Some people say “Practice makes perfect.” This is incorrect. Practice forms habits. The quality of your habits are determined by the quality of your practice. This can be either good or bad.
Others say “Perfect practice makes perfect.” This unfortunately is also incorrect. The paradox of practice is that we strive for perfection with the understanding that we will fall short. Our ability to continue to endeavor in the face of impossible odds is what allows us to constantly grow as musicians.
I say “Practice makes proficiency.” The following is a description of how I set proficiency goals in practicing.
Rather than focusing on how long a student practices for or how many times they repeat a section, I encourage my students to concentrate on how well they play the material they are practicing. This is a simple concept but to make the most of it, I suggest making a practice circuit that sets specific proficiency goals.
The first step is to evaluate the student’s current proficiency. I have them play the selected material a few times while I listen and watch for sound quality, posture, and technique. Together, the student and I will take note of what they are excelling at and what they are having the most trouble with. The parts that they are playing poorly are merely symptoms of the actual problem. Once the symptoms have been identified, I offer a diagnosis as to what is causing their symptoms and provide a plan to fix the issue.
The way we fix mistakes is by improving our fundamental technique and posture. For example, if a student is consistently missing an F# note in first position of their guitar and I notice their hand is in incorrect posture, I show them how to correct the issue. I show what part of their hand needs to line up with the guitar neck, how far it should be from the neck, and at what angle they should be at. If they cannot get their hand into proper position, we do they same for their sitting posture, their arm posture, and the angles they hold the guitar at.
After the student knows the proper posture, they can practice consciously playing the part with this correction. By focusing on their posture, the student is better able to eliminate their playing mistakes. I ask my students to make their goals around the fundamental they are working on and think of the music they are practicing as merely the vehicle we use to practice this fundamental.
Now that we know what to work on during practice sessions, the student and I can build a practice circuit. I suggest repeating a small section in 3 sets, starting right before and ending right after the the part the student is struggling with. We set a goal such as playing 8 consecutive performances that each are mistake free and use our fundamental (in this case, maintaining proper posture). If the student makes a mistake or does not maintain posture, the count starts back over from the beginning. Once the student reaches 8 consecutive correct performances of the material, they rest for a short period of time anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute. This rest period is important to make sure they have enough concentration to begin another set. Without rest periods, it is easy for a student to become distracted or tired which lowers the quality of their practice. After completing 3 sets of 8 consecutive repeats, the student is ready to either move on to the next problem area or to try performing the entire piece of music.
This method of practicing for proficiency is much more effective than just going to by time or number of repeats. What we care about is how many times we have correctly played each section. We should always focus on the fundamental we are improving.