Practice & Preparation


I spent the last weekend gorging myself on NFL playoff football. I love the NFL during the regular season, but the playoffs are really something special. It's a few weeks of some of the best games of the year matching up the best teams and players. In this crucible, magic moments are forged.

All that magic doesn't happen by accident. Each coach and player prepares meticulously—some more than others. It reminded me of something I read about Peyton Manning's preparation. He is, arguably, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, yet his preparation is as detailed and extensive as ever. 

After nearly twenty years as a pro he is still practicing the same fundamental footwork drills he learned as a college quarterback at Tennessee. Why do that? Surely someone like Manning has this basic skill mastered?

He continues to practice it because a) it's part of his ritual of preparation and b) he wants to groove that skill so that it's automatic.  

When Peyton Manning needs to execute a five-step drop or an off-balance throw by stepping up in the pocket, he does not have time to execute those moves in pieces. He needs to execute them as a single action.

Once he has the fundamental moves broken-down the next step is to integrate them into larger chunks. I would argue that this process of tear-down and re-integration is fundamental to the learning process and, no matter how advanced you are, you should never stop doing it.  

So what does this have to do with the guitar? It reminds me of why I've practiced the same fretboard exercises some twenty years later. They are a ritual that helps me prepare to play and they help me groove mechanical motions.

With those motions honed to single actions, I feel less restrained musically. When I'm improvising I have larger "chunks" to work with instead of individual notes. When I'm writing I'm not constrained by mechanics as I explore ideas. 

I say all of this because there are some guitarists who don't find a lot of value in spending time with these kinds of exercises. Too much focus on technical skills means less work on music. Certainly when taken to an extreme, this isn't hard to imagine. I'm sure we've all heard that dude who can shred like a beast but fails to engage our interest musically.

I can't tell you that the no-practice philosophy is wrong. That approach may be perfect for you. There is no single amp better than the rest. There is no "best guitar". There are only things that exist and exhibit different qualities that we call "good" or "bad". I only offer this counterpoint argument as an alternative truth that can co-exist with other approaches. 

I, like Peyton Manning, like to be prepared. Therefore I practice some pretty mundane stuff. By having a long-term view of how those low-level skills build to something bigger musically, hopefully I don't lose sight of the importance of music over prowess.