Balance Work & Play While Practicing

 by Dennis Winge

Let’s face it, humans aren’t machines.  You can’t force yourself to do a rigid all-work-and-no-play practice routine for very long.  Believe me, I have tried.  You might be able to do it for an hour or a day or a week, but at some point it will break down.

I do recommend taking stock of what you need to work on, and developing this skill on your own is not nearly as easy as having a teacher to do it for you.  But if you insist on trying to do it yourself, one idea is to simply record yourself gigging, jamming, or practicing, and then not listening to it right away.  Come back after a few weeks when you can listen objectively and then make a list of what you like and don’t like.

Once you have identified what you need to work on, decide in advance how much of your overall time spent at home on the instrument will be spent on practicing what you need to work on, and how much will be spent just playing.  Other teachers may disagree with me on this, but I am actually recommending that a portion of your ‘practice’ time should be goofing off, noodling, exploring, playing, or whatever you choose to call it.

We are right-brain and left-brain creatures.  We are into problem-solving some of the time, and just exploring or enjoying the sounds that our instruments make some of the time.  (By the way the easiest way to remember which side is which is focus on the fact that the sides of the brain go opposite the hands, i.e. someone who is “lefty” have traditionally been called more creative than usual, or at least less conventional, and the left hand goes to the right brain.  Thus the right brain is the creative side and the left brain is the logical side.) 

Getting back to practicing, I suppose you could classify virtually all activities into 2 categories.  Here are some that come to mind:

Right-brain activities Left-brain activities
Improvisation Sight-reading
Songwriting Technique
Rhythm guitar “comping” Transposing
Jamming / playing favorite songs Music Theory

See if you can add to the list based on your own practice routine and see which category each one falls into.

Then, simply balance it on a weekly basis.  Some days you may be feeling more ready for logical tasks than others.  I know personally if I am short on sleep, or emotionally charged (either positively or negatively) then I will tend to favor the more creative activities.  Try to get to know yourself and if you tend to gravitate more toward one or the other in general, then take advantage of those times when you feel most ready to tackle the activities on the side you favor least.  A certain amount of self-discipline is required but certainly it’s a lot easier to manage this over a week than to try and do it every single day.

It helps infinitely if you have some kind of weekly practice tracker.  My own personal tracker is based ‘quarterly’ meaning it spans 3 months.  It has 13 rows representing each of the 13 weeks in the quarter, and several columns representing all the areas that I am working on.  In each box, I simply record how much time I spend in each area (in pencil so I can erase and re-write new times as the week goes on) and I total it up each week and try to reach my weekly practice-time goal. 

This all may seem very structured, but the last column, however, is ‘repertoire’ which means just playing songs and jamming, and it allows me to goof off while still counting as practice time.  However, I try not to let it dominate the total time for the week. 

So, how much time should you allow for goofing off?  Let it be higher than you might think.  What if it was 50%?  You don’t want it to be all work and no play.   Make it fun AND get work done every week.


About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga.  If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Ithaca, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!