How to Practice when you have no Time

Thanh Tips - Be Honest with Yourself
Imperial Palace in Hue, Việt Nam

I’ve taught many adult students and even super busy young students and the question of practicing in relation with time will come up. I find myself in this situation of no time but I want to be a better guitarist. I am focusing on programming and business but I have a burning love for guitar and music. How do I continue to improve on such limited time?

Let’s be honest with ourselves

If you are an adult working full-time, be honest with yourself and your teacher. Teachers often have an expectation that what they are teaching is going to be worked on by the student. The less time you have, the less likely this will be complete. Teachers can scale back on piece progression and incorporate other things that might not be as time intense. Learning to read music, theory, analyzing music, sight reading, constructive listening, etc will all help support your music education.

Let’s say you are working a full-time job but always dreamed about being able to play guitar like that guy you saw on stage… you need to set realistic expectations. You can get there, but it will take time, deliberate practice, a teacher to guide you and help with efficiency, and time allocation. Know that guitar is not easy. Sure, that neighbor can play chords and songs now but has only been playing for a few months? Maybe she was practicing 7 hours a day until her fingers bled and lied to people about how much she actually practiced.  I know I did.

Not everything is linear, meaning if you practice for 5 focused hours a day, you will improve by n percent. If you are in the business world, you might be trained to think in measurables and results.  The truth is, there is a little of that but it’s mostly an art…

The Process before the Product

This art is focusing on the process of doing. For example, Toyota is a business case with their ‘TPS‘ methodology. Back in the 80’s at Toyota Japan, if you are a worker on the assembly line and something is broken, you pull the stop chord, fix it, and move on. You actually save time and were more efficient. You focus on your responsibilities to do the best job that you can. Meanwhile, many American workers at this time had a different mindset. People were trained to think product first; meaning that they need to make n items in d time. If you pull the stop chord, that meant that the company lost x amount of dollars for each car not rolling off the assembly line. The result was inferior quality of cars and saw the dominance of Japanese car manufacturers in the  80’s.

So, notice what you want to accomplish. Pull that stop chord and just focus on what you need to do.

For those with limited time, don’t try to be that guitarist on stage or master that epic piece in one go but just enjoy the process and BUILD ON IT. Be happy with that because you are enforcing the process of being a guitarist. It’s okay if you didn’t notice an improvement that much. Usually, a teacher will and you are also reinforcing the ‘how’ in playing guitar.

I have chronic pain in my shoulders and back from guitar. While I do a lot of exercises, yoga, and stretching, I still play. I enjoy the process of good posture and technique. It makes playing more pain-free and enjoyable. Then I can focus on just a part of the music I’m working on. For example, I am working on Barrios’ La CatedralFor the next few weeks, I will slow play the piece in sections. Focusing on the sound of the soprano voicing while using some good rest strokes and posture — really enjoying that connection when I play a note well. That’s good enough for me. That makes me happy and I feel like there’s less tension when trying to play.