By Davorin Cavar-Buco
2 minutes at a time. Sounds like snake oil or click bait. It is not. I’ve been using it in my practice and it is very helpful. Initially, it was a way to get myself onto the chair with a guitar in hand every day and it evolved into the tool I now use to shape my practice almost entirely.
Of course I’m not alone in doing this.
The Practice of Practice, a book written by my friend Jon Harnum, is well written and researched and has influenced how I think about practice. In it, there’s a part that explains how a famous classical teacher designed a two minutes-a-day practice routine for his student to learn an intricate piece of classical music.
The book “Atomic Habits” is currently a best-selling book on Amazon. It’s about forming new good habits and breaking old bad ones. It lists a two minutes rule as one of the ways to do that.
When forming a new habit, do it for two minutes at a time daily until it sticks. I can certainly attest to the effectiveness of this rule.
It first started because I knew that I didn’t practice enough. I thought I didn’t have enough time in a day to practice or I was too tired. But these were excuses I made for not playing. Days or weeks would go by without picking up the guitar. Some of this behavior was in part created by some music educators. I was told on numerous occasions the minimum amount of time for effective practice is from 20 minutes to 2 or more hours. Up to that point, I never really had practice habits. I played when I felt like playing. It served me well in my adolescence. Whenever I thought of guitar I could either reach for it or wait until I got home. Not so much in my adulthood.
At some point it became clear I needed to change. I made a goal for myself to practice every single day. If it was very late at night and I was tired but didn’t practice that day, I’d set the timer on my phone to 2 min 10 sec (10 seconds to prepare for 2 minutes of playing). Or I’d do it before I left home for work. If I couldn’t plan for a longer practice, I’d use these 2 min 10 sec quick sessions to jump in whenever I could.
This did several positive things. Consistency and the desire to play every day is most important. Picking up my instrument daily mattered more than the length of time. Sometimes, after two minutes I would put the guitar down and finish. But other times, 2 minutes turned into 20 minutes or an hour. Dedicating an hour and more each day is a good intention and every musician should always strive for it. But, having music in your life is better than not, even if it is only 2 minutes.
What started as a musical self esteem fix, wonderful in itself, turned out to be an extremely effective practice tool. After some time I thought of ways to make the two minutes count. To make the best of it, I decided to isolate small challenging sections of music. I’d slow it down to about half of my target speed and repeat for 2 minutes. I was amazed to realize how many repetitions you end up playing in 2 minutes of time when you repeat a small chunk of music over and over. Many times I’d check to make sure I pushed the start button. I’d look and there would still be some time left. After a few months of doing this I saw it working and making a real change.
There were parts of music I tried to improve for years. Then I felt and heard improvements by practicing them only 2 minutes at a time. I thought I did this already, practice by repeating, Once I started timing myself, I realized that my repetitions were almost always shorter than two minutes.
Musicians at any level can use this tool. I didn’t talk to any highest level advanced musicians about it, but I suspect they do something similar already. This is pretty much what woodshedding is to a musician. Doing something over and over until it happens automatically, without thinking, like driving a car. A beginner may practice a single chord in the open position; play a chord, lift the hand off the guitar, then play it again. A novice in Gypsy jazz genre may practice a two chord change that might be tricky to land. A few things I improved practicing this way were the first 8 bars of La Gitane waltz with a blistering run of alternate picking, a diminished arpeggio on the B section of Bossa Dorado and a Cm6 arpeggio in Minor Blues.
Something you hear a lot is not to practice things you know, instead practice things you don’t know. It’s good advice. I’ll give a bit more detail and explain how I go about in the context of the “problem fixer”. If I’m practicing a phrase or anything else, it’s usually at certain spots where I hear kinks and wrinkles before I have it down completely. So instead of starting the whole thing from the beginning, I isolate and practice only the part I need to smooth out. Just a few notes where this happens. Maybe 3-4, maybe 6 notes. I’ll do that with each little bit where my playing is not where I want it to be. More on this process further down.
It is very important to use an actual timer, not just watch the clock. What the timer does is make you accountable for that time. So you’re far less likely to wander off in the middle of your practice. Since I’ve been using the timer I never wander off during this period of time. Before using this technique it used to happen all the time. It acts like a good cop or teacher in the classroom watching over your shoulder. It makes you focus, keeps you committed to the task. The timer on my phone is always set for 2 minutes, 10 seconds and ready to start. Once the timer starts, you immediately go to your productive zone.
