, I keep in my mind the worst couple of things I have noticed about my playing, and I will be experimenting with ways to improve them. If you continually do this, it is amazing how good you get!

I always write myself notes, and leave them lying around or taped to the wall. Later, I collect them and organize them. I also keep a practice log, where I write everything down that occurs to me, and seems important, as I am practicing or playing. Basically, I am talking to myself all the time. I just write it down to make sure I'm listening. When you do this, you hear more.

I recommend it highly to everyone.

Every time I improve an aspect of my playing, I immediately set about reviewing everything I play in light of the new approach. For instance, once I discovered that my 3rd finger left hand was habitually getting way too tense in reaction to using my 2nd finger. As I became aware of the price I was paying for this inefficiency, I started to examine the same thing happening in old "trouble spots" in various pieces, and found that the same thing was at the root of so many of them. So by working on that 3rd finger, I started to improve all kinds of things.

If you understand the things I am talking about, you will understand why lifelong artists like Julian Bream, long one of the world's major classical guitarists, said this in response to someone asking if he will be giving any master classes soon; "No, I'm still teaching myself how to play". The deeper you go, the deeper it gets.

Pablo Casals, considered by many to be the greatest instrumentalist of the 20th century, was asked why he still practiced at 90. He said "I find I'm getting better". Beethoven said at the end of his life "finally, I am beginning to learn how to compose".

The point is this. When you get serious, you judge yourself by your own standards. I am just asking you to make sure you have some.

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas

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