Can you over practice?

Hey guys,

I was wondering if you can over practice a lick? I’ve been hitting it pretty hard over the past few days spending a lot of time on this lick and I feel like I’m getting worse at it. Has anyone else experienced this?

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I think it is said on here that interleaved practice is better at learning. Meaning take your one lick and add two more let’s say and practice the one you have then practice the second one after some time then go back to the first then go to the third and repeat.

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Hey there. Short answer: yes, me too.

For a possible remedy: this is a long answer to a short question, but it gives me a chance to organize some thinking and get some writing on this topic done. I know you didn’t ask for a huge essay, but maybe something here will help.

TL/DR: you’re experiencing what some have called “Fast play degradation”. Essentially:

  • a) the theory goes that your brain/nervous system can’t organize the complex input it got during your practicing. My recommendation:
  • b) Try to break up your long practicing of a given lick into shorter durations,
  • c) ensure that you can successfully execute something within that short session, and
  • d) be sure to end any given practice session of a lick with a perfect slow rendition of the thing you’ve practiced.

All right, that’s a lot of stuff. A few more notes for the above:

a) nervous system. Some great piano documents talk about the primary role of the nervous system in piano playing, and having worked on it a bit for guitar I think it’s the case. Playing isn’t about muscles, it’s about your nervous system adapting, especially for “fast twitch” things like picking and fretting. For improvement to happen, your practice sessions need to present a clear picture to your nervous system about what you’re trying to do (I posted about this in this link ). If you’re working at something quite beyond your current abilities, this input might be really chaotic and disorganized. I’m not saying you need to aim lower :slight_smile: but you could try some adjustments.

Everything that follows is my suggestion only. My tone may come across as an order or command, but please modify everything I say to suit you; however, if you’re stuck, maybe trying something different is called for.

b) practice duration. In that same thread I mentioned practicing something for about 15 mins, and then coming back to it later the same day. This could be like “interleaved practice” as mentioned about, but you could also just take a break – get some water, clean your room, walk the dog – and come back to it. This is a good method because it lets you really work hard on something and really pay attention, and the short duration and break gives your nervous system time to process. Slaving away for hours at a lick is counterproductive: your nerves/brain are tire and won’t adapt. Practice anywhere from 5 to 15 mins, until you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but then stop and take that break! Don’t be “virtuous” and continue working, you might not be helping. Come back to it later that day if you want to continue. Also, during that 15 mins, take some micro breaks to think about what you’re doing, what you’ve done, where you’re going etc, it helps.

c) perfect execution. This one is tougher … you have to aim to play something perfectly within your 15 mins at least once, and ideally should play it perfectly a few times. This gives your brain and nervous system something to latch on to, so it can adapt during your rest periods.

I said “play something perfectly” and not “play the lick perfectly”, because often a single lick comprises several ideas. Something as “simple” as this:

--------------5-7-8-5-7-8-
--5-6-8-5-6-8-------------

has these challenges:

  • raw picking speed (tremelo)
  • raw fretting speed (fretting only, no picking)
  • fast picking of notes on a single string (e.g. “-5-6-8-”) - hand sync issues, raw picking and fretting speed, relaxation, timing
  • the goddam string change

If you’re playing a lick and falling apart in the middle of it (ranging from a total train wreck to small-seeming things like rhythmic inconsistences, or simply acquired mental or physical tension), then you might want to break it down further into components and work on those. e.g., there’s no reason to work on the full lick above at a given speed if you can’t pick the much simpler “-5-6-8-5-6-8-5-6-8-5-6-8-…” at a much higher speed with high rhythmic accuracy.

So, maybe analyze the full lick, see where your playing is falling apart, and see if that single issue can be isolated and worked on. Some things (like the string shift) are hard to work on in isolation, but if you perfect the other tihngs (picking, left hand, rhythm) you can focus on those. And play these little things perfectly :slight_smile: Keep pushing that tempo way up! Sloppy is ok while you’re working it out! But keep aiming for perfection of small bits, your brain will thank you.

