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To shred, thou must learn when to not shred

In this blog, I’m going to cover the second principle of effective practice. Learning a new lick to the point where it becomes easy and effortless to do, is all about the right kind of communication between your brain and you. Basically we want to send this message to the brain: “Put this lick in the part of the brain where I’ll never forget it and where it becomes automatic”. If we had a magic button we could press to make this happen this would be an easy task. But it takes effort to convince the brain to do what we want it to. We have to learn the lick, then forget it, then relearn it and forget it and so on. Until the point where the brain finally decides to embed that lick in the deeper parts of our memory. To recap, here are the four principles again.

1. Practice

2. Pausing

3. Isolating Challenges

4. The Metronome Game

The second rule of effective practice

Once again I’m going to introduce you to a new rule to follow: Rule number two: The more you pause the faster you get. In order to get the most out of practicing time, you must remember to not practice. The more pauses the more progress. The more times the brain forgets what it has just learned, the faster it will eventually learn. The reason is simple. It has to do with how the brain works. The brain works very much like the rest of the body. If you want big muscles you lift weights right? But do you grow your muscles when you lift weights? no - You grow them when you rest! When you are in the gym you lay the foundation of growth. Working out is necessary to build muscle but it is not the only thing. If you think it is, you’ll work out ten hours a day and get no results. Because you miss the other part of the equation! It’s just like food...

"There's no such thing as quitting. Just sometimes there's a longer pause between relapses"

Alan Moore, Watchmen, 1986

Muscle Failure

Do you refuel your body just by eating? No! You haveto digest the food, if you only eat it but not digest you’ll get nothing out of it. And here’s the key to practicing effectively: The more breaks you can put in, the quicker the brain will digest what you gave it. There’s a delicate balance that you must find here - between how much practice and pause you need - but here’s a pointer: When you start practicing your fingers are cold and you’re not completely there yet. After a few minutes your hands starts loosening up and your brain get turned on to what you are doing. Then follow the practice routines I describe in this blog, but when you start becoming worse than when you are at your best, remember to stop! When you start loosing concentration and things becomes harder to play than they where in the beginning, stop! In muscle terms we call this point “muscle failure” and this is the point where we have sent a clear signal to the brain that the current level of strength in the muscle wasn’t enough to do the job.

You might reach this point after 15 minutes or after two hours depending on the nature of what you are practicing. Continuing a bit beyond this point is alright, because you strengthen the message to the brain that says; "I want more than this!" But if you keep on beyond that point - you won’t get any better. Pause! Do something else. If you are very energetic and really want to go for it, try practicing a different lick or pattern. Sometimes switching between two different exercises can be enough for the brain to be able to digest what you are giving it.

Is this really important enough?

Remember the third thing that the brain asks for, whenever you try to teach it something new? It has to know how important it is to remember. If you learn something once. The brain is going to think that you don’t need that skill more than that one time. So it just dispells of it, making room for more important things. The only way to convince it that you want this skill forever, is through repetition. But repetition in a way where the brain forgets part of what you have learned and relearns it again. When you do this enough times the brain finally decides to place the information in that special part of your brain that’s called the long term memory and then you are set for life.

"Learning a new pattern of movement is the discipline of moving information from the short term to the long term memory"

Imagine two memory banks in the brain. A short term memory and a long term memory. Much like the ROM and RAM in a computer. Practicing any pattern of movement whether it is a sport or a musical instrument is a matter of making the brain take pieces of information and moving them from one part of the brain to another. But we have to really insist in order for it to do it. Riding a bike takes time to learn, but once we have learned it AND practiced it for some time it becomes a set of automated responses in the brain. We never forget it, in fact we don’t even have to think about it, it just happens the minute we put ourselves on that two wheeled thing. Learning a new pattern of movement is the discipline of moving information from the short term memory to the long term and embedding it thoroughly.

Practice minutes instead of hours

The brain wont just place anything in the long term memory, it will not automate movements that you’ll only need a couple of times in your life. That would be a waste of space in the long term memory bank. So you have to convince it that you’re going to need these particular movements for the rest of your life. You do that by repeating them again and again. First one after another. Then a small pause and repetition again. Then a larger pause. Then a larger one. You move from pausing seconds to pausing weeks and perhaps months in between playing the pattern. At a certain level the brain gives in and agrees to embed the pattern so it never goes away. That’s why you can’t practice a lick for 10 hours in a row and expect to be able to play it the rest of your life.

"Practicing in small intervals of a few minutes several times a day can make a huge difference"

The brain is getting better during those ten hours, if you can make it through them, but it says “Okthat was fine, we’ll probably not need that pattern anymore so let’s keep it in this box or simply remove it frommemory. Making room for other more important things”. It’s your job to say. “No dear brain: I need it ten minutes later. I need it one hour, one day, and one week later, see!” That’s why practicing in small intervals of a few minutes several times a day can make a huge difference. Remember to feel good when you sense that the brain has forgotten how to play something - because it gives you a chance to drive the information even deeper this time.

Practice with complete focus

The language of the brain is very simple but if we don’t know it we can’t speak it. The way to tell our brain what we want it to do is simple it consists of another pattern and here it is: Learn and forget, learn and forget until it is impossible for you to forget. When you reach that point the information has moved from the short term to the long term memory. So the mindset you must have is to try and forget as much as you can between each practice! Do something entirely different from practicing. Each time you relearn a new pattern you move it one step further in the right direction.

Take a break and try this lil' classical phrase, notice the picking pattern here.
You'll have to use both alternate AND economy picking. Why settle for just one way of picking?
There are advantages to both techniques


Break the fretboard of an old guitar

To fully exploit the concept of pausing effectively try not practice for long hours and never practice beyond the point of loosing concentration and focus,  but instead, - practice as many times as you possibly can, in a day. The more chances you have to forget, for the brain to digest, the more steps you take towards what we call unconscious competence, which is the ability to do something completely effortlessly without thinking about it. Put in ten to fifteen minutes in the morning or even 2 to 5 minutes. Then a bit at lunch time if you can. Then again when you come home from work. Then a bit after dinner. A bit during the evening, then again just before you go to bed.

Practice in small intervals but practice with complete focus. Remember you are programming the brain every time you sit down with the guitar. Don’t program sloppy coincidental movements. Tell it what you want it to do specifically. Break the fretboard off of an old guitar and keep it in your drawer at work so you can practice a few seconds during the day! Do what it takes...

Cut your practice time in half

Seriously: If you did nothing but shorten your practice sessions and instead had twice as many of them, and practiced slow what you want to play fast - your practice time would be diminished by at least 25 to 50 percent! Just by doing this. And we’ve only just begun here. There’s so much good stuff in here I can’t wait to tell you all of it! Don’t be like most people. They suddenly decide to get better so they practice fiersly for one or two days. Just so they can realise that it didn’t make much of a difference. Pause continuously. And don’t get discouraged when the brain forgets, it’s supposed to! work with it not against it. Don’t think of practice, think of communicating with your brain.

How to pause even when you're not

The last piece of advice I will give you on this topic is shifting between two different exercises. If you like practicing for hours at a time or if you get bored with playing the same lick for thirty minutes at a time – then come up with two or three exercises that you can shift between. This will make you pause and forget a little bit of the first lick while you practice the second lick. So you’ll get the advantage of pausing even when you’re not! Of course there’s nothing that can take the place of putting down the guitar and focusing on something completely different for a while. I really hope you will put this principle into action right away and I’m looking forward to the next time we meet. Have a great time and remember to play with power :)