One of the unexpected awesome fringe benefits of running a site is that you get in touch with some really cool people. After publishing my initial 12 Great Android Apps for Musicians article I got contacted by guitarist Stuart Bahn.
Stuart wanted to know if I’d be willing to test an app that he had developed. I checked it out, it worked great (really useful for any improvising musician) and featured his app in my follow-up post More Great Android Apps for Musicians.
We stayed in contact via e-mail and recently Stuart mentioned that he had a project going on of 1,000 hours of practicing in a year. Initially I thought it was some sort of New Year’s resolution and the cynic in me immediately thought, “Yeah, right, let’s see how long you’ll be able to keep it up.”
But to my surprise, shame and delight (I’m always happy to see people succeed) I found out that it wasn’t something in the beginning stages, but rather a project close to the end.
I immediately asked Stuart if he’d be willing to answer some questions in some sort of interview for AdvancingMusician – since I find the topic of how to optimise practising fascinating.
What you are about to read is the result of a series of e-mail exchanges. I sent Stuart a bunch of questions, he’d reply, I would send another batch of questions, he’d reply again and so forth.
I did change the order of questions and answers and edit for flow – but Stuart had the last word and gave his approval before I hit publish.
Grab your favourite beverage – because it’s a rather long interview with tons of actionable content. I’m really happy with how this turned out and hope you’ll find it as inspiring, useful and educational as I have.
Hi Marko. I’m originally from north-east England and I started playing guitar 20 years ago. I moved to London in 1999 to do music full-time and I’ve been a professional guitarist and guitar teacher here ever since. I have some keyboard skills and I sing but the guitar is my instrument. My musical interests cover a wide range of music from Pop and Rock to Fusion and Jazz.
I’ve had enormous work commitments over the last ten years so I wanted to give myself something to work to and kick start a new chapter in my playing. I’ve always liked to have well-defined targets when it comes to practice, so the 1,000 hours was a part of that. There’s a nice quote that says ‘Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement’ and I think that’s spot on.
It’s very easy for work and life commitments to dominate our weeks, leaving us feeling that we don’t have time to practise. I think the reality is that practice time needs to be created rather than waited for, because it probably won’t ever arrive in big enough quantities!
I don’t think anybody ever stops feeling that they could improve their playing. I know that Mike Stern, who’s a truly world class guitarist, continued to take lessons all the way through his career from his mentor Charlie Banacos, someone I was fortunate enough to take lessons from as well. I think Mike’s continued commitment to learning shows that there really is no finish line and that none of us should get complacent about our playing; there’s always a great deal more for us to do as guitarists.
Good question, and yes I’ve seen Mike performing Autumn Leaves brilliantly at a couple of clinics too. Probably more than half of what I’ve been working on is what you might call fundamentals. I think it can be tempting to keep looking for more and more scales and arpeggios to make use of, but great players like Mike Stern can make just one scale over a one-chord groove sound great.
So, I think as you imply with your question, there’s got to be a balance between getting better at using what you already know, and working on new concepts. Nobody ever really finishes learning to use Mixolydian – there’s a lifetime of practice right there!
One thing I’ve spent a lot of time on is seeing the fretboard better in less guitar-friendly keys. I’m sure most guitarists would agree that it’s easier to see scales and arpeggios in A than it is in Ab, but of course there’s no reason for this to remain so. Whether I’m working on fundamentals or new approaches, I now make a point of spending more time in the flat keys than the sharp ones to compensate for this.
I’d read about the 10,000 hours principle years ago though I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book. I did read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed however, which investigates similar areas and supports Gladwell’s theory. Although the principle isn’t supported in all corners of the academic world, it does remind us that clocking up a large number of hours is a significant part of getting a high level of skill. Whilst it’s not a guarantee of reaching world-class status, it seems that virtually all the masters have indeed done their 10,000 hours of practice.
I like to have ambitious targets. I think an hour-a-day is pretty easy for most people to achieve – as long as they were to commit to it so 1,000 hours seemed to be a good challenging target – plus a nice round number! It works out as being about 2.5 hours every single day.
