Much like multi-level marketing, practicing effectively requires multiple levels in order to reach the ultimate state; integration of the skills you are practicing into your playing so that they become seamless and original. At first this sounds easy enough- “if I practice these exercises enough times I will become a better guitar player and be able to play smoking hot at the next gig. …” Easier said than done Samurai. Your fingers, brain and ears have to go through several levels of learning before a skill will become second nature. How many times have you thought you practiced for a gig or lesson and then found yourself floundering or making mistakes when under pressure?
This is an indication that you haven’t given your fingers enough time to develop the muscle memory to perform under pressure and the only way to do this is to, practice regularly in small amounts with breaks over a long period of time. To understand how we learn music, take a look at how we learn anything for that matter. There is short term memory and long term memory. When we cram for an exam the night before, we are relying on short term memory to carry us through the next day. If you were to test yourself on the knowledge a month from the exam, chances are you won’t remember much of it. That’s because you haven’t integrated the knowledge from your short-term memory into your long-term memory bank. Thus the same principle applies to practicing.
To really internalize new skills and concepts into your playing, you have to give your brain time to absorb the skills and concepts. So by breaking down your practicing into specific small tasks and slowing things down, you are allowing your brain time to absorb the information. Then by repeating these same exercises over several days and weeks, you can begin to see them becoming more “natural” feeling and “second nature”. Then when you step up to solo or play a riff at a gig, you don’t have to think about what notes or phrases you are playing; it’s all there for you.
Slowly over time, you can then start to develop your own ideas and style, but just like a painter it’s best to first learn from the masters that have come before you. Study their techniques, then break all of the rules. Much like watching a professional athlete that makes the most advanced physical feats seem easy, you are essentially doing this by building on your skills one step at a time.