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This might seem like a strange question. I've read a lot of books about deliberate practice and the history of music pedagogy, and I'm still a bit puzzled by this:

How do I get more consistent?

For example: On the guitar when my thumb needs to hop up, say, two strings, I often miss the string I'm trying to play. Let's say, for argument's sake, that I miss it 5% of the time. I can physically do the thing, but whether I'm playing fast or slow, I miss just enough that I'm a sloppy player. Repeating this action over and over does not seem to help because I'm just repeating an action which is wrong 5% of the time.

I would very much appreciate advice or leads on this. I have been playing for 20 years, and I'm starting to wonder what my fundamental problem is.

EDIT:

Wanted to add some more here, to clarify: I don't want to get hung up on the specific example I'm using here. I'm more wanting to have an approach to combat the sloppiness which comes for inconsistency.

It will show up even in boiled-down exercises I'm doing for the purpose of trying to get more consistent. It is particularly frustrating when I'm doing a basic exercise like plucking open strings with index and middle and asking my thumb to hop over a string or two. This could just be an exercise where my other fingers are plucking strings that they almost cannot miss, because they are hovering over them the whole time, but my thumb is hopping between two or three strings. The thumb misses enough that it's sloppy, even if I play slowly. The thumb thing is just an example. It could be a chord shape or something else, but the example with the thumb is just such a distilled example of what I'm talking about. Even if I practice slowly, I still miss a bunch, and I am aware that I'm practicing missing a bunch. Maybe the answer is I have to look at my fingers for a while and then wean myself off? (Presuming you can't miss while you're watching your hands.) Sigh.

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  • Are you talking about fingerpicking? May 21, 2022 at 3:15
  • Have you tried memorizing the look and feel of the guitar and your body? Have you tried looking in a mirror or recording yourself to see what happens when you make the mistake? I usually "cheat" a bit and keep the arm and some fingers in a known position (usually resting on a unused string) but that might not work for more advanced playing.
    – Emil
    May 21, 2022 at 6:39

3 Answers 3

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Playing something in time - but slowly - enough so you don't make any errors is one oft-used ploy. It will sound ridiculous (both the concept and the execution), but it is the one that works best for most. Then gradually speed up, using a metronome helps, until it's at a good speed. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 10 weeks, but it works!

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Here's how I was taught to train a Suzuki student to re-engrain a different habit at a particular spot in a piece. (I was the parent coach.)

I made a little stop and go sign with a popsicle stick, red and green construction paper, scissors, and Elmer's glue. You won't have to do this, as you are an adult, but I think it will help if you can picture how this technique worked with a child. One side was an octagonal red stop sign (no need to write the word "stop" -- the color and shape said it all), and the other side was green.

Let's say the child is supposed to lift the bow and reposition it at the beginning of bar 24. Around the middle of bar 23, I would twirl the stick so the red side was facing the child. He was supposed to freeze -- stop playing. Initially I would give him a short reminder -- either verbal or with some pantomime or abbreviated sign -- and after a moment, I would rotate the stick to show the green again and he would pick up where he left off, or at the beginning of bar 23 -- wherever was more comfortable -- but he would have the plan for the new way present in his mind. It worked like a charm, as long as I made sure to hold up the stop sign in time, and made sure he didn't charge ahead. It usually took about 5 days for the retraining. Towards the end, I didn't have to hold up the stop sign -- but I would give the sign to remind his mind to plan ahead for the special spot. After another few days he wouldn't need that any more.

So, for an adult, first you might have to practice with a mirror -- adjust it so you can't see your face, which could be distracting -- to analyze/figure out what goes wrong technically when you miss the thumb hop or whatever. That will enable you to make your plan. You can use little bits of post-it to mark the place you should stop and remember your plan.

When you're in the polishing stage with a piece, sit someone down to listen to you perform it -- do your bow before and after playing, as in an actual recital -- and perhaps record yourself. Even if you don't record yourself, you can sit comfortably afterwards and play it back in your head. Write down a list of things you'd like to do better, and use that list to organize your practice in the next few days. My teacher in college said that we have to practice in such a way that we land the tough spots 100% of the time, because if we only land one 95% of the time, it's quite possible we'll miss it in a performance because of the adrenaline.

