Updated: Feb 25, 2020
The older I get, the less I seem drawn to practicing my instrument. It's not from falling out of love with the guitar; there are lots of factors that contribute to my decrease in practicing time. Life is busy and I have to earn a living - which doesn't always involve playing music. Tendonitis in my arms has made playing for long periods of time nearly impossible, and often painful. My attention span has seemingly waned - it's hard for me to focus on one problem for more than five or ten minutes at a time. And sometimes I'll admit I'm just plain lazy. The days of three or four hour practice sessions are likely behind me. So, what to do? How do I continue to improve on my instrument?
'Don't be lazy and just do it. Make the time. Play through the pain. Focus', my brain tells me. And yes, there are people out there with much worse problems than I have and I feel embarrassed that I am having a hard time picking up my guitar and doing the work. So I attempt to practice the way I used to, but easier said than done. Soon my mind drifts, the dogs need walking, and my arms start to hurt. This obviously is not going to work. But all my heroes practiced so much: John Coltrane used to fall asleep with the horn still in his mouth. Charlie Parker said in an interview that he practiced 'thirteen or fourteen hours a day' for a number of years. How do I compete with that? Short answer, I can't. But I can improve, little by little.
My practicing is now pared down into short bursts of activity. This solves two problems: I can focus for that small amount of time and my hands and arms don't fail me. If I can play for about half an hour, anything after that turns into diminishing returns. My fingers start to rebel and not do what I tell them, which frustrates me and causes me to lose my concentration. So I stop. I can still practice for an hour or two a day, just not all at once.
As for life getting in the way, this is where time management comes in handy. I've never been a very good planner (just ask my wife), but trying to set aside a time that works every day is helpful in getting at least some work done. I'm lucky in that most days I don't start work until the early afternoon, freeing up my mornings. While I use some of this time for random daily errands, I try to set aside at least a half hour to sit down and practice.
Then there are days when I just don't feel like playing anything at all. These times are actually the hardest. 'There are so many other things I have to do. The dishes are piling up in the sink, I'm drowning in dog hair because I haven't vacuumed in ages, and there's barely any food in the house', my brain reminds me. All that stuff needs to get done so one thing I like to do is listen to music while I do it. This will usually inspire me to at least pick up my guitar for a few minutes and do something with it. Which invariably leads to more time spent than I anticipated. Another foolproof way to get myself to practice is to book a gig. Then I have to practice. It sounds silly but sometimes I need that push. A good example of this is my upcoming tribute to Woody Shaw gig. I figured, hey I love Woody's playing, wouldn't it be great to do a whole night of his tunes? So I asked Ben Markley and Ron Coulter if they'd do it, and to my surprise they both said yes. After much searching (it's hard to book a jazz gig in Casper, WY) I finally got a date and Woody's tunes have given me enough material to practice for two lifetimes.
How do you practice? In long stretches or short intervals? How do you deal with balancing your practicing time with everyday life? What inspires you to go 'into the woodshed?'