Measuring Your Progress On Guitar
In order to make Vertical Growth as players (always getting better, not just learning more things and playing them the same way), there are some very important conditions to be met. One of these, and one very often lacking in a player/practicers approach, is a systematic, scientific, method of measuring results. Of course, we all have some vague sense of whether or not we are actually making any progress as players. We all have those pieces or songs or leads we check in with from time to time to see if we are able to play them any better.
But to really kick your progress into high gear, you need something a little, scratch that, a LOT more focused. You need a system. You need routines that you can apply to various situations, routines that give results, and provide the feedback on measurement of results that you need to assess the effectiveness of the routines themselves. You need to know whether a particular routine you have devised to solve a problem or improve something is actually working.
Imagine going in to a gym to work out, and expecting to get results by randomly picking up weights each time you went in. How about, even worse, you never remembered what you did the last time! Sometimes you would work out with fifty pounds, sometimes a hundred. You know what would happen? At best, not much. At worst, a lot of sore or damaged muscles, and wasted time and money (but at least it would get you out of the house)!
Yet that is what many guitarists do when they practice. They will be working on, say, an arpeggio study or scale, and they will have no idea of the top speed they are able to play it, the speed at which their present level of development allows them to play that particular passage of music or exercise, before beginning to "fall apart." And it is very important to know that! Otherwise, you will have no idea (or not a clear enough idea) of when you have made progress, when you have gotten results from a particular practice approach.
Just as a bodybuilder must know what weight they are presently able to lift or press so that they can work out with the right amount of weight at their particular point of development, musicians must know the same thing when it comes to their technique, which is THEIR athletic ability to produce music on their instrument.
This means that if I am working on a scale:
1. I must know the top speed I can play it.
2. I must work up to that speed every day.
3. I must then apply certain practice routines designed to get me past that top speed, so that if today I can play it at 120 beats per minute in sixteenth notes, I will be able to play it at 132 bpm next month.
And how do we do that? GET A METRONOME AND LEARN HOW TO USE IT! (Precise instructions and routines for metronome use are given in "The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar". Information on choosing a metronome can be found here.)
I swear, I should start my own metronome company, given the number of metronomes I have been responsible for having people buy over the years! It is required for all my students. I cannot produce results with students if they don't have a metronome, and know how to use it effectively in practice routines. And once they do know how to use it, they have a powerful method and tool for learning things on their own. Then my role as teacher becomes more of showing them higher levels of playing, and introducing them to more complex situations that will be solved by using the same practice routines they have used on the ones previously mastered.
Here are some ways to apply these understandings to your immediate situation:
1. Get a metronome, and use it for all "technical" routines. Use it especially for all routines designed to increase speed, i.e., all scale and arpeggio studies.
2. Before you play the music to the actual rhythm, put the metronome on 60 and play one note every 2 clicks. Yes, that is slow, but see if you can do it without stumbling.....you may be surprised! Work up the speed from there.
3. Determine your top speed as soon as possible when learning a new technical exercise. This is the speed you will work up to each practice session.
4. Determine as soon as possible exactly where the exercise or musical passage breaks down as you go past your top speed.
5. Isolate those notes, analyze the movements of both hands required for producing those notes, and figure out what is wrong at that speed.
6. Move the metronome to much lower speeds, and look for the BEGINNINGS of those wrong things happening, and work with them there, at the beginning.
For instance, if my top speed on a Gmajor second position scale is 120 bpm, and I notice at that speed my pinky is getting so tense it is beginning to pull away from the string, I will look for that happening at a much lower speed. Once I see that (which I never noticed before), I can work with it there, fix it at the lower speed, and then I will see that passage start to get stronger, hold together at the higher speeds.
The more you understand and DO these things, the more you will have the great confidence and pleasure that comes with knowing you can always make yourself a better guitarist because YOU KNOW HOW TO PRACTICE!