(d) end with slow. After 15 mins of intense work, your nerves will be frazzled and your mind tired. It’s gotten a lot of confusing input. To ensure that it’s clear what you’ve been working on, play that thing you’ve worked on through slowly at least once, mimicking the motions you do at high speed if you can – i.e., don’t play it slowly with a completely different technique (this can be tough, depending on what you’re working on). This is like the “cool down” of a workout, but it’s more important for your nerves to help them organize. I hope you’d get a feeling of satisfaction with this, it’s supposed to be a fun relaxed wrap-up of your burst of hard work.

end-of-essay

I hope something of the above is useful for you, perhaps something resonates. Let me know how it goes! Cheers, jz

ps - I’ve been following my advice for a few days with an EJ hybrid picking lick and the results have been REALLY good. I’m also doing the above for the exact 3nps lick above, and it’s slightly more challenging due to the high tempo and string shift, but I had a recent thought I’m going to try out.

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I definitely think you can over practice and it’s easy too. Whenever I’m learning a new motion or trying to develop a new picking technique, I will randomly have a week or few days of playing where my brain and hands are just not synched up, and my playing is not good. Ive grown to like these periods because I always play much better following these weird, temporary periods. And above, note how I say these periods of crap playing are due to learning a new motion, but I don’t know that for sure. That’s just my guess. It could also be partially due to over practicing or just mental fatigue, or even not sleeping optimally. I’ve also noticed if you ears are tired, you don’t play as well. I wear ear plugs to protect my ears, but even the day/night after a rehearsal, I don’t always have the best practice or playing session and I think it’s because my ears are a bit “tired”; using quotes because scientifically I don’t know what’s happening there so take my words with a grain of salt :smiley:

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Thanks for the detailed answer man! I appreciate it. I’ll definitely try to go for the interval practicing and end with some slow perfect one’s. Funny I’m also working on EJ, just trying to get the cascading 6’s, somewhere close to where he plays them. Do you use a metronome when you practice at all? Or just keep going until it feels better?

Cheers and please do let me know how it goes. Such an approach may seem daunting/overkill, but having done it carefully for a few days it’s miles better for me. The short sessions are quite fun.

I do use a metronome, but not as a taskmaster :slight_smile: controlling my playing. I find that if it’s droning along in the background that it can make me tense, or worse, make me mindlessly repeat. So, for new motor skills, I’ll first work on a thing and generally try to get it as fast and loose as I can, and don’t worry about the metronome. Usually when I’m thinking about “fast and loose”, I try to get it really fast, because I’m working on a building block, and it’s simplified. E.g, I want to play the 3nps lick I mentioned about at 170 bpm, which is a good speed, so I’ll work on picking a single string “-5-6-8- …” at about 190 or 200. I’ll periodically check with the metronome to ensure that I’m hitting that speed – or sometimes I will leave it running quietly in the background.

When I start to work on the final lick (3nps, 2 strings), that’s a synthesis of everything up to that point, so the speeds will probably go down, and maybe by a lot. But then I’ll use the metronome, and push the tempo around. Still aiming for 170, I might play it at 90 bpm a few times, just to check motions and relaxation. Then I’ll jump around, really just playing around, experimenting for as long as I want at different speeds: 120, 150, 170, 190 (oh my lord), 150, 90, 150, etc. (bpms). The idea here is to keep testing and experimenting, ensuring I’m loose and engaged. Going for high speeds to see if things click, and if not, to find out why if I can. Going back to slow to allow my mind time to process and catch up. Going past speed to see what happens. Going way back down to ensure everything is still relaxed. But always pushing a bit at the top end, without sacrificing accuracy. Accuracy is super important!

I’ve started to keep a small notebook for this, writing down what I’ve done, what felt good, what I’ll do next time etc. Nothing formal. Lots of teachers recommend this – maybe try a piece of paper or something next to your guitar and see if it helps / motivates you.

Cheers! jz

I think so, I think a lot of it might be playing something with little focus over n over.
Might be fine for simple easy to preform things, but more complex things require extended foucus. I’ve practiced a few simple things mindlessly over n over and been ok, but the more intricate stuff just became sloppy over time as I couldn’t focus enough when playing it over n over

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Yeah you’ll hit a point of diminishing returns or even getting worse. Best to call it a session once improvement slows down.

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I feel @jzohrab pretty much covered what I would’ve said.

I find for myself that the cleanliness and speed of the lick, as I practice it will reach a peak, and then drop off significantly after.

Which, after that, I take a break from that lick, and work on something else.

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My two cents… yes you’ll need rest how often and how much differs from person to person.
And using a practice schedule is one of the things I learned from Jon Björk. I use a timer and metronome and I’ll get a “point” for every time I do the selected lick flawless for 10 minutes.
Limit your licks/phrases to 8.
I’ve done 18 and it’s 3 hours of concentrated work and my brain felt like mashed potatoes.

