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I am a semi beginner, I've had guitars for 45 years but never took it serious until a year ago. (I use deliberate practice every day, very little goofing off)

I need some advice on when to add new material and when to try and be perfect with what I am practicing now.

I tend to practice the same stuff over and over, because I can never get it perfect. But I know that adding new things to my practice also makes some of those other things better. But - that takes away from the time I should be perfecting what I do know.

Sometimes I let one thing go to do another and then when I get back to it in a week or two I've digressed. It's sort of a catch-22. But I feel others have mastered this so I'm asking for some advice.

  • As a quick side note, whenever I lose motivation to practice certain songs, I try to find new songs to spark my interest. Then later, I'll eventually come back to all of them. Plus, it broadens one's horizons. – user45266 Apr 11 at 17:39
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It appears to be a classic case of the material is a little out of your reach at the moment. There's nothing much wrong with stretching one's playing, but if you've just bought some skis, you don't head for the black slopes!

Often, by making tiny steps, big steps develop subtly. Take pieces that are not so far beyond your capabilities today, and, if you must, get them perfect. I say this, as I have a tendency to get a piece o.k., probably not perfect (what's that anyway?), and then mess about with it. Maybe play it faster, slower, in a different key, change parts, play and miss out a couple of bars (as rests), so I know I know the ins and outs of the piece. For me playing it note-perfect isn't the objective. It's to understand the piece, not to be able to play it verbatim.

And maybe that's a stumbling block for you. You feel that you must play it perfectly. I don't see music like that - if it's slightly different next time, but still good, so what? I sometimes play with those who must do it exactly the same every time. There's a great lack of inspiration that comes out.

It's almost impossible to say spend so long doing this/that etc. Hence maybe an odd answer.

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It's impossible to give meaningful advice on when to add new material without knowing the level of material you are playing and how much time you are devoting to practice. That said there are ways to avoid losing what you have developed and avoiding the law of diminishing returns. This is why lessons with a qualified instructor is a good idea. Someone else watching over your progress will be able to tell when you have had enough of one thing and could use a push with something else.

Based on my experience:

When it comes to basic technique it's a good idea to have a basic set of exercises that cover the spectrum. That way nothing gets stale. Some will say that playing a song you like is good enough for keeping your chops active but I would strongly disagree with that. Especially as a professional working musician you cannot afford to pick and choose you gigs. You need to be on regardless of the type of music. You can change the specific types of exercises you are doing for variety and that is very important. Just playing one scale exercise every day for 20 years won't get you anywhere and that scale won't get better after a certain point. But cycling through several 100 exercises, say 5 a week, will introduce novelty and keep your muscles and nerves active.

Always have some performance piece to work on. The point of learning guitar is to play music so you need that as a motive. Depending on what style you like that could be classical pieces, Zeppelin, Yngwie, you decide. With respect to this I would recommend picking a song you really want to learn but doesn't sound ridiculously hard. I usually give adult "beginners" Melissa by Allman Brothers or something similar after the first lesson or two. It's a nice song, melodic, and easy enough to get with a few weeks of practice. I would not give that to a small child who has never tried to form a chord or an adult beginner that is having trouble with basics. You also have some simple yet beautiful pentatonic licks. You spend as much time on perfecting it as you like. When it comes to rock, blues, jazz... most contemporary styles, most people are not interested in getting note for note perfect. Once you can play along with the recording it might be time to move on.

If you are trying to learn I would stick to one thing for a while until you are very good at it. I can't say how long that will take. No one can. But once you are an intermediate player you should be able to work through a set of 10 songs or so each day. It will take time to get there. As for changing songs at that level I would say when you are bored of one move on. That depends on what you are doing. If you're playing with a group the group will determine where you spend your time.

If your interest is in improv then you first need to play, get your chops sharp, and learn the basics. Then I'd spend more time on being creative, writing and soloing over backing tracks. In that case every day is "different". This is where I spend most of my time. But to get there I needed to (1) learn how to play the way I wanted to, (2) learn what I'm doing (ear development, music theory), (3) learn what other do (classic tunes, basic changes and licks). And to maintain skills the basics always need repeating.

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You are describing a situation very similar to my own, but I'm practicing piano. I'm teaching myself so I think a lot about exactly what I'm doing with my practice. So I sympathize with your situation.