None planned, but I have to take time out for other commitments periodically. I like to work to a weekly quota rather than a daily one so there’s a bit of leeway day-to-day.
Part of the 10,000 hours principle is that the practice you do has to be highly focussed ‘purposeful’ practice. In other words, you have to be striving to improve something very specific.
I’ve spent a lot of time developing my improvising using various intervallic approaches, string-skipping and different rhythmic subdivisions, and virtually all of it has been to a metronome or backing of some sort. I don’t count anything like prepping material for gigs, performing at gigs, demonstrating during lessons, playing for pleasure or warm ups.
There are some things that I’ve known I wanted to work on for a long time, but one of the best decisions I made was to see the guitarist Pete Callard every few weeks. Pete’s a wonderful player and having someone put every aspect of your playing under the microscope is extremely helpful for identifying weaknesses you might not have thought of.
Usually I’d commit to one or two weeks of the same practice plan before reassessing, but during this time I’d often identify spin-off exercises that I felt would be useful to work on. If my practice sessions had been going particularly well then I would gradually include some of these spin-off exercises as well. If I hadn’t progressed as well as I wanted then I’d carry over the tasks for another one or two weeks. I’m quite stubborn so I do sometimes find myself grinding out the same exercises for six weeks or more if I haven’t done well enough!
I wrote a little ebook on how I create and maintain an effective practice regime, which I now give away through my mailing list. This was really the product of examining my own good and bad practice habits and figuring out what I find works the best. Weekly or two-weekly targets aiming towards a longer-term goal is a format that I think works well.
Certainly for some tasks achieving a certain tempo was important but of course this isn’t the whole story because that doesn’t indicate the quality of execution. If I can give myself an honest 9 out of 10 for a given task then I might consider it sufficiently done.
The more improvisation-based tasks are of course harder to quantify so in some of these cases I think the time practised is probably enough. An example of this might be improvising with a set of arpeggios and with constant string-skipping or maybe constantly shifting around the fretboard.
If you clock up 20 hours of this you can’t help but be a slightly better player by the end of it, and find yourself seeing the fretboard a little better than before.
A practice log, absolutely. I’m a big advocate of record keeping. Apart from being a useful way to keep track of how much practice you’ve done, it also helps to cement what it is you’re doing and how your skills are improving. I think keeping morale high is essential for all musicians and being able to look back at what was once (but no longer) a personal best tempo for a tough exercise helps keep us motivated.
For more abstract aspects of playing I find it useful to give myself some sort of indication of my progress in words. This could be a short describing in my log of what aspects are improved and what’s yet to improve. Sometimes even just a mark out of ten for quality is enough.
Regarding the actual time that I practice, I time myself like in a basketball match. If the phone rings I stop the clock. If I nip down to make a cup of tea, I stop the clock. I wanted my 1,000 hours to be pure, as-focussed-as-a-laser practice time.
The only other thing I use is Band in a Box, simply because of its versatility. Sometimes all I want is a single chord or maybe just bass notes outlining a progression that I’m working on negotiating.
I haven’t been using books to practise from, but one of the best books that I’ve read in recent years was ‘The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles’ by Dominic Pedlar. It’s over 700 pages of technical analysis so not exactly light reading, but it’s beautifully written and I love the Beatles so it was right up my street!
One other thing I’ve found very helpful was simply to record myself. Obviously the method of recording is unimportant – it could even just be your phone – but listening back to your attempt at an exercise is extremely good for spotting where the flaws are and how you can improve further.
Whenever possible I try to clock up an hour or two in the morning. I think we all have what you might call a ‘golden time’ in which we work best. I think for many this is the morning but for others it might be late at night. I try to reserve my ‘golden time’ for my practice sessions rather than squander it on doing admin or answering emails that don’t require me to have my best head on.