Haha me too :slight_smile:

There probably isn’t a golden rule about practicing… but if there was one I’d say it’s this: if it’s not working, you gotta change something about what you are doing.

When we repeat a lick a million times, and it keeps not getting better, chances are we are just repeating the wrong technique over and over again, without introducing any significant change. If anything we are increasing our risk of memorising the wrong movements, getting fatigued or even injured.

So yeah I think we should all try to recognise when we get stuck on something non-constructive and force ourselves to move on to something else.

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That sounds like a golden rule. :slight_smile: and a few more: pay attention to what’s happening, and be honest with yourself. End thread hijack! Z

Hey man, just giving you an update. Thanks for telling me about these concepts aha. I watched Troy’s interviews with the Julliard professor and the motor learning scientist and read a book called Make It Stick and have tried to incorporate these principles into my practice. I’m definitely seeing results. Right now I’ll practice 4 things at a time and set my timer for 24 minutes and do each one for two minutes. And then try and do that twice in a day, plus just some playing for fun. I think the timer really helps keep me focused. What really stood out to me was mistaking the performance effect for long-term learning, I was definitely doing that before. I wish I knew about this stuff 10 years ago lmao, but glad to know it now and excited to see where I’ll be several months from now. Thanks again man.

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Interesting, I saw a post about that on Reddit the other day. I’ve not read the book, but from the summary I read it appeared to be discussing learning / memorization rather than physical skills. Did it mention interleaved practice for physical skills, or was that from Troy’s interviews elsewhere (which I’ve also not seen)?

Great you’re seeing results! I find that 2 mins is too short for interleaved practice for me – it feels like I’m practicing, but at the end of the time nothing feels like it’s coming together. I must not be as adaptable as you. :stuck_out_tongue:

I think the “twice in one day” part is key – do you do those spread over a few hours? I’ve been doing sessions back-to-back, but my work in some things has been mostly exploratory rather than fine-tuning.

The timer is also super important – once you’ve hit a certain point, you’re not learning anything, your nervous system/brain has received the message to adapt. :slight_smile:

Do you keep a practice journal, even a simple one? I find that a few moments of reflection and jotting down notes, no matter how scratchy, seem to tie everything up nicely.

Cheers and have a good one! z

Oh yeah it mentions physical skills man. And so do the two interviews with the motor skills scientist and the Julliard guy (Noa something). You should defs check those out. And its funny you say two minutes isn’t enough because the professor actually talks about it being difficult and not having the feeling like you’ve got it. And because it feels harder for those two minutes it actually sticks better and you learn more. If you play it for eight minutes then your brain goes “this is easy” and it stops trying as much (kind of like being on autopilot) and so you don’t learn as well. Just something to try if you haven’t already tried it but everyone is also different too

So the concepts in the book are interleaved practice which we know. And then distributed practice, which is like spacing it out. The Julliard guy says 45 mins and then a 15 min break is what he does, but the book made it seem like the more you space it out in a day, the more beneficial because its harder for your brain to recall. And the harder something is for your brain to recall, the better it sticks. And the last concept was varied practice, so and example of that would be if you are learning an A minor lick, also practice it in G minor and C minor. So when I do my practice session, in one session I’m hitting each lick 3 times for two minutes. And each time I do it in a different scale. And its funny the book also talks about the journal and how reflection does help us learn better because it is a form of recall and anytime the brain has to work at recall you aid the process of conversion from short to long term memory. I’d definitely recommend watching the interview with the Juliliard guy.

Thanks for the recommendations. Can you put a link here? I’m not sure where to find them. (Likely Noa Kageyama, he has some things on YouTube)

Ah neat about the 2-minutes thing. Yeah I do sometimes overshoot the timer, and have to remind myself to stop!

Re spacing things out: yes, I use Anki for learning languages, spaced repetition is def. a thing for purely mental concepts. With Anki and other SRS (spaced rep. software), there’s a scheduling algorithm that handles when you should be tested on things. It works well, I’m just not sure how well that carries over to physical things. Though playing is much more a psychic/nervous process than a physical one, there’s a physical component as well – nerve fibers to the hand/fingers, tendon and muscle reactivity etc.

Cheers, hope to watch those interviews soon. z