5 Minute Miracles

When I was 18 years old and got accepted in the local classical conservatoire I had a lot of stuff I had to study. On top of the classical repertoire, techniques and harmony I had to study for the course, I was desperate to learn more about jazz and rock guitar and luckily I had a great teacher (thanks Johnny Mac!) who helped me sort out a proper practice routine for the first time to cover everything I needed. I was doing 8 hours a day which were broken into half-hour chunks and I got into ticking boxes on a chart I would make up and found it to be very self-motivating and rewarding way to practice.

The big personal breakthrough came when I realised how much better I could focus when I had a set amount of time to practice any given exercise rather than just working on things as I felt like it and for as long as I liked. I started exploring this idea and experimented with the amount of time I could keep properly focused and how much time I needed between exercises.

I’ve since looked more into the concept and found there have been many people study the effect of using a timer to maintain focus and it’s pretty much proven that it is more effective to work with a set end point than not.

What I recommend for practice is to divide your total available practice time in two, and have half for completely free fun play – whatever you like and just enjoy the guitar and play songs, explore sounds, techniques, whatever! And then make a routine for the other half, though I recommend doing the routine first or you might jam your way out of time for the serious stuff (eat your vegetables before dessert!).

Start small, pick yourself 4 technique exercises that you would like to work on and try using this timer idea. Just 5 minutes on each exercise and have yourself a 2-minute break between exercises, I find the countdown timer on my phone easiest to use but you could use a kitchen timer or whatever you have, but try to find something with a beep at the end so you are not clock watching. Don’t be tempted to leave out the breaks, it’s believed that breaks help information to move from short term to long term memory which is valuable in many instances and will also allow muscles to have a break if doing physical workouts.

One thing you will find is that random thoughts can drift into your mind and you want to help them pass by renewing your focus on the exercise you are on. Try not to let your mind wander at all – it’s very likely it will when you start trying out this method so the challenge is as much to keep focus on the exercise itself! It’s important to remember that you need to know what to focus on for everything you practice. If you’re not sure why you are practising something, then either find out or don’t practice it!

Make sure you are fully prepared before you start, get your amp on and the tone right (if you’re using an amp) make sure you have any notes you need out (scale diagrams, transcriptions or whatever) and that you’re ready to start playing as soon as you hit start. You’ll find it helpful to turn your phone off (or at least on silent) and don’t let yourself get distracted in the 5 minutes unless it’s an emergency. Make tea, go to the loo, check emails or Facebook or whatever you need to do before you start. If you got family around, ask them not to disturb you for the next half hour.

I found that I go into a kind of ‘practice zone’ as soon as I hit the start button on my timer and very rarely do random thoughts interrupt me, but it took a few months of consistently working on my focus to get that.

The results can be quite profound and I had many students say that they were making noticeably more progress once they started employing the timed practice approach. I doubt this kind of thing is good for everyone but I highly recommend giving it a try and see if it works for you, you might find your own five-minute miracle. Good luck and best wishes!



Food For Thought