The hot and cold approach to practicing

December 7th, 2014

My practicing has always been driven by what I call a hot and cold approach as opposed to the slow and steady approach.

The hot and cold approach is based on applying periodic bursts of energy and effort followed by periods of rests.

In other words, maximum effort for a period of time, then relaxing, then maximum effort again, and then relaxing again. And you repeat in cycles.

You might call it the hare approach.

You’ve probably heard the story about the hare and tortoise and how the hare loses the race, and the tortoise wins it.

Well, that’s just propaganda spread by the proponents of the slow and steady approach.

In real life, I find the opposite ending is often true, the tortoise is left in the dust and the hare wins the race.

There’re two reasons why the hot and cold approach works.

First, it’s only by exerting a huge amount of effort that you can achieve breakthroughs in technique.

When you practice, the first few hours is just warming up. It’s only after the fifth or sixth hour that your fingers really begin to loosen up. And after the seventh or eight hour, they begin to be charged with a special kind of energy, as if they’re on fire.

It’s at this time that breakthroughs in technique happen.

Now imagine if you practice and you stop after the third or fourth hour.

Imagine all the breakthroughs that were waiting to happen but didn’t happen because you stopped too early. I’ve made this point before but it’s a crucial part of the virtuoso mindset.

The second reason is that even during the cold period, when you’re not consciously working, your body is still working in the background, unconsciously.

You may not be playing the guitar but your fingers are still working on whatever problem you’re working on, without you being aware of it.

It gives rise to a strange phenomenon where after a period of intense practicing, and a rest period of maybe up to two months, and then you get back to your practice and you find that whatever technical problem you were working on is now suddenly resolved.

Before your hiatus, you couldn’t do it. And now after not practicing for one month, you find yourself suddenly able to do it.

How is this possible?

Our body sometimes works in ways that defy logic. I can’t explain how it works but I know it does. It’s happened to me more than once.

Of course you still have to get your fingers back into shape, but once you get them back, you’ll find that that they’ve actually moved beyond your former technique.

Slow and steady has never appealed to me at another level.

What a boring existence.

If I have had to live life that way, I’d go insane in a minute.

Life is not meant to be lived in that slow, plodding, methodical, half-hearted way.

No, life is to be lived at red-hot fever pitch. And when you need a break, you take it so you can recharge and be ready for the next hot phase

(The break is an essential part of the equation. Nobody can work at fever pitch all the time, you need the rest period or you’ll burn yourself out quickly.)

And the best part is, whatever you do has the hallmark of something that has gone through fire, something that is borne out of red-hot passion rather than cool and calculated determination.

2 Responses to “The hot and cold approach to practicing”

  1. Al stewart Says:

    Your version of Toccata and Fugue is the most prolific I’ve ever heard on the guitar.You are truly a gifted musician I play guitar as well and you have truly gave me something to strive for.I have your toccata and Fugue tab that I downloaded off an app from the Google Play Store it is truly amazing and truly difficult. I have been practicing everyday for about 6 months now and I’m starting to get the intro almost to the fugue. My biggest problem is fretting the chords on the fly to make it sound smooth. Any suggestion u could give me on logic behind conservative fretting would be greatly appreciated. Thank u, i am a true fan of your work. Great transcription!

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks, Al. The trick in making the chord transitions smooth is to anticipate each chord. Start moving before you have to play the next chord. In fast passages, move as soon as you have played the previous chord. Hope this helps.

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