Being and staying focused is extremely important for success of a musician; the timer helps you focus. When you perform in public, away from your practice space, things happen out of your control taking away your focus. Isolated in your practice space, nothing takes your attention away and it’s easier to stay focused. When you are performing outside, where you are not very familiar, there are all kinds of things distracting you. These break your focus and the performance suffers. I was in the workshop with one of the best guitar players of today, Kurt Rosenwinkel. He said on a good night he’s at best 70 percent as good in concert as he is in his practice space. Mental toughness is what makes good players great. It is what differentiates two players with otherwise the same or very similar skill sets. That’s especially true in sports. It is what separates champions from the runner ups.
As I talk to people about practice this question comes up often. In other words, how do I get better faster? First, your practice may be of little value, if you don’t have a clear path and stay on it.One of the best things for your practice is to know what to work on before you sit down, so when you do, you pick up your instrument and get to work immediately without any idle time. But my immediate answer is that first and foremost it all boils down to the amount of time put in. I sometimes answer in a challenging way: show me somebody that played 6 hours a day for several years that stayed an average player. I don’t think this person exists. And if you’re spending this much time with your instrument, I doubt that you’re mindlessly noodling a majority of the time. If you stay in it for longer than 2 hours or so, it means you’re in a productive zone intently focused on something. I’ve been in the classroom with many of the world class guitar players. They all say pretty much the same thing: I never had a specific practice regiment, I just played a lot, 10 hours a day or even more. Maybe they weren’t aware of it, but this time had to be structured in some way. They were young when they were developing and did a lot of the right things intuitively but saw it as just playing a lot. For anyone who spends so much time with their instrument, there will be some kind of structure that emerges and you will spend a lot of this time working out specific problems and tackling particular points.
For the rest of us that don’t practice 10 hours a day, it’s then important to get to that productive zone as fast as we can. Using a timer is a practical way to get you in this zone quickly and keep you there. It limits empty rambling and keeps you on the point. Keeping your practice focused this way also helps to build a catalog of things you should be working on. They emerge by themselves once you start zeroing in. Once I had 3-4 of small specific things I knew I could work on I made a list of those and kept adding to it. So I always knew what to start with immediately as I sat down. And I’ve heard that advice over the years, keep a list of things to practice. I came into it in a roundabout way, assembling a list of small chunks of music that I can practice in 2 minutes.
Every musician knows about the noodling. It’s necessary to relax sometimes, unplug and mindlessly meander about your instrument. It can get you some creative ideas for your next practice, too. But if you end up noodling after you started your practice with another intention, a lot of time is wasted. A fruitful practice is a lot about making every moment a learning experience.
When choosing to learn to play something don’t get hung up at a tempo that you normally hear advanced or top musicians perform at. It’s really irrelevant. Good music can be enjoyed at any tempo. If you perform a piece or play well at the tempo where you’re relaxed and sound good, you and your audience will enjoy it just as well. Always put the overall quality of sound ahead of the bpm number. You need to lay a good foundation for what’s to come: this means know where the notes are with the comfortable fingering and a good picking pattern. More on this topic below. But do choose a tempo that is a goal you need to achieve and is something at the top of or better yet, a touch above your current ability. Then start practicing at half that tempo and work your way to the full tempo. More about that to follow.
Another question that occurs regularly is: how do I get faster? First it’s important to realize that speed is a lower priority goal when it comes to playing music. More important is the tone and clarity of notes. Unfortunately this becomes switched around a lot and sometimes people are able to play fast, but with poor tone. And inevitably not clean, with a lot of smudged, poorly articulated notes. That’s unfortunate because a lot of these players are capable musicians and could achieve both but they don’t focus on important details. And I always say music can be just as enjoyable at slower tempos. But eventually there comes a time when you really want to go to the next level. It may be a practical need that comes up: a gig with a certain tempo requirement. Or a recording date. It may be the desire to play jams at professional musician speed. Or you just want to test and challenge yourself, I know I do. And it’s often said that if you want to play fast, you need to start slow. This is absolutely true.
