Your practice schedule for acquiring new motor skills

Hi there, I thought it would be interesting and useful to know about some people’s practice habits when trying to acquire new motor skills.

For example, I’m working on a couple of speed things: picking fast sextuplets across strings because it’s useful, and an Eric Johnson hybrid picking lick because it’s fun. I don’t think it’s realistic to practice for an hour and expect results during that hour, because (for me) practicing a new movement is telling my brain and nervous system that it needs to adapt for this new requirement. The actual real improvement usually happens during rest periods. Some pianists call this a “Post-Practice Improvement”, or P.P.I., and I believe this idea is correct – I’m sure everyone’s had a day when they came to the instrument and everything just seemed to magically “click”.

For this improvement to occur, though, the stress on the nervous system needs to be very clearly put to the nervous system during the practice session. I imagine there is an optimal time frame that creates a clear picture for the mind and nervous system for the adaptation it needs to do. In the past, I’ve suggested that people practice a given motion for about 20 minutes – that number comes from a few different sources – but maybe you have a different number. Of course, everything is going to depend on thoughtful experimentation and observation by every individual player. Maybe that’s the best thing that we could define for ourselves and students: explain how to experiment and observe, and also define clear signs that people should look out for that indicate a productive practice session, that show that they have worked a technique to a sufficient point for their subconscious and nervous system to take over and synthesize all that input during breaks.

So, if you have any thoughts on acquiring new motor skills, I’d be super interested in stuff like:

  • When you are practicing a new thing – e.g., picking fast 2-note-per-string licks, hybrid picking, sextuplets across strings, whatever – what is your usual method of attack? (“I don’t know” is a fine answer too)
  • what kind of schedule do you set for yourself?
  • how long do you work at something each day, and how many times in a day? Do you hammer at something for hours, or just weave short experiments in and out of your day?
  • what leaves you happy at the end of each practice session, that motivates you for the next one?

Answering my own questions: I think that all players need to follow a fun and relaxed investigation, and really set short-term goals and record their results. Since playing fast is a fast nervous system activity, I’m going to try the following for both the fast sextuplets and the Eric J hybrid picking: for each, I’ll practice about 10 mins or so, aiming immediately for speed in short bursts, ensuring I’m calm and relaxed with full attention and engagement, and no accumulated tension… At the end of that duration, reflect on what I’ve done, and set the goal for the next one. I think each session needs a goal or feeling of accomplishment – even if it’s just ease at playing it slower. Then I’ll take a break – not sure how long is good just yet – and I’ll come back to it on the same day. I’ll do a few sets of this each day, and keep track of the goals and results. I don’t expect to see results across sessions in one day, but would expect to see some results or clarity after a few days.

(I’m happy to publicly post (google doc etc) my practice notes for these two items should it be helpful for anyone.)

Cheers! jz

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For me, I always have my guitar in arms reach, litaraly, from where I spend most my time. So I pick it up whenever, and that random picking up n putting down as I go about my day is really my routine. Any new skill I’m trying to learn just comes up randomly if its on my mind to play it.

So really I’ve no routine, it’s just part of my day. And as far as I know that is a good way to learn, making something part of your life, a habit.

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I tend to approach it in a couple ways, mostly just slow playing to get the fretting / picking down, then start to either ramp up the metronome, “chunk”, go all out sloppy… I try it when I get around to playing guitar, which nowadays is maybe every day or every other day, if I’m not feeling it I could go a month without playing or more. I can work in increments as small as a few minutes, max out at about the hour or 2 mark. I tend to judge improvement based on how it sounds and my perceived effort.

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Hearing my playing with new qualities or reach. I tend to oscillate between frustration and elation. 80% of the time it’s somewhere inbetween.

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Good post, will be following. I think you are on the right track. I’m still in the early going and still need to put together some short videos for a technique critique.

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