In his kick-ass book First, Learn To Practice, Tom Heany asks us to imagine:
Two clarinet players are sitting side by side in an empty rehearsal hall. They have their clarinets in hand. On the music stands in front of them are identical copies of the score for Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. You need to hire one of them. Pete is on the left; Pat is on the right.
Pete can tell you everything there is to know about the Clarinet Concerto. He knows the starting key, and all the keys he will have to travel through. He knows the form; he understands all the underlying harmonies. He can tell you the date of the first performance; he can even tell you Mozart’s birthday (January 27, 1756, at around 10:00 PM.) But – Pete can’t actually play the concerto.
Pat, on the other hand, doesn’t know anything about Mozart. He knows what key the piece starts it, and he might be able to figure out the rest if you give him enough time and give him a few hints here and there. But – Pat can play the concerto perfectly all the way through.
So who do you hire: Pete or Pat?
Most of us have heard of Occam’s Razor:
The simplest explanation is most likely to be true.
…and Hanlon’s Razor is gaining in popularity as well:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.
To this pair of BS-clearing thinking tools, I’d like to propose an addition… Heany’s Razor:
You know it when your hands know it.
You know it when your hands know it. It’s the title of a whole chapter in Heany’s book, and it’s damned good advice.
What’s this got to do with you and your guitar playing? So glad you asked.
When we’re working on something as ambitious as mapping out every nook and cranny of our fretboard and developing the ability to improvise in a way that reflects the changing harmony of the chord progression, it’s easy to go astray.
When faced with the choice to keep on jamming with the tools we’re comfortable with vs pressing forth into the vast confusing unknown, most of us will opt for the safety of our favorite keys, chords, & scale shapes.
It’s exactly how we get trapped in the friendly prison of the pentatonic box.
You & I are going to tear through a HUGE number of tiny exercises that marry the theoretical knowledge of our minds to the animal intelligence of our hands.
If we rush through them too quickly, we’ll forget them before they have a chance to take root.
If we spend too long on any given exercise, we’ll get bored and/or our playing will stagnate.
So how do we know when to move on to the next exercise?
YOU KNOW IT WHEN YOUR HANDS KNOW IT.
You don’t know it until your hands do.
When your hands are comfortable playing the exercise, check the box and move on to the next exercise.
(And for this course, don’t worry too much about remembering it all. We’ll be weaving together a matrix of different approaches, and in the end it’ll all fuse together into one continuous thing.)
When your hands know it, check the box and move on.
There’s only one caveat to this:
If you don’t want to sound like crap, don’t practice sounding like crap.
When we’re pushing into unfamiliar territory, it’s easy to stop paying attention to our time & feel.
And if you spend hours and hours practicing with bad time and feel, you’re going to get really good… at playing with bad time & feel.
If you’ve never given much thought to your time & feel, take a week or two to tackle the free Metronome Boot Camp course.
It’s MUCH faster & easier to get your time & feel squared away now than it is to go back and unlearn deeply ingrained bad habits later on.
(Ask me how I know.)
One last thought for you.
Play the exercises slowly enough that you’re not reinforcing sloppy playing, but…
Every practice session should result in at least one more “checked box.”
Here in the meat of the course, that means marked another lesson complete. And then in the last unit, I’ll set you up with a spreadsheet with literal boxes to check.
As you progress through the course, you’ll naturally start to pick up speed as you re-encounter overlapping ideas and concepts. The first key you map out might take you months. The last one might only take you a few days.
Practice slow, but learn in a hurry.