Let’s imagine for a minute that you’re feeling really sick. In fact…you feel downright dreadful. You can’t remember the last time you felt this bad.
Because you feel so sick, you decide to visit your local doctor. After the usual annoying wait, you go into the doctor’s office. Before you say anything your doctor writes out a prescription for you, even though they haven’t even tried to diagnose what the problem might be.
You then leave and stop by a pharmacy on the way home to get the medicine that was prescribed. You take the medicine for a couple of weeks. But it doesn’t help…you still feel sick.
So you go back to the doctor again. You mention how you are still feeling sick…but all the doctor does is write out another prescription.
Pretty Crazy Huh?
I know the story was far-fetched. It’s highly unlikely that it would ever happen. (At least I hope not!). But did you realise that this is exactly what a large number of guitarists do when they have trouble playing something?
They try to improve their playing of something without doing a few vital things…
- Spending some time to find out accurately what the actual problems are.
- Making an accurate diagnosis of what is causing the problems.
- Checking whether-or-not what they are doing to fix the problems is actually working.
And that’s why I recommend making Speed Testing a tool that you use in your guitar practice sessions…
Understanding Speed Testing
Speed testing is a term that I use to describe the process of testing my playing. It involves playing something at ever-increasing speeds for a few minutes until my playing starts to fall apart.
When I say “starts to fall apart” I mean that I start to notice one or more of the following things happening…
- I start to play out of time with the metronome.
- My picking-hand starts to feel unnecessary tension.
- My fretting-hand starts to feel unnecessary tension.
- The quality of the notes starts to suffer. (For Example: Often when people start playing faster, the picking-hand starts picking softer, so the notes get quieter and quieter).
- I make mistakes. (This is a neon-coloured-billboard-sized sign that your playing has fallen apart!).
Notice how some of the above are quite subtle? That’s important, because if you learn to notice these subtle signs, then you’ll be able to catch and fix the problems earlier!
How To Do Speed Testing
Probably the best way to learn this is to do it. So think of an exercise that you’ve been practising. Once you’ve decided on something, then I recommend doing the following steps…
Turn on your metronome and set it to a speed where you can play the exercise perfectly in a very relaxed way. It must feel very easy at the speed you have chosen.
Play through the exercise once. Rest for a few seconds, and then play through the exercise a second time.
If you were able to play the exercise perfectly, then move onto the next step.
Increase your metronome speed by a small amount (say 3 to 5 bpm), and then repeat Step Two again.
Repeat Step Three until you start to make mistakes or notice some of the other symptoms that I mentioned earlier in this article.
Play the exercise a few more times and pay close attention to what both your hands are doing. (In other words, watch your hands closely as you do this). The aim of this step is to try to notice exactly what is causing the problem in your playing.
It is important to realise that this step can be very challenging to do if you are new to it. The reason is that you are trying to closely observe your playing as you play the exercise. (Many people have trouble doing this. They have to concentrate so much on the actual playing actions that they find it hard to observe anything at all!).
This is why getting help from a guitar tutor can be very helpful. They’ll be able to watch you closely as you do the speed testing. And they will be able to notice things much more easily. If you don’t have access to a good guitar tutor, then you might find filming yourself with your phone really useful. You’ll be able to concentrate fully on your playing during the speed testing, and then observe your playing later when watching the video.
Write down the last metronome setting where you could play the exercise perfectly. This will usually be a few bpm slower than the setting you used in Step Five.
So…What Do I Do Next?
At this point, you now have done the speed testing and figured out to the best of your ability where and why things start to fall apart at fast speeds. The next step is to fix the problem that causes your playing to fall apart.
It’s impossible to give specific advice here because everyone will have different problems that need fixing. But my usual approach is to do both of the following…
- Isolate the problem area and practice it very slowly. For Example: Let’s imagine that my pick motions were too big for a particular section of the exercise. I would then practice that section over-and-over making sure that my pick motions are very economical.
- Design support exercises. This is where I design new exercises that work on the specific problem I had when speed testing. They will often be very short, and work on the problem area in a very laser-focused way.
After working on the problem area are for a few practice sessions, I then usually do speed testing again. This helps me to see if I have effectively solved the problem. If I have solved the problem then I should be able to reach a higher metronome setting before things start to fall apart.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your guitar and metronome, and start getting your guitar playing to the next level!
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