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Over the years I've noticed something very strange about myself.

I've noticed that if I practice, let's say scales, for little time maybe 5 minutes. If I were to keep going, I tend to just mess up more as I keep going opposed to when I started.

Then if I were to take a break and start again. I knock out the scales on the first try then start to decline again as I keep going just like before.

Everyone says practice makes perfect but with me it seems to be the complete opposite. Is there some kind of explanation to this phenomena? Because it really confuses me till this day and I noticed it years ago.

I play guitar.

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    Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/4426/… – leonbloy Jan 8 '18 at 0:34
  • Jeff Beck, apparently, never practices. The only time he plays a guitar is when he's performing or recording. Other than that, he never plays. So I would say you're sort of right in your idea. – mickburkejnr Jan 8 '18 at 9:20
  • "Everyone says practice makes perfect" - I believed this for a long time until someone pointed out that "practice makes permanent". It made me look at how I was practicing and helped me hugely. – markdwhite Jan 29 '18 at 10:19
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I have 2 conflicting theories - either could be correct, with perhaps no way to know for certain.

  1. You get bored & stop paying attention properly.

  2. You're over-thinking & getting performance anxiety.

Without ever knowing which theory is correct, try instead playing along to something you like. Best test would be if you can find the live 20-minute version, rather than playing round & round the same 3-minute track.

See if you can improvise or play relevant scales for that entire 20 minutes, without getting worse. Chances are, the excitement in the track itself may keep your attention in the right zone.

  • I thought #2 would be a possibility too but when I play along with songs, I do get better. Which I guess would be because I'm playing something I like. – xR34P3Rx Jan 7 '18 at 17:36
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    Would sound like it proves to some extent that one of them may be on the right lines... though as I said, we may never know which ;) – Tetsujin Jan 7 '18 at 17:39
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    Guess I should find a different way to practice then – xR34P3Rx Jan 7 '18 at 17:40
  • Another option, especially if the asker doesn't play much, is fatigue. In which case more practice is required to build endurance at which point this phenomenon will disappear over time. – Shadow Jan 8 '18 at 1:44
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    @xR34P3Rx - a different way to practice you should work hard to nail your scales. BUT - give yourself a reward when you're done: Play some songs that you enjoy, or just hang loose and play what you feel like. Practice your scales first and don't let yourself loose until you accomplish what you need to with your scales and other technical points and exercises: Give yourself an incentive to do the grunt work - something to help you stay focused. This works - at least for me. – Stinkfoot Jan 8 '18 at 5:22
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Each of us has a most productive way of learning things - some see and do, others need to understand every nuance, others... and it's the same with practising to get those skills honed. No-one is born knowing these things, or how to do them effectively.

So, we have to experiment using loads of different strategies till we find one that suits us best. A great teacher will discuss options and possibilities, so cutting down on wasted time. Sounds like for you, short sharp bursts work better. Other players might need to sit for a whole hour, and go over and over a certain thing until they're happy with it. I may play something a hundred times, until I can't get it wrong, but that's me, and obviously isn't a good practice regime for you. Short bursts work, and maybe you could fit in 4 or 5 each day. Probably easier than trying to shoehorn an hours practice into a busy day, all at one sitting.

Practice may make perfect, but unless that practice itself is effective, it probably won't. And who says we all need to do 30 mins/ 1 hr./ 2hrs practice a day? Having said that, concert players might practise for 8hrs a day, and you'd think at that level, they'd be o.k. hardly doing any! Quite the opposite!

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If you're practicing scales primarily to advance to a higher degree of technical skill (speed, precision, note definition), perhaps to augment mastery of specific pieces or genres, I don't have any special advice (given all the advanced players out there).

If you're practicing scales as part of a larger goal of advancing your musicality, I suggest that as soon as you notice yourself getting sloppy, try to transition to a more of a composer/improviser mental state, and try to make up little melodies in the scale, making generous use of mixing long and short duration notes and pauses. So, less emphasis on muscle control, and more on "story-telling"; you may find you are internalizing the scales in ways that are surprising and satisfying.

  • Thanks! I actually was trying this earlier today while practicing – xR34P3Rx Jan 8 '18 at 1:33
  • On banjohangout.org there's a group where we talk about practice techniques. I've quoted part of this answer there – Wayne Conrad Jan 8 '18 at 15:52
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Tetsujin has already given a fine answer with two potential causes. A third possible cause might be muscle fatigue/cramping. When one plays with too much tension, the muscles fail to relax regularly, and they instead remain contracted for longer periods of time. This causes cramping/fatigue, which inhibits finger and arm movement. Taking a short break relieves that tension and allows the muscles to relax again, making one's playing more fluid and more effortless. This fits the description in your question: you've said it's easier to play immediately after taking a short break. But as you practice longer, the difficulty returns.

There are a lot of things that can cause one to play with too much tension: holding the pick incorrectly, leaning over too much, etc. (For more guidance on pitfalls to avoid, check out this video.) In general, the fingers are slightly curved when relaxed. There are a few different muscles that contract when the fingers straighten. Like Tetsujin said, without more information it'll be hard to know exactly what's happening in your case, but this could be another possible explanation.

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    I think I'm pretty good with my positions when it comes to holding the guitar and pick. Only thing is that normally people say that you should place your fingers in the fretboard at an angle so you have more control over them. 1) I used to play piano before this so my fingers can extend pretty wide as it is. 2) my hands are big to begin with so this "proper position" actually affects me. So depending on what I'm playing, my fingers are perpendicular to the fretboard. But I also keep them at an angle when I can. – xR34P3Rx Jan 7 '18 at 21:21
  • Muscle fatigue is generally noticeable - you feel it - but the question doesn't seem to reflect that. – Stinkfoot Jan 8 '18 at 5:26
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    @Stinkfoot, he says it's easier to play immediately after taking a break. But then it gets harder to play as he gets deeper into his practicing. This is characteristic of playing with too much tension. The muscles cramp up while playing and fail to relax. Short breaks relieve that tension and allow the muscles to relax again, which makes the playing easier and more fluid. That's all I meant by "muscle fatigue" (something short term). Feel free to suggest a different word. – jdjazz Jan 8 '18 at 16:23
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    @xR34P3Rx, that makes sense. This may not be the cause, but something to pay attention to is whether your fingers feel relaxed on the fretboard. As a test, perhaps place your hand on the fretboard in the most relaxed position possible, and then check to see if that's how you hold your fingers when playing. The fingers, when relaxed, have some curvature to them. Straightening the fingers requires a few different muscles to contract. – jdjazz Jan 8 '18 at 16:38
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I have noticed the same kind of thing for me when I practice my scales, but I figure I should keep working towards being able to play through the scale as many times as I could, each time trying to achieve a higher number of accurate repetitions, in hopes of increasing my muscle memory and having my fingers land on the intended note every time without mistakes. However, extended periods of working on tedious things like scales can be counter productive, so I limit myself to about a 20 minute session and then take a break, or switch study topics to any thing more interesting. Also I count my repetitions and I've noticed that things start to improve for me around the 25 mark, I just figure my brain is getting the message around this point, but that's just my thing.

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