Practice Tips: Pushing past your physical limits

Suppose you have a melodic phrase (or any other kind of passage) that you’re trying to learn that is giving you trouble. I’ve encountered plenty of these transcribing Django Reinhardt guitar parts with SlowGold. Figuring out what notes he’s playing is only half the battle for me – the man just plays so darn fast. So it’s a lot of work to actually get those phrases under my less-than-light-speed fingers. But I’m trying, and gradually succeeding. I feel the effort is worthwhile. Not only is my dexterity improving, but I’m getting a whole bunch of new shapes and habits into the “muscle memory” (more about this later) of my hands, which is where they have to be in order to be useful when I play on the gig or with other people.

Start Slow, Be Patient With Yourself, and Trust Your Body

You probably already know that the first step in learning a new passage is to play it along with a metronome set to a really slow speed (well, sometimes you have to stumble through the passage a few times before you can even do that – if even playing the passage at a really slow metronome setting is too difficult, see the section on Isolation below). You should hunt for the highest metronome setting at which you can play the passage comfortably, with good tone, and without errors several times in a row. Once you’ve found that setting, increase it a notch or two, until you have a setting which is just on the edge of your ability. You should be able to play the passage if you really concentrate and try.

Play the passage over and over again at this “edge of your ability” speed – for 5 to 15 minutes is what I usually do. If it’s physically painful in any way, stop immediately and pick it up again in a few hours or the next day. What usually happens for me is the opposite, however; the “edge speed” becomes comfortable fairly quickly, and I notch up the metronome further.

One note about metronome “notches” – if you’re playing a passage with one note per metronome beat, you may have to go several settings higher on the device before you notice much of a difference. On the other hand, if you’re playing 16th notes (4 per click), then a single metronome notch up might make a significant difference in difficulty.

You’ll probably notice that the very first time you try to play a passage with the metronome you may have to play it very slowly; yet, after the passage gets “into your hands” you’ll be able to make a big jump in speed. This phenomenon is known in some circles as muscle memory, and is indicative that your nerve pathways have actually been reprogrammed by your repetitive activity to take over some of the control from your conscious mental process. This is a good thing. A large part of the point of practice is, in my opinion, to reprogram the neural pathways.

This phenomenon will undoubtedly be evident the day after your first session with a new riff. You’ll set the metronome at a comfortable setting, and it will be significantly higher than the initial setting. You will be much more comfortable with the passage, to a degree that may surprise you.

Increasing your physical dexterity simply requires patience and repetition. You can’t force your pathways to learn any faster than they want to. Others may learn faster than you, but it’s not your fault, as long as you put in the time. Your body is your body, not their body, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Don’t try to play a passage much faster than your abilities dictate in an attempt to break over a hurdle – it’s just not gonna happen, and you’ll be wasting your time and increasing your frustration. And take breaks – 15 minutes is a really long time to work on a single passage and should be the absolute upper limit. Several short sessions each day are probably superior to one long one.

Above all, have faith. Follow this program and improvement is inevitable. It may not be at the pace you desire, but it will occur. Just keep at it.

Keep A Practice Log

I like to make note of the metronome settings and the date next to each passage I’m working on. This helps me track my progress. Click here to access a free practice log template that you can print out and use.

Put Variety Into Your Practice Sessions

Don’t just practice one riff. It’s boring. Music is supposed to be fun, remember? In fact, don’t just practice riffs. Depending on the time you have available, try to increase your musical abilities in many areas. Set aside some time each day or week to write or create something. Learn new tunes. Study music theory and ear training books. Learn new riffs from records (using SlowGold, of course). Create new riffs based on ones you know. Everything you do to increase your physical and mental skills is valuable.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Backtracking

Some day you will notice that, although you’ve gradually goosed up the metronome to a pretty nice clip, what you’re playing is sounding sloppy or inadequate in some way. So bring the metronome back down and start re-practicing the passage with the higher standards that you’ve subconsciously developed in mind. It’s a good thing. Don’t try to rush your development. After all, when do you have to have this process done by? Never! (at least in most cases). It’s a Zen thing.

Observe Yourself

Listen carefully to what you’re playing. Is your tone good throughout? Where are the awkward points (this will bring us to Isolation, below)? Could you be fingering the passage in a more efficient manner? Are you sitting with proper posture? Are you holding tension that doesn’t need to be there in your hand? In your jaw? Any such tension detracts from your performance by sending bodily energy into unproductive and restrictive uses.

I have found that, with guitar parts, where I put my attention can make a huge difference – and in surprising ways. Some passages that I thought were tricky because of my right hand ended up being easier to play when I focussed on my left hand during practice, and vice versa! I still don’t understand it, except as an indication that sometimes my own beliefs as to what are the stumbling blocks may not be accurate. Weird.

Play With Your Eyes Closed

You may have to slow down the metronome considerably to do this, but it really is liberating not to have to look at your hands while you’re playing.


In this troubled and fragmented world, you’d think that the last thing you’d want more of is isolation. But, in fact, isolation is a tremendously valuable tool for musicians trying to increase their physical skills.

I’ll be discussing two forms of isolation– the isolation and smoothing of trouble spots in difficult phrases (for all musicians) and left/right hand isolation for guitarists.

If you’re having difficulty with a phrase, try and identify the trouble spots. If they’re not obvious, just break the phrase in half and see which half is harder to play than the other. Keep breaking it up into smaller fragments and practicing them individually.

Once you’ve mastered a fragment of the phrase, the next step is to master the approach and exit from the fragment. Add a couple of notes before the fragment. Does it get harder? If so, practice the new, enlarged fragment for a while before adding more notes. You may have to slow down in order to incorporate the new part. Then add notes at the end. Continue this process until you’ve mastered the phrase.

Guitarists, and possibly other musicians, should also experiment with left/right hand isolation. My Django studies have forced me to develop a form of picking known as “sweep picking” in the right hand, in both ascending and descending patterns (left-handed guitarists: reverse everything I say in the next couple of paragraphs). I’m quite used to and facile with “alternating picking”, which is where the pick goes down for one note and up for the next. In contrast, in sweep picking, notes on adjacent strings are played with the same direction of pick motion.

This is a major shift for me. Normally, I’m fairly unconscious about my right hand, focussing attention instead on the left. But recently, I’ve found it very helpful to practice the right hand parts of the run only. I pick as though I’m playing the phrase, but I simply hold my left hand over the strings, damping them, instead of actually fretting the notes. After a few run-throughs in this manner, I usually have a much better handle on the piece.

Practice Everywhere

You do not have to be at your instrument in order to practice! Whenever you’re bored (but not while you’re driving a vehicle or operating heavy machinery – this is an intense exercise), visualize your fingers (and/or hands and feet) doing exactly what they would be doing if you were at your instrument. Start slowly and precisely, and then ramp up the speed – but never lose the precision of your vision! You’ll be amazed at how much of your physical difficulty may stem from an inadequate mental concept of the passage, and how much difference it can make in your playing.

It’s a Zen Thing

Don’t always be pushing the speed. In fact, it’s a good idea to settle in at a tempo just under your peak speed and play the passage over and over, concentrating on reaching a state of focused relaxation while the tone gets cleaner and cleaner. Do it for five minutes and let the tension seep out of your muscles.

In Conclusion

So, those are my practice tips for this issue of Woodsheddin’. If you have more of your own, e-mail them to and I’ll include them in a future issue, credited to you. Thanks for reading and playing!