Common drill is you start at a comfortable tempo where you can play cleanly and move up in 5-10 bpm increments until you reach your target. I go about it differently. I choose my target tempo, go to half that tempo and practice there. When I feel comfortable at this tempo it means I know the notes, the fingering is memorized, notes are clear. I use this time to pay close attention to my tone. It’s slow enough where you can be aware of a few things at one time. Then I’ll go to my target tempo and see how I do: usually not great. Then I’ll cut my practice to smaller chunks. Practice each chunk for two minutes at target tempo and then start connecting the parts together. If I’m still having trouble even with smaller chunks then I’ll go back to half tempo with those or cut them to yet smaller chunks to practice at full tempo. It could be as short as two notes at the time. Then stitch those back up to longer pieces. Sometimes in order to practice the transition between the small chunks, I’ll take a few last notes from the preceding part and first few notes from the upcoming part and just practice that. All with the goal of methodically removing errors. I was very pleased to hear that Tcha Limberger does something similar. I watched a video recently from Christiaan van Hemert with the special guest Alexandre Tripodi. Alexandre mentions it starting around 26:10 in the video linked below (but watch the whole thing).
Practicing something very fast in small chunks makes it possible to eventually play the whole thing at a fast tempo. The only exception I’ll make from this half-full approach is once I’m at full tempo but things aren’t clear and well articulated then I’ll go down to 90% of full tempo. This is usually slowed down enough to where I can practice at a higher tempo but making sure all the notes are there, clean and clear. About the question of how long to practice one or the other, it’s a moving target. It depends on the current level and how fast you can move from half to full. Recently I was practicing soloing over a high tempo song and I guesstimate I spent well over half of my practice time at slow, 50% tempo, before going full tempo with a small part of that time at 90% tempo. Also don’t be afraid to go to 25% of full tempo when starting. Sometimes I have to do this and it is the best I can play at first.
When it comes to playing very fast, my theory is that any guitar player at higher intermediate level or lower advanced level is able to play 2 or 3 consecutive notes of any very advanced solo or lick or phrase at it’s full tempo. For musicians who are trying to step up to that next level, it’s about taking very short steps at a time, being consistent in pushing forward, and chipping away continuously in small doses.
I already mentioned that tone is far more important than the speed of playing. But the tone is a far more elusive goose to hunt down. Few things that might help: first you need to have a clear audio picture of what kind of tone is your ideal. This is usually the tone of your favorite or a few favorite players. Then you need to be able to describe it in words. Then you go about getting it into your fingers. These days it’s easier because we have so many videos of our favorite players and are able to study and copy their picking hand position. We can pay attention to their pick attack and watch and listen to the left hand deciding if the tone is more staccato or leans more on legato. Both hands matter in getting a good tone and ultimately it’s up to you to find what works and sounds good.You need to be honest with yourself and be critical of what you hear. Experiment: pick position, pick grip, hand position and angle. See what kind of changes give you satisfying results and try to make a note of that, mental or otherwise and stick with it for a while. One time I asked a friend, Koran Agan, whose tone is pretty much supreme to my ear: how did you get your tone? Did he do anything to develop it and such? He told me that he doesn’t remember doing anything specifically about it other than in college (he graduated from Berkeley) when he’d practice late at night, often he would play a single note at a time and just let it ring out and listen. And he said he did that a lot during this period. He also said: change strings, dust off the guitar, water your plants and listen. So there’s that too. Pick up your guitar, set the timer and play any random note. Listen carefully and repeat, go up and down the fretboard, explore different positions on the guitar neck, for two minutes. Try to assess what you heard. To truly be able to critique, record yourself, this is very important. Oftentimes when I thought my tone was getting there, I recorded myself and would realize it’s not what I want to hear and it needs more work. And yes this can be discouraging, practicing something for a long time and not seeing and hearing the results. It’s about having goals and expectations and how to set them and differentiate between them. But more on that later. Another thing that might happen is you might start thinking this is something that simply isn’t possible within the limits of your ability or talent…or which is it?
