In the past couple of moths a few people have asked me what the essential elements for a good practice routine are. I therefore wish to spend a little time talking about the elements that should be present in every practice routine. Keep in mind that my focus is on classical guitar, but most of the principles are applicable to all guitarists.
Over the years I have learned that a serious guitarist needs to spend time with the instrument. Regardless of the kind of routine you implement in your practice time, if you don’t practice enough, your progress will be much slower than a person who practices more. This leads us to the question: how long should I practice? If you are a serious classical guitarist your practice time should be in the 3 hours and up range. I have personally met serious and successful guitarists who practice no less than 8 hours per day. This being said, a reasonable practice session is ideally 3-4 hours a day. One understands that 3 hours per day is considered a lot for some people and that many people’s schedule is of such a nature that it doesn’t allow them to practice this much. This poses no problem. One should just make sure that if you cannot put that much time into it, you make every minute count. “Quality over quantity” should be one’s motto.
Can practice time be split? By all means, yes! Practicing 3 hours back to back, minute to minute is extremely difficult and not everyone can practice like that. In fact, splitting practice time is recommended. We tend to focus better after short breaks from a specific task.
The specific elements that should be in every session are as follows: warm-ups, scales, arpeggios, technical studies, repertoire and sight reading. These elements should be present every time you practice. Personally, I practice them in the order stated. For warm-ups, pick up some finger exercises and do all kind of combinations. For example, I start with this exercise: left hand finger number 1on the first fret of the first string and pluck with “i” (index finger of the right hand). Then, left hand finger 2 on the second fret, pluck with “m” (middle finger right hand); then, 3rd finger on the third fret, pluck with “i” again and then 4th finger of the left hand on the fourth fret and pluck with “m”. I repeat this process up to the sixth string and back to the first string. Once in the first string again, I move one fret down on the neck (start on fret 2) and do the following finger combination: 1-3-2-4, up to the sixth string and back to the first. After this, just keep switching the finger pattern. Some other ones are: 1-2-3-4, 1-3-2-4, 1-4-3-2, 1-4-2-3, and 1-2-4-3.
After your fingers are warmed-up a little, pick up some scales. If you are a classical guitarist you are probably familiarized with the Segovia Scales and with the Scale book from the Royal Conservatory of Music from Toronto. Those are great choices and I believe every guitarist should be practicing from those two books. If you want to learn more about what to and how to practice scales, please read my “Classical Guitar Scales” post.
Your right hand is as equally important as your left hand. Guitarists often tend to forget about the importance of the right hand. If you think about it, your right hand is the one that produces the notes and sounds that you are performing. Dynamics, articulation and tone color are some of the elements that come from our right hand. What you can do to develop it: Arpeggios. These are great exercises for the right hand. They will help you with your finger independency, your control and your speed. A really good source for arpeggios is the M. Giuliani 120 exercises for the development of the right hand.
After you have practice your scales and your arpeggios, you will be ready to challenge your technical difficulties. Technical studies are short compositions with the intent to teach, reinforce and or correct specific technical skills. Every guitarist is different; therefore, the needs vary for each individual. For your studies choose specific techniques that you need to improve, and work at them till you have mastered them. Examples may be: Ligados (slurs), dynamics, barre, etc… Sources for good technical studies are: Fernando Sor, Mateo Carcassi, Napoleon Coste, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Dionisio Aguado, Julio Sagreras, Abel Carlevaro and others. A very good introductory book for technical skills is “Pumping Nylon” by Scott Tennant.
Once you complete your studies, pick up your repertoire selections and work on them individually. Depending on how well you know the pieces you are working on, you might need to isolate sections or practice them as a whole. “Smart practice” is important here. “Smart practice” is practicing consciously of what you are doing and how you are doing it. Practicing until you stop being productive. If you realize that you are just repeating and repeating with no gains and you start feeling burned out, stop. Take a break, and do some more smart practice at a later time. Remember, depending on the difficulty of the pieces you choose, you could be working for a long time. I am talking about weeks, months or years. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was Julian Bream that said in an interview that he practice a song for a whole year before performing it publicly and two years before he recorded it. It therefore depends entirely on you and your selection.
Last, but not least, is sight reading. Sight reading is extremely important. The more developed you have your sight reading skills; the faster you will be able to read and possibly complete a piece. Also, sight reading is a very common aspect of auditions and live performances with other musicians and/ or bands. How much time should you spend on sight reading? In my opinion, a couple of minutes per day will do the trick. If you are consistent, 10-15 minutes a day should be enough.
These are basically the elements that should be encompassed in a well-rounded classical guitarist’s practice routine. Other elements could be included, such as: improvisation, music theory, chords and voicing, but those are more oriented towards jazz and popular musicians. Classical guitar is pretty set, and, although in present times we see a wide variety of composers and performers bringing these elements into classical guitar music, our principles and foundation remain the same.
Up to this point, the only thing left to be said is:” Practice smart!” Jimi Hendrix said: “Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But, if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”
Time distribution in the practice routine:
Warm-up exercises -10 minutes
Scales – 30 minutes
Arpeggios – 30 minutes
Technical studies – 30 minutes
Repertoire selections – 1-2 hours
Sight reading – 15 minutes