Mindless Practice: Maximizing Your Practice Time
Do you ever find yourself on a Wednesday night tossing up whether to watch the latest episode of “The Bachelor” or getting some guitar practice in? Why not do both! As society is these days, we rarely have enough hours in the day to get through everything we’d like to. This means that inevitably, we end up having to prioritise what we do in our leisure time, and as much as we don’t want to admit it – sometimes guitar gets left behind for soap-operas. A great way to sneak some extra guitar time into the week is to do some mindless practice while watching TV or watching a YouTube video.
The importance of our subconscious mind while playing guitar is indisputable. There are simply too many things to consider while playing guitar. To perform a song really effectively, you must be able to not have to think about it. As we learn and play, things enter our subconscious constantly – forming a C chord without having to check a chart, playing the strumming pattern for a song without thinking about it, etc. Once these things are securely within our subconscious we can draw on them as needed using very little brain-power. This lets us worry about other things – such as an incoming barre chord or perhaps a 16th note arpeggio. Naturally, time is a large factor in getting things into our subconscious. The best thing about our subconscious skills however is in the name – we don’t need to be thinking about them too much while we’re practising them! This is where mindless practice comes in.
Now don’t get me wrong, mindless practice isn’t about picking up your guitar and bashing it until noise comes out. Like any sort of practise, things like planning, measuring and recording your progress, and goal setting are essential. The difference is what you actually do while you’re practising. Before you start, have in mind a particular technique/exercise/song that you are familiar with. Something you want to ‘tighten up’. You should have learnt what you’re about to play, but it may not be practised. Next, set yourself up in front of your computer/TV with a chair, a footstool, amp, picks, and anything else you’d normally use while practising.
Now, before you turn on “Game of Thrones” or “The Bold and the Beautiful”, play through the piece a few times. Make sure that you’re confident with how it goes. Make sure that everything about your technique (left hand position, right hand position, pick grip…) is looking good. This is a very important step, as the last thing you want to do is reinforce poor technique. Next, start your show going, and get your piece playing. To begin with, try to make sure everything is running smoothly. Then, start forcing yourself to pay less and less attention to what your hands are doing. Eventually, you should be happily watching your show, but would still notice if you made a mistake. It’s as simple as that!
While ‘traditional’ practise methods might not recommend the idea of mindless practice, research over the last 50 years has shown otherwise. A thesis published by the Northwestern University of Illinois entitled “A Cognitively Oriented Concept of Piano Technique” in 1985 discussed the importance of “detachment” while playing and practising piano. It says that by detaching yourself from what you’re practising, you remove factors such as over-analysis and fear of mistake. This allows unconscious decisions to be made without the conscious mind stopping at every choice you make. Obviously this thinking translates perfectly to the guitar. How often have you been playing through something and started thinking “I hope I don’t stuff this up!”? How often has this been followed by you stuffing it up? The advantages of mindless practice are clearly evident.
So next time you’re facing the dilemma of getting some guitar playing in or risking having the latest episode of your favourite TV series ruined for you by someone tomorrow, grab your guitar out and do some mindless practice. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make if you’re careful to plan out what you want to do. Set some goals, and measure your progress as you go! Your coach can help you with all of this, and even work on planning out a mindless practice schedule based around your TV viewing!