Regardless of your chosen instrument, as musicians we're all aware of the need to create effective practice sessions to maximise our productivity, often within less time than we'd like to have available. With this in mind I thought I'd go through a few things that have helped me achieve my aims quickly and efficiently, in the hope that this will help you to do the same.
Firstly, it can't be over-emphasised that consistency is the key to success when it comes to practice. 20 minutes a day will be far more beneficial than 3 hours on a Sunday and nothing for the rest of the week. Short, regular sessions of repetition of new information helps your brain to learn new skills far more easily than long, grueling sessions where your attention can wander and you can become easily distracted.
When I was starting out I desperately wanted to achieve technical levels that could match the hottest rock players on the scene, but the level I was at was so below this that it felt impossible. One of the things that helped me beat this was the realisation that all of these guys were once at my level too, nobody was ever born with superhuman skill on an instrument - some people may have a marginally higher level of natural skill to begin with but everybody has to train themselves. The thing that separates top players from most is their self-discipline when practicing and their desire to achieve the very highest levels on their own instrument.
With that said, I'm well aware that a big problem with learning new things is they're often difficult. The difficulty can lead to frustration and can even lead to putting you off all together because you feel like you 'can't do it'. I think it's important to strike a balance between practicing new things to progress on your instrument and just jamming - playing things you already know or noodling around, generally enjoying yourself with your music. Too much of the latter results in no real improvement, but too much of the former can turn your instrument into a chore and discourage you from playing.
One thing I used to do when I was starting out was set aside time in my daily routine specifically to get the more boring bits of practice out of the way. I got out of bed an hour earlier and ran through all the scales I knew, all the chords I knew and did a few technical exercises all before I went to school - that way when I got home I could dedicate my time to songwriting, shredding and learning Metallica songs! This might seem a bit extreme, but even assigning 15 minutes before a meal or right when you get home after work or school and making it a routine will lead to drastic improvement as a result of the consistency of time spent on important things such as technique or theory.
Another thing that helped me out was practicing while watching TV. After memorising a mundane finger exercise or drum rudiment I found I could run through it for far longer if I half-watched TV while doing it. As long as the basic understanding of an exercises was there I could get it up to speed much quicker than usual as I could easily practice the same thing for 30 minutes or more without getting bored. This kind of practice will also help those who want to sing whilst playing, as you're concentrating on something else at the same time as playing for extended periods of time.
Finally, an essential part of practicing is to set yourself goals i.e. targets that you will work to achieve within a set time frame. It's important to set yourself short, medium and long term goals - things to achieve by the end of the week, in a couple of months and within 6 months. For example, say you're a guitarist who wants to master alternate picking technique or a drummer working on the double stroke roll; by the end of the week you might chose to have mastered 16th notes at 80bpm, in a couple of months have them down at 130bpm and within 6 months be burning them at 170bpm or higher! The feeling of success when you reach these targets will be a great motivation to keep practicing. It's very important to set achievable goals, so ask your teacher for advice on appropriate targets to match your own current level.
I hope this article is of help to students of all instruments. The most important thing is to enjoy all aspects of playing music and see difficult new ideas as challenges rather than problems. Good luck!
Doug Cartwright - Guitar Teacher and Band Mentor at The Rhythm Studio, London