Making good guitar practice choices

“In ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz spends a lot of time talking about maximizing and satisficing. Maximizing is finding the best choice or option. Satisficing is finding one thing that works and doing it.

We need to spend more time satisficing and less time looking for the ideal solution or the ideal technical routine or the perfect way to practice scales. Chose first option that meets your minimum requirements (ex. “I need a 30 minute technical routine), then practice. There are no bad choices in practicing. If something doesn’t work for you, you’ve gained valuable knowledge for later on (see below). If something does, then keep using it until it stops working.” (emphasis mine)


I haven’t read anything from Barry Schwartz, nor do I know a great deal about the field of Choice Research. But much of what Chris writes about really resonates with my experience helping people learn guitar. It’s happened to me way too often where a student has come in from their lesson in the last week and just hasn’t practiced.

Now, some of the time this is undoubtedly because they just don’t care enough or are too disorganised or unmotivated to put in the time to learn. A depressingly large number of teenage boys will come in for lessons week after week simply because their parents think they should be learning music, and an electric guitar just happens to be something they’re happy for their friends to see them carrying around.

But there are also people who come in for lessons who really love the instrument, and are desperate and hungry to learn, who still have their weeks where they find it hard to practice. And undoubtedly, not knowing what to practice is a big thing that stops people from doing it.

Often I will go over something that is new and is designed to challenge them a little bit, and they will start to get the hang of it during lessons.

But then when they get home, they can’t quite get to grips with it. When this happens, this is partly my fault of course – as a teacher it’s your job to explain things in a way that a student will be able to understand, and can act upon.

But then the students will then spend the rest of the week not doing any practice at all, and this is unfortunate.

It’s kind of like a personal trainer showing you a workout with a whole lot of new exercises you’ve never done before, and then finding that the next time you go to the gym you’ve forgotten or can’t manage the correct way to do them, so instead you just go home and sit on the couch.

Maybe you don’t know how to use that leg press machine properly, but that’s no reason not to do some squats and lunges.

It seems that part of the job of any teacher, or a written course, practice schedule or other tuition aid is often not to give you more options, but to give you less.

We’re giving you good things to practice, but never a perfectpractice plan – I’m not sure there actually is such a thing. When I show a student something to play on the guitar, I do it taking into account the goals they’re trying to reach, what they will be motivated to work on, and the current strengths and weaknesses I see in their playing, but often there are ten or twelve different other things I could be showing them instead, and there would be a real benefit in practicing any of them.

Often the value in teaching, or in guitar instruction products or other tuition, is as much in giving a specific course of action to defeat the “paralysis of analysis” as it is in the particular content.

The world of guitar playing is just so big and with new players bringing new ideas, techniques and approaches to the instrument, it gets bigger every day.

There are so many directions you can go in, and so many different options. There’s no need to shy away from this, on the contrary it’s something to be excited by. But try let the amount of options available overwhelm you, and definitely don’t use it as an excuse to avoid practice. So long as you are not risking RSI or similar injury, there is no such thing as bad practice.

There is only good practice, and better practice.

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