A few years ago, the brilliant math rocker Yvette Young shared a small video talking about how she likes to practice guitar.
Essentially, Yvette gives three pieces of advice that I’ve broken down in the following order:
- Chunk (break) larger pieces of music down into smaller Sections and Transitions
- Practice only one thing at a time until you’ve nailed it
- Practice slowly before you practice quickly
1. Chunk it Down – Sections and Transitions
When practising something new, Yvette likes to chunk (break) the music she’s learning down into smaller sections and transitions.
“Another way that I like to practice efficiently is to chunk larger sections into smaller sections. Sometimes when you’re practising something that’s technically demanding or demanding in terms of just how much content you have to get through, it may seem really daunting at first. I think the best way to approach it is to just divide it into little sections, and practice each section individually, and then practice the transitions in between the sections.”
To be clear, a section is a smaller piece of the music. Strumming through a D chord can be seen as a Section. Strumming through a Bm chord could also be seen as a Section.
A Transition is moving between two sections. Changing between the D chord and the Bm chord is a Transition.
Breaking larger pieces of music down like this makes heaps of sense. As Yvette says, larger pieces of music can seem daunting and overwhelming, but smaller sections and transitions are much more manageable and appealing to learn. Smaller pieces of the music also give us very direct goals to focus on. This leads us to:
2. Focus on One Thing at a Time
After breaking a large piece of music down into smaller sections and transitions, Yvette then focuses on learning ONLY one section or transition at a time. She does this by imagining each section and transition as a level on a video game:
“Not to mention, chunking (breaking things down) is just really fun. Cause to me I treat it like video game or something, where each little part is a level. And um, if I complete the first level, I’m allowed to move to the second level. And I have to like, basically go through all the levels, and that’s how I know I’ve like, completed the game.”
Just like a video game, Yvette works only on one section/transition (level) at a time, and only moves on to the next once she’s comfortably able to play the one she’s currently working on. This approach forces her to focus more energy less stuff. When she focuses more energy on less stuff, I believe Yvette sees quicker positive results than if she were focussing on lots of different things all at the same time. It makes sense – if we practice one thing one hundred times, we’re going to see improvement on that one thing. But If we practice 50 different things, two times each, we won’t see that much improvement. A narrow focus is a powerful learning tool.
3. Slowwww Down!
When Yvette begins practising a new section or transition, she starts off at extremely slow speeds:
“I’ll start out practicing something I find difficult, slowly – like painstakingly slow.”
She goes on to say that this can be pretty tedious at times, but it’s an approach that guarantees results:
“It seems like a really tedious, slow way to work, but it’s guaranteed to install consistency in your playing so you’ll be able to nail it every time and not worry that you’re gonna mess up.”
“True Mastery occurs when you can play something at both a really slow speed and a really fast speed. And sometimes you get stuck practising something really fast, and when you slow it down you realise just how sloppy you are at it.”
“I think when you play quickly, you’re allowed to just kind of breeze over some details, and you can just fudge some stuff. But when you slow it down you’re really forced to confront every note, and um, the quality of every note too.”
Most of us are guilty of practising new things too fast too soon in a bid to get the music to sound like it should sooner rather than later. But practising too quickly too soon causes consistent errors that end up in our muscle memory. Errors in our muscle memory end up in our playing.
To avoid errors, Yvette starts out by practising at “painstakingly slow” speeds. This works because slower speeds give her brain and fingers more time to make the correct technical movements required to play the music right.
Slowing down also gives her the opportunity to see her errors clearly. Slow practice brings all her flaws to light and allows her the opportunity to fix them and practice them correctly.
To help her practise slowly and master various speeds, Yvette uses a metronome. She first fires it up at a very slow speed, and then practices one section or transition at this very slow speed over and over until she feels extremely comfortable with it. Until she can play it ten times in a row. Only then does she increase the speed (by around 20bpm) where she’ll go through the same process again:
“And I won’t move on to the next speed until I’m comfortable playing in one speed, and then maybe I’ll tack on 20bpm. And I’ll just keep on increasing it until I can successfully play something ten times in a row, perfectly at that speed.”
A metronome is great for helping us play in time and for measuring our current speed. But it’s also super useful for helping us play slower and to ensure we’re consistently practising at one specific speed. We all have a natural inclination to speed up too soon when we first learn new things, but set slow, the metronome helps us stay slow and really master the correct movements until we’re ready to speed up.
Final Thoughts – Why This Method Works
Sections And Transitions
Breaking music down into smaller sections and transitions helps us feel more optimistic about learning the piece as a whole rather than feeling overwhelmed.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Practising one section or transition at a time helps us see progress quicker than if we were spreading our efforts too thinly over the whole thing. This is motivating. Motivation is good.
Practising smaller sections and transitions also helps us identify tricky points in the music that we might not have spotted beforehand. Tricky points are usually the Transitions.
Smaller sections and transitions are also very clear and precise goals.
Practising at slower speeds highlights all our errors, which are sometimes hidden when we play quickly.
Practising at slower speeds also gives our fingers the extra time they need to make and ingrain the correct movements into our playing and muscle memory.
The metronome is a great device to help us practise at various speeds, starting out slowly.
Thanks for the advice, Yvette.
- Quotes taken from video by JamPlay