Being able to put in a chunk of practice in the morning is a luxury that not everyone has so I’m fortunate in that respect. My teaching and gigs are usually in the second half of the day but I usually try to fit in a second practice session at night when I can.
The biggest difficulty has been when I’ve had so much work on that I’ve been forced to put my practice on hold. If you miss one day because of other commitments then you can make it up with a tough but doable five hours of practice the following day.
If you’ve had a week or two from hell though, it’s extremely hard to make up for those missed hours of practice. As you know, I’ve produced two apps for musicians recently.
They took a lot of time to plan and complete, but I didn’t feel that I could wait a year until I’d reached my practice target, and it wouldn’t have been sensible to start cancelling tuition or turning down gigs in order to free up more hours. So, after about six months I decided to allow myself another 12 weeks to reach my 1,000 hours.
One thing I did for extra motivation was to tell people what I was doing up front and post my progress regularly on Facebook. This way I knew that people were watching and it would have been a bit embarrassing to just give up. I would post a graph every couple of weeks showing my progress, and I’d always get nice encouraging comments. When I would meet up with other guitarists for coffee I’d always get asked about my practice regime and often discuss different aspects of playing.
People have been genuinely interested in what I’m doing, and that in turn has helped me stay focussed.
I noticed the difference almost immediately, certainly within a few weeks, and after a couple of months guys that I regularly gig with were commenting on the difference they saw in my playing. It’s very encouraging to hear this from your band mates and it certainly motivated me to keep going.
Some of the areas of improvement are easily identified such as timing, technique and being more able to move around the fretboard more freely than before. Other benefits are more abstract such as the way that I feel when playing. Nowadays it’s like my mind has been freed up from some of the mechanics of playing, giving me more brain space to be creative.
Something else that has helped me a lot has been the extensive intervallic and string skipping exercises I’ve been working on. After clocking up several hundred hours of this, my fingers now naturally go places that they didn’t used to, allowing a wider range of note choices and phrases. Even just using minor pentatonic now it’s as though the scale has been reinvented for me.
More than anything, I’ve learned that I hadn’t done as much practice as I thought I had previously. If you’d asked me a year ago, how much premium quality guitar practice I’d done I would have guessed something like 7,000 hours. Having done this regime for the last 12 months I think it’s far more likely to have been 4,000-5,000 hours.
I did a three-year degree in music from 1999-2002 and I didn’t do anything like the number of hours I’ve done over the last year or so. I think this underlines the importance of good record keeping and being completely honest about your practice time.
The only thing I’d do differently is I’d make more of an effort to get ahead of my weekly quota right from the start. It feels much nicer to be 40 hours ahead and be able to take a day off from practice and still be ahead, than it does to be behind and know that if you take a day off you’ll be even further behind.
I’m looking forward to the finish line so I’ll have the intended 1,000 hours under my belt, but this regime has become such a normal part of my life I’m certain that I’ll embark on a similar task… but maybe after a few days off!
To other guitarists out there, I can’t recommend this approach to practising enough. Whatever commitments we all have, we can all set appropriate targets and work to them. It doesn’t have to be 1,000 hours, just something that will push you beyond what you have managed in recent years.
It’s all-too-easy for work and other commitments to expand and take all our available time. We need to take steps to make time available for guitar practice. The focus and regularity of this way of working has without doubt produced the best period of personal development I’ve had as a guitarist. I’m certain that anyone else that tries it will benefit enormously from it too.
Take-home Points Summary
- Have the willingness to improve and the mental attitude to go for it
- Set inspiring goals
- Realise you have to make it happen – it doesn’t happen by itself
- Create a plan
- Find a mentor and get guidance – this can be a teacher, a method book, a YouTube channel, etc…
- Make yourself accountable
- Discover and use your personal golden hour(s)
- Track your progress
- It’s ok to adjust your plan – shit happens, but don’t ever give up
- Enjoy the process and the results will follow
Do You Have Any Questions For Stuart?
Leave a comment to thank Stuart for sharing his experience, ask some questions or to let us know about your own plans for a similar epic project.
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