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This is not your average "which book to learn from" question. I'll post my research and background in as much detail as possible (since this could potentially help others with similar question).

I've been playing guitar for over 2 years and began piano at the end of last year.

I did go for lessons for the guitar at a local institute when I began. We used Mel Bay's Modern Method for Guitar Grade I. It was a 3 months course, and I accomplished more than what I could learning alone. I also subsequently did well on Trinity Grade I.

The way we worked through the pieces was to start practicing a piece, and demonstrate the piece to the teacher when you could play it fairly in time. It needn't be perfect. After completion of the Primer book my instructor told me to go back and try playing the starting pieces. I couldn't believe how easy they now were, even though I had never practiced them for a long time.

In short, going to an institute was a boon, since I progressed rapidly. However, it was not just about having an instructor. My institute had many teachers there, being available at different times. Also, my timings were flexible. A single instructor never taught me. So, an instructor knowing my strengths and weaknesses and guiding me through it is out of question. But still I improved.

Now lets get to self-learning. I've been pondering over Berklee's Modern Method for Guitar Vol 1 (for the last 1 year). The book mentions regular review, and to never get stuck on a single piece. But how do I know how much of a piece to practice initially? When do I move on to the next piece? When should I come back and review?

I find this question more important than what exact book to follow. Any experienced folks who can suggest something? In short, I'm asking a very theoretical question of "how to learn" and "how to maintain a learning path."

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Some people say it's important that you are always challenging yourself. So, if you are bored with a piece, you may want to try another more difficult one. But you also should come back to it, and learn to build the patience to play a piece EVEN when you are bored... –  elias Aug 11 '12 at 2:35
    
@eljunior +1 . Really important concept –  Chiron Aug 19 '12 at 22:41

5 Answers 5

I find that many musical faults of my own are magically revealed when I attempt to play a slice of music SLOW, and it's nowhere near my expectations.

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There are a number of ways in which self-study differs from instruction from a teacher. You must "teach yourself" the material. So you must learn the new terms and concepts, and then switch gears and act as a drill sergeant until the technique has been fully incorporated.

Some rules of thumb suggest themselves.

  • Don't Skim. The word you skip may be the very word you vitally need to understand the surrounding sentence or paragraph.

  • When finalizing a piece, make sure you've accounted for all the marks on the page. I have frequently found, in pieces I've played 1000 times, "Oh, there's mf there! I never saw that before!"

[I'm making this CW, because it's far from complete. Please add to the prose as well as the rules. (I know, rules are more fun. But: balance!) -droog]

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I agree! Self police-ing! –  Rene Marcelo Aug 19 '12 at 1:37

Here's some food for thought...

It can help to learn new practice techniques. Are you practicing these pieces from beginning to end each time? Maybe mix it up. Here are some ideas:

  • Practice slowly. Really exaggerate this. Practicing is largely about muscle memory and the only way to get that is by taking your time.
  • Record yourself and then take a break from practicing, take a drive or something and listen to the recording. The things you need to work on may become more obvious then when you're in the middle of practicing.
  • Practice whatever piece you're working on backwards and a measure (or phrase) at a time.
  • Work through specific phrases both forwards and backwards.
  • Use a metronome. Force yourself to go slow.
  • Find a peer or more ideally a musical mentor you who can talk to about your practice who will give you an honest assessment of your progress.

Last piece of advice, in the practice room, don't worry about just sounding good. If you sound good in the practice room all the time, you're probably doing something wrong. The practice room is the place to fail and learn from those failures and keep pushing yourself. Not just to master something and move on.

A lot of this may be information you already know, but it can help to hear it again.

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I do backward too :) –  Tom Aug 25 '12 at 16:34

Perhaps there is a 'best practice' (no pun intended) for learning in terms of cognitive science1, but I don't know of any such studies regarding music.
In lack of such knowledge I believe it depends on your goals and motives for playing, as well as your personality (such as if you are impatient or stubborn etc). Further, different people learn best in different ways. (Compare to how some prefer reading about a new topic, while others prefer a verbal or visual explanation etc.)

However if your motive is mainly one of having fun with music and you don't want to risk getting stuck in one place (/piece) then here is a suggestion (in part based on my experience):

How do I know how much of a piece to practice initially?
As much as you can get down fairly well in 2-3 practice sessions. When you've practiced all parts, work on assembling them.

When do I move on to the next piece?
In order to keep moving in a steady pace, without giving up too much quality, a good time to move on is when you feel that you can play a piece without major embarrassment (i.e. in time and without too many noticeable errors etc) in front of people in your household or a good friend.
However, make sure to put in some extra effort whenever you encounter new technical, or other, challenges that you believe will be helpful in the future to have mastered.
If you for some reason get stuck and/or start to loose motivation when practicing a piece, by all means move on and come back later when you feel like it. By then maybe the road block is gone, or you can attack things with new perspectives.

When should I come back and review?
Do a review after you've mastered the next piece, and one after an additional 4-6 pieces. And perhaps after a semester or year if you feel like it. This will help establishing what you've learned hopefully without stopping further progress too much.

1 At least it would make an interesting topic to study.

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But how do I know how much of a piece to practice initially? When do I move on to the next piece? When should I come back and review?

well, ideally you have a teacher to answer these questions :) But, I guess you don't.

So it's really ALL up to you as far as the pace you learn at and how well YOU want to have it "down". Actually, even WITH a teacher, there are things that you want to learn about music outside of EXACTLY what she's teaching you. The difference is, you can always ask a teacher and they might know. You already know that YOU don't know the answer :)

The only answer for this question is "just do your best"...

You'll go down some blind alleys and learn some things just plain WRONG and waste some time and all the usual things that go on when you're not coached and guided by an expert. But you'll be further along than you were before.

People learn at different rates and levels. It depends more on you than the book.

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