If you are a guitar instructor, how do you organize your students’ curricula? As a guitar student, how do you organize your practices? Instructors working from method books enjoy having their lessons mapped out for them, but if you aren’t working from a book and all you are doing is teaching songs and scales, your students may see greater benefit in a more holistic plan. When you practice your own instrument, your practice sessions can easily be unbalanced, with one task dominating the time you spend at the expense of other equally important tasks.
Something I introduce to my students early on is my concept of the Practice Triangle. It serves as a blueprint for where you spend your time when practicing; and as an instructor, I use it to guide my decisions regarding what to focus on in lessons. In this article, I may often describe this as a strategy for teaching and practicing guitar, but this applies to any instrument:
As with other conceptual triangles like the fire triangle, the components of the Practice Triangle are inextricably linked. Here is a summary of the three aspects of music practice, and how they support each other:
Repertoire: Classically trained musicians are familiar with the idea of standard repertoire. I support the idea of building a standard repertoire for electric guitar. There certainly are works that deserve to be studied by all guitarists, regardless of personal goals and preferences — songs like “Paranoid” or “Sunshine of Your Love,” for example. At all times, at least one piece from the standard repertoire should be in a student’s practice routine. Repertoire supports technique, because mastering any material develops physical proficiency, and thus contributes to technical prowess. Repertoire supports improvisation, because learning how phrases are constructed by others can inspire ideas in one’s own creations.
Improvisation: This is perhaps the most underrepresented component of the triangle, perhaps because many instructors are not themselves confident improvisors, or perhaps because improvisation is often considered a feature of highly improvisational music like blues and jazz, and thus not universally important to students. If you view music performance as an act of reproduction and not creation, then this might be justified; but I assume that we became musicians to express ourselves. Some portion of our performances, even when performing the works of others, is original content. We are each some parts performer and some parts composer, and that ratio depends on context. Improvisation is instant composition, and composition is improvisation over time. This is why I don’t consider composition to be a separate component; it is just a type of improvisation. Improvisation supports technique, because if one can perform a phrase fluidly without preparation, then systematically rehearsed phrases become easier. Improvisation supports repertoire, because creating one’s own music makes learning that of others easier. This is especially true for transcribing by ear; if you have translated imagined melodies and harmonies to the fretboard, then it is even less of a challenge to hear someone else’s melody or harmony and transcribe it.
Technique: I recall debates in the letters to the editor section of guitar magazines over the merits of practicing scales and arpeggios. This was a controversial subject in the 80’s, when guitarists who might have been inspired by atmospheric artists like Andy Summers or The Edge seemed to feel put off by the predominant shredder culture. How unfortunate that electric guitar seems to stand alone as an instrument whose practitioners can’t agree that developing one’s technique is essential. I once heard a flamenco guitarist explain, “Your imagination is only limited by your technique.” We work on our technique not for the purpose of shredding, although it certainly is a fine skill to possess; we do so that even the most slow and simple passages can be delivered with confidence, intensity, and passion. Technique supports both repertoire and improvisation for an obvious reason: The more you are able to play, the more you can learn and create.
Next, I will begin providing examples of specific material you might work on, or that you might prescribe to students, that will aid in the development of each of these points on the triangle.