One sentiment I hear often (that usually has to do with being technically proficient which again usually means being able to play a lot of notes) goes something like “let’s be realistic, I’ll never be insert name”. That’s unfortunate. Well, not if the person truly never had any ambition to reach the higher level of performance. But to a lot of people this kind of thinking will automatically disqualify you from becoming better before you even tried to put in a real effort. It is a very dispiriting way to think and go about your musical life. If you tell yourself “I won’t be able to do this” then what outcome can you possibly expect? And it’s regrettable when some people who say and believe this, actually had dreams of achieving a higher level as a musician.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to talk about natural talent, it’s been mostly proven that even if this ingredient is taken into the account, it’s mostly the hard work of an individual that makes them a virtuoso. The vast majority of the reason they are so good is the time they put in. Then you also hear that they started very early in life, as if to say they had this huge head start. A lot of time they did, but the silver lining for the rest of us, the way I see it, is that most of their technical proficiency was developed in a relatively short span of those early years. From my very unscientific observations 4-5 years at the most. Then you have Wes Montgomery who started at 19 or 20 years old, depending on a source, and I don’t think I need to remind anyone of his legend in the music world and wide reaching influence.
So none of us will be Wes or any of the virtuosos we admire. Well, so what? Seriously. You’ll never be them and they’ll never be you. But why give up on being the best version of yourself?
I just recently saw Julian Lage say in an interview that when he was younger he wanted and tried to play like John Mclaughlin (about 55 minutes of the video linked below, but watch the whole thing) and Jim Hall. And he couldn’t. But instead of saying let’s be realistic and putting limits to himself, he said that’s OK, let me see what I can do. He wouldn’t let it define his ability.
All of this almost always happens at the same time with another sentiment: “I’m too old to get better”. This usually originates from accepted assumptions that once we step into the second half of our life, our ability to learn a new skill has greatly declined. While there is enough recent research to challenge that belief, simple search (by today’s standards) will reveal many names who found success later in life than established norms would have you think doable. I already mentioned Wes Montogomery. How about my fellow townsman, Aleksandar Hemon? He came to the US and settled in Chicago in 1992 at the age of 27, with the limited knowledge of English language and became one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation, receiving MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 2004. Next to numerous other published works and awards, he wrote a script for the 4th Matrix movie. While it’s questionable to call Albert Einstein a late bloomer, perhaps he saw himself as one by his own admission when he said: But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Grandma Moses (started painting in her 70s), Colonel Sanders (started his franchise in his 60s), Charles Bukowski (first published at the age of 51), even Silverster Stalone (he was 30 when he wrote Rocky), our world is full of people who became the best versions of themselves later in life. Albert Einstein, besides his work being a pillar of modern physics, is also known for having a childlike sense of wonder and that perhaps is just as important a lesson to learn from him.
To get back to music, really the biggest challenge is finding time to practice in an adult busy life. Coupled with the thought of putting a significant portion of your daily life into the endeavor with potentially questionable outcome, it’s easy to see how likely it is for someone to resign. That’s why you need to look for joy in this activity for its own sake.
This method also applies to improvisation practice. Yes, improvising is spontaneously composing new music on the spot but these compositional elements have to come from somewhere within your musical knowledge. Even some experienced musicians I talked to said that they want to surprise themselves when improvising. They want to be able to come up with great sounding lines they composed spontaneously on the spot, lines they personally never played before.
For the most part it’s just not the case. You hear the analogy of looking at improvisation as a language. First you learn words, then you learn the grammar and then using both you start putting sentences together that are increasingly complex and eloquent. That is absolutely true yet for some reason it never clicked as an aha moment for me.
I really liked the analogy I heard from Pat Martino. He said something like the song is like this giant house that has many rooms. And improvising is like finding many different ways to connect these rooms and get between them. That discovery happens in the woodshed, not on the band stand. There may be times when you’re on the band stand and you find a new way, a path that you never thought of or discovered before. But even so, the reason you were able to do that is because you’re already so familiar with the layout of the house and already know so many other ways.
So what you do is you play a song in the woodshed and take things very slow. You survey one section at the time. You do a careful exploration, examining this space, not rushing and hitting your head against the walls. At first you’re in complete darkness and have a hard time to get anywhere, almost tapping in one spot. Then your eyes get acclimated and you start seeing further down the hallway and eventually make it into some rooms and you can hit the light switch. In practical terms, you’ve probably heard about 2-5-1s and similar sets of numbers. 2-5-1 isn’t a whole house but it’s one wing of this big place that needs its own investigation. So you repeat things over and over for two minutes at a time in this particular section. Then do the same with other sections.
You explore different routes between the rooms and expand your knowledge of the architecture of this house. Although the melody and phrasing may be unique for this tune, you’ve probably seen something like this before. There’s always the aha moment “I’ve been here before, I know where to go”. Eventually after many of these slow moving expeditions, you walk into one of these spaces and everything is so recognizable that you just start running if you feel like it, or do a brisk walking, or stop to take a breather and look out the window or anything in between. There is excitement of being in this beautiful house but no anxiety of being in such a big, intimidating and unfamiliar space. Every moment spent here is so gratifying and from the moment you enter until you exit is a treat. Isn’t that worth spending time in the woodshed?
All this is the practice known in the jazz world as woodshedding. You’ve decided, you want to woodshed. Now what? Go there with an open mind and a willingness to be fluid and malleable. Know that if you’re going to the shed or returning to it, that means something sucks. You need to be able to admit that to yourself. But if you recognized something needs more practice then it already means you’re humble enough to accept that fact. Humility is an important ingredient of the learning process.
Set goals, goals are very important. Start with small, clear and reasonable goals. But also put something big and unreasonable there as your ultimate or a long term goal. It’s fun to think about and it will motivate you. Back when my practice was on and off again, at the same time, I had no set goals to drive my progress. I had a very open-ended goal of getting better. Once my practice became regular, my aspirations turned into clear targets. That was when I started getting better.
However, make sure not to mix goals with expectations. Best would be to remove expectations but we are wired for both so it’s probably not possible. What is possible, is to make expectations something easily manageable. Goals are something you’re trying to achieve, something you will be working towards.
A goal can be to improvise over After You’ve Gone at 240bpm with no mistakes. Expectation can be that you will practice every day in order to achieve that. But if you confuse these two for example, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment. Or, a goal can be to develop a good tone which you and others will enjoy listening to. Expectation might be that your guitar is a well set up instrument, one you’ll enjoy picking up every day while working towards your goal of getting a good tone.
Be careful which goals you put time stamps on. You can do that with small, easily achievable goals. Like learn the chords to After You’ve Gone today. But not the goal mentioned earlier of improvising over it at 240bpm with no mistakes. If you do, that’s another potential disappointment. Disappointments will happen when not meeting your goals, it’s unavoidable. Don’t beat yourself up over it and persist until you achieve them. If you gave it your best you have still learned a lot in the process.
Remember it’s a journey, not a trip. It is really true when they say just enjoy the journey. You need to be able to enjoy the process. It should be rewarding enough in itself. If it’s not then you need to ask yourself some tough questions as to why not. Stay in it, patiently work towards your goals and you will undoubtedly be rewarded along the way, sometimes faster and sometimes slower.
I was very glad to hear Dennis Chang say something I believed in for some time. You can and should look at lots of different methods but in the end you need to establish the method that works for you. After buying several music manuals, you need to write your own and follow it faithfully. This method isn’t even proven for me yet in a sense that it helped me achieve most or all of my immediate and intermediate goals. It’s a work in progress. I’m comfortable with it, it is very low stress and I am enjoying the process. It can be very meditative when you get lost in the repetitions. It’s very rewarding when you work on something this way, chipping away small pieces and then one day you surprise yourself to hear that you can play it. I’m continually learning about what I think works for me more and what less. The single biggest takeaway from this two minutes practice is that it taught me to put in the time. And that’s by far the most crucial element. With close second being the value of time efficiency. It’s important to point out though that I was very motivated to make that change at the time. I felt *now* is the time. So this isn’t an instant remedy. Its purpose was to say, in my opinion, to never pass up an opportunity to play your instrument. Any amount of time is valuable, no matter how small. And to try to put some light on how I personally think about certain aspects of practice and some of the puzzle pieces that make up playing music. These are the subjects and questions that come up often in talking to other musicians. I had and still have all of those questions. These are my current answers. Maybe something you read here will help you start formulating your own answers and start writing your own method manual. Do what demonstrates success to you.
I was in the workshop with Stephane Wrebel when he said for a long time he was resisting the pressures of writing his own method book. Because as he put it “you don’t need a method book, you just need to sit down and do it man”.
The Practice of Practice by Jonatan Harnum:
Atomic Habits by James Clear:
Paul Tchan-Tchou Vidal, La Gitane:
Rosenberg Trio, Bossa Dorado:
Django Reinhardt, Minor Blues:
Julian Lage interview by Josh Smith
Albert Einstein’s quote
Christiaan van Hemert with Alexandre Tripodi
Dennis Chang on being self-taught: