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How to Practice Well

Updated: Jun 19

Student practicing on a telecaster guitar
How do we get the most out of our practice time?

I've been working with a wide variety of clients lately, but they all have two things in common. All of them want better habits to support their goals, and all of them want to get better at what they're doing. This is true for the musician who wants to improve her songwriting, the artist who wants to make more time to create, the teacher who wants to serve her students well without burning out, and the business owner who wants more confidence as she steps into a new market.


In these conversations, the words practice, repetition and consistency come up frequently. While I shy away from using the old adage, "Practice makes perfect," I've become fond of saying that repetition builds confidence. There's no substitute for putting in the time to do something repeatedly, until it becomes no big deal, and we're relaxed and comfortable about doing it.


However, building mastery is not as simple as putting in high number of hours into repetitive practice, an idea made popular by Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers.

Student practicing on an acoustic piano.
Is practice a therapeutic outlet or focused, repetitive work to build skills?

What is practice?


First, it's important to define what we mean by practice. The word is often used as a synonym for routine or ritual, as in, a regular writing practice or spiritual practice. In this sense, practice goes hand-in-hand with habits and can be applied to whatever we're doing on a daily or regular basis that is helping us over time. As author Annie Dillard puts it, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."


The word practice can also be used as a focused way to learn or sharpen a skill. Music springs to mind as a domain where this particular definition is especially important. We can play music, and we can practice music. The distinction is that when we practice, we're focusing our effort on building the skills that we don't yet have.


To zero in on this kind of skill-building practice, I had a conversation with my long-time friend and frequent music collaborator Steve Gibson. Steve is an accomplished professional multi-instrumentalist who has taught guitar, bass and mandolin for over 30 years and co-founded Bandworks, a thriving music school in northern California.

Accomplished Musician and Veteran Teaching Artist Steve Gibson

MS: How do you help your students structure their practice?


SG: I first want to be clear that we’re talking about the more mechanical of playing an instrument. I’m thinking specifically about helping students get better at their playing in a technical sense. There’s also a place for playing around, improvising, and having fun with the skills you have and the songs you know. When I sit down to work on music myself, about 40% of it is focused practice, and the other 60% is playing music. 


MS: That’s an important distinction: playing vs practicing. What’s a key element in deciding what to actually practice?


SG: I think it’s important for students to have a clear vision of where they want to go with their playing: what kind of music do they want to play, and what kind of musical role models and styles are they shooting for? I want them to practice toward a target. This sense of where they’re headed with their playing grows over time, but it’s good for them to keep asking, “What do I want to be able to do?” Otherwise, they might spend a long time practicing things that don’t really help them get where they want to go.


MS: So once your students know where they want to go and what they want to learn, how should they go about it? 


SG: While the internet is filled with resources that can help us teach ourselves, I think it’s important after a certain amount of self-study to have an experienced guide of some kind, especially with the finer crafts of playing an instrument. 


I spend a lot of time giving feedback to students on their playing, then I try to help them break down their struggles into short exercises that they can repeatedly play at home. Oftentimes this involves my making sheet music, audio recordings, or videos for them.


I also spend a lot of time helping my students listen more carefully to the music they’re trying to emulate. Filling the skills gap takes careful listening to all kinds of musical subtleties. It takes focused, repetitive practice on small sections - or playing a larger section more slowly, so that accuracy is possible. It’s about doing whatever it takes together to actually hit the target, not just try to hit the target. Ideally, it’s the practice to doing it right, rather than doing it wrong a thousand times with the thought that it’ll get better. Mindless repetition doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to go.


MS: How has your approach to music practice helped you in other parts of your life?


SG:  One lesson that’s unavoidable is that the skill-building part of music takes however long it takes. You can try to devise the most effective practice regimen possible, but stuff still takes time. This has definitely helped me cultivate patience with myself in any other pursuit as well.


Steve Gibson is based in Richmond, CA and offers guitar, bass and mandolin lessons in person and online. He can be reached at

Practice takes as long as it takes. And music practice builds patience and confidence in many aspects of life.

Free Workshops this Month

Becoming Human... A Community Writing Practice


June 30th at 4PM Pacific


Writer, visual artist, musician and chaplain Jillian Rae is leading a writing experience where members write several short pieces and share them within a 90-minute period. The purpose: deeper awareness, self-compassion, and connection with others. Contact:

Creative Restoration for Teachers:

This Saturday,

June 22nd at 10 AM Pacific


I'm leading a free workshop for teachers and instructors of all types (including teaching artists) to reflect on wins and takeaways from the school year and make a plan to recharge for the summer and fall.

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Liam Rooney
Liam Rooney

When I began reading this article I assumed it wouldn't apply that much to my writing. Then I thought about Steve's comments on "focused practice" versus the more playful forms. It occurs to me that I can reframe my fits and starts, discarded drafts, and uncompleted projects as "practice." Of course I wasn't considering those efforts as practice at the time, or in the angst-filled aftermath, but my writing did improve over that work. I'm looking forward consciously practicing my writing - both focused and playful - from here on out. I have a hunch the results will be better with the intention.

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