About perfectionism. It may be better to have a notion of objectives and goals where objectives are specific, achievable things you can check off a list as done, but goals are unobtainable points, ideals that can never be reached.

Perfect can be a goal. But perfect doesn't exist. It's an ideal you strive toward, but never reach. It's the impetus that makes us keep working. Keep that in mind and don't get hung up on it. Certainly it won't be helpful to repeat a practice pattern over and over and over until it's "perfect."

Create specific objectives to reach for whatever you work on before moving on to the next thing. There are many ways to set those objectives. Probably the simplest is time. Work on pattern X for one week, then move on. You could set a more technical, musical goal. Practice until you can play a pattern in all 12 major keys, or practice until you can play something at a certain tempo.

I think it's important to deliberately include contrasting material in practice time that differs for the main focus.

If you are working on chord based material, include something else like a scale pattern. First, it will give you some mental relief from playing too much of the same thing. But, it's also important to sort of "forget" the main material just briefly and then return to it with some freshness. I think there is a psychology of memory aspect with this where your brain needs some "inactive" time to "process" what you have been practicing. I've read recently about how a lot of memory processing happen when we sleep. It may seem like inactive time, but your brain is actually working to process recent events. You can also compare it to exam cramming. If the only way to do it is cram and exclude everything else, you haven't really learned the material. A process of leaving and returning to material is necessary to really learn.

Along similar lines I think it's nice to have a stock set of pattern to play all the time or that you bring back with regularity. It gives you a break from the current material and keeps you solid on fundamentals. For example I try to include classical cadences in all keys for most of my sessions. From time to time I bring back finger independence exercises.

Work on things that are not familiar. This gets back to the notion of perfectionism. Little is gain by spending time with what you know. You have to constantly seek out the things you don't know. This will expand your horizons and challenge you to adapt. Trying to "perfect" one thing won't really take you to anywhere new.

Try to take a new approach with the familiar so you can expand the knowledge you already have. A lot can be done with familiar patterns by changing up the basic musical parameters. Change ascending patterns to descending. Change the meter - usually you can do this by with small rhythm adjustments. If a rhythm is even, change it to uneven, dotted rhythm. Change block chords to broken chords. A personal favorite is to take a practice pattern and then elaborate on it to make a 4 to 8 bar phrase. You can go on and on with how to vary material. The point is to focus on the creative aspect of varying familiar ideas rather than perfectionism.

...when to add new material..?

  • My basic objective is to have two practice sessions every day, once before I go to work, and again when I come home. Each session is about 30-60 minutes. I make up all my patterns on my own.
  • I typically change up the principle pattern about once per week, but I never really play the exact pattern every single day. I'm always doing some small variation. But I deliberately change the principle material roughly each week.
  • I try to set an over arching goal that will require a few months to complete. For example, I identified meter and counting as a weak point to improve. I realized a whole series of exercises will be necessary to work on these skill: playing to a metronome, counting aloud, tempo changes, various rhythms and meters, changing hands and using a variety of musical figures. I don't work out all those details all at once in the beginning, but have some notion of how big the endeavor will be and I mentally block out a period of months that needs to be devoted to the pursuit.

Each person will approach things differently, because they will have different goals. But this gives you an idea of my approach and how I think about changing material on daily, weekly, and monthly levels.

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Addressing the "perfect" part mostly. You can't get everything perfect in a few weeks, some pieces might take years of practicing to make perfect! Don't let that discourage you. What I'd suggest is to keep on practicing.

You won't see a difference immediately, but if you practice efficiently, it'll be there, without you noticing. Keep practicing pieces that are difficult for you and after some time when you get back practicing them, you'll see that you'll be playing them better.

Also, you should define "perfect". Are you planning on recording the pieces? Are planning on performing them live? If not, then you shouldn't beat yourself up just because you cannot perform them at 100%. 80-90% is still pretty good and you get stuff from that kind of practice.

Another good advice is to find some kind of method for studying. You need some kind of balance in the difficulty of your pieces. Don't play really hard pieces for you when you could get more stuff from intermediate ones. Focus on stuff you aren't so good at at the pieces you're playing and see how you can develop your technique from those and slowly move on to more difficult pieces. There are numerous exercises and etudes that will help you develop your technique that you might find boring and/or easy for you, but are actually quit insightful.

  • Very good point about 'perfect'. I consider it's only applicable in an exam situation. – Tim Apr 10 at 9:07

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