How do you practice? Do you play through all your tunes until you hit a rough spot and work on that? Do you pick a section of a tune and spend all your time working on that? How do you know if your practice is productive? There is a way to practice that will help you make the most of your time and allow you to improve at a quicker pace.
I used to practice by just playing through each of my tunes and working on any rough spots. I practice an hour almost everyday and sometimes it seemed like I was not making any progress. I started taking some music theory and performance classes and I learned a better way to practice. Now that I do it, it makes sense but it is a bit of a change.
Before I start to practice each day I come up with a plan for what, specifically, I am going to work on. Then I practice but only work on the things I decided on in advance. A little after practice I go over what I worked on and see what went well and what still needs work. I used this to plan my next practice.
This method of practicing with a plan is based on Kolb's Experiential Learning. This theory of learning was developed by David A. Kolb in the early 1980's. Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory is pretty complex but can be simplified to a 4 part cycle; Plan, Do, Reflect, Conclude.
This is a cycle so you can technically start at any point and work around. I'm going to start with Plan. Plan means deciding what problems you want to overcome. What are you going to do that was different from last time? Do just means to do what you planned.
Reflect means looking at what you did and analyzing it. What were the problems you were working on, did you fix them, what new problems have come up? Conclude means creating general conclusions from Reflect and using them to Plan. Many people, including myself, combine the Reflect and Conclude portions of the cycle into just Reflect. It simplifies things.
Another component to add to this, although it is not part of the Kolb theory, is the "5 minute rule." For most people when they are working on a problem (practicing in our case), especially one that involves motor skills, after about 5 or 10 minutes the effectiveness of the practice falls off. If you break up your practice into 5 minute chunks, with breaks in-between, you can make your practice more effective.
Instead of working on a bunch of things in 5 minute chunks, pick 3 or 4 things and cycle through them. Work on item 1 for 5 minutes, item 2 for 5 minutes, item 3 for 5 minutes, then go back to item 1 and repeat. By repeating each item with breaks in-between you are allowing your brain time to digest what you are working on before you come back to it.
How does this all work together?
Before you sit down to practice, come up with a Plan. Pick 3 or 4 specific things to work on during your practice session. Make sure it is something small enough to handle in 5 minutes. This generally means you can work on a phrase in a tune, or a whole part if it's simple enough. This can also be a one or two line practice exercise from a tutor book.
The number of practice items on how much time you have to practice. If you have an hour you can work on 4 items 3 times or 3 items 4 times. If you have only a half hour it's best to stick with 3 items. It is also best not to pick 3 or 4 related items, try and make them unrelated. Don't pick the 3 or 4 phrases that make up a part of a tune.
During the Do phase stick to the Plan. If one of your items is a phrase of music, resist the urge to finish the part. Record your practice. It's always good idea to make recordings of your playing