Also note that when the adrenaline is going, you'll be playing more expressively, but you'll have less control over what your fingers, etc., are doing, so it's helpful to learn how to keep your rational, planning "manager" still active while you're going with the adrenaline. If your manager is too in control, your performance could sound clinical -- so aim for your manager to have sort of 5-10% of your brain while you're letting the rest have fun with the music.

It can be helpful to do some repertoire work every day (or most days) of pieces that you have worked up to your satisfaction. The reason for this is, we tend to forget things rather quickly. It will be good for your self-esteem to keep well played pieces in repertoire. The trick, to avoid repertoire work taking over your practice time, is to cycle through the repertoire pieces.

If you don't have a repertoire of well-played pieces yet, it's okay to use pieces that are too easy for you temporarily.

It's also a good idea to have the piece memorized by the time you start polishing (if not sooner). Among other reasons, it will free you up to check the mirror.

A fun thing to do when you're in the polishing stage is to play the piece in your mental ear and think of ways to add more drama and effects, e.g. changes in timbre, dynamics, choreography such as a far-away look towards the left, etc., etc.

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Tim's solution talks about, probably, the most important point, and an indispensable one, to achieve this quality. As aparente001 and Emil propose, it would be useful to use a mirror or something like that. I just wanted to add some other tips that might be helpful for your specific case and summarize all information reported.

  • Set starting comfortable speed to play it slow and perfect. Check for the first time the exercise/passage very slow, as much as you require to make it sound perfect and with no errors, during, let's say, 10 iterations. It doesn't matter if you think the speed is too slow, don't bother, you are setting a starting point, everyone of us needs it.

  • Prepare yourself to speed up gradually. Once you have the starting speed, you could try practicing, in first place, 75 percent of your total time at this tempo, and then 25 percent increasing the speed slightly, this way you force yourself to make it perfect at a comfortable speed, and prepare yourself to the next move. If you feel absolutely sure that you are not going to fail at the starting speed, then you should proceed to speed up both.

  • Isolate problems with stand-alone exercises. If the passage is too hard for you, or you consider that you find it difficult to check both hands, or even control multiple targets/problems during practice, you could divide that passage in as many problems you encounter. For example: let's suppose thumb is not playing the right string, the rest of the fingers are a bit slow and the left hand is not properly positioned during a chord, then you could start with 3 exercises, each of them focused on solve a specific problem, one to train the thumb and win fluency, another to improve coordination with other fingers, and one more to ensure your position with chords. As you advance and feel comfortable, you should try mixing exercises and techniques (remember to make it slowly and step by step).

  • Elaborate simple exercises to focus on an individual problem. Any of this technique exercises should be oriented to skill acquisition in the current problem you try to solve, and it means any other movement you are doing around should be learned before, and must be very easy for you to accomplish at the speed you are practicing. For example, if you practice with you thumb, focus on this finger, the rest of the finger could start in a passive position, and the left hand could be placed in a loose position, or just using simple or easy fingering. This way, you could focus efforts on the problem itself, regardless other issues. Of course, add some difficulty and skill to each exercise gradually, as long as you make it clear and good enough.

  • Take care of what you are doing wrong and how to improve. At this point, the comment you made might be useful. As you are trying to focus on a particular problem, it should help you to understand and will help you in this step-wise approach, to take look at you position and fingers and take care of what you are really doing, how are you attacking the strings, and what could be the problem each time you miss. As suggested before, a mirror, or even a web camera can help support you. You could realize now how much it helps for this subject to practice simple stand-alone exercises slowly :)

  • For any of the exercises try to release tension, feel relaxed, and for your specific case, it also would be helpful to practice keeping fingers on the right hand close to the strings, avoiding contact, but coordinating them to anticipate the next move, so you are able to play the string as soon as possible.

Hope it helps.

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