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Mindfully Mindless Practice

Q: I’ve heard some people talk about practicing while watching TV, and I’ve heard others warn against it. What’s your take?

A: Actually, I’m a huge fan of certain types of practice while watching movies and television.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, certain things are only really mastered through repetition (licks and patterns, internalizing scale or chord shapes, and so forth). I think it’s okay to practice this kind of stuff while watching TV. Actually, it’s one way I make myself feel less guilty about watching TV.

Some of the fast and smooth licks I use are that fast and that smooth because I’ve already played them a million times over while watching movies, and now I don’t have to think about them at all.

I think in some ways, it may actually be beneficial to practice technique or shapes while doing something else that’s fairly mindless, specifically because we are using more of our sub-conscious brain to do it and that is the part of my brain you want focusing on technique. You will likely improve faster on something the less time you spend hyper-analyzing it and practicing it slowly and correctly in a less conscious state.

The real thing to watch out for is bad technique or sloppy playing. You don’t want to reinforce bad habits by internalizing them unconsciously and really drilling them over and over.

Here are a few examples of things you can practice while watching TV:

  1. Shapes and patterns (licks, scales, scale fragments, chords)
  2. Right-hand technique (double thumbing, speed exercises, different plucking patterns)
  3. Free association (just play and interact with the music or dialogue on the TV)

Things you’ll want to avoid while watching TV:

  1. Playing over changes
  2. Learning melodies or specific heads
  3. Anything analytical or requiring attention to detail