One thing that I find myself always going back to when trying to help students out with songs of all difficulties is this idea that I call compound practicing vs. isolation practicing. Through my experience I have found this balancing act to help quite a bit.
Let’s talk a little bit about what the difference between these two ideas are, and what problems can arise when students don’t find a balance between them.
Isolation Practice- This is what most people think of when they think of practice and it is absolutely vital. This is when you take a particular section of a song that is either a problem area for you, or completely new, and really focus on that part. This is extremely important, especially in the classical tradition, because this is where spots are molded and perfected to be exactly how you want them to sound. Students who tend to not do this enough will be sloppy or choppy-something most people don’t really want to listen to.
There are problems with only doing this type of practice however, and a lot of students and parents tend not to realize that. A prime example of someone who only works on isolation practice is when you here parts of songs sound perfect, but there are pauses between different sections. Our brain has to not only perfect pieces of songs, but also learn the transitions between them. Only working on sections of songs and not focusing on transitions or playing pieces from beginning to end can cause just as much choppiness. Another common problem with students only doing isolation practicing is when so much time is spent on difficult sections, other sections, even if they’re the “easy” sections, get put to the wayside. Students will find in a performance messing up on a spot that they thought they didn’t need to cover.
Compound Practice- Compound practice is the idea of connecting things together, and this is also incredibly vital. As I mentioned above, the brain needs to learn the glue between these sections that you’ve been working on to perfect. Typical problems that come from not doing enough compound practice are having pauses between sections, or forgetting what parts of songs follow each other. Problems from only doing compound practice are essentially the opposite of isolation practice. You may be able to play through a song ok, but it’s not going to be squeaky clean.
If you haven’t guessed already, finding a balance between these two methods of practice is the secret to really perfecting a song as a whole. I usually tell students to experiment with a system that works for them that ensures both of these styles are addressed.
For example, what I personally like to do is go over an isolated section that I’m working on 3 times and then do a compound run through by either starting back at the beginning of a song or attaching the section I’m isolating to another section before or after it. Having a simple ratio like that to stick to can make a bigger difference in your overall playing than you might expect. Try it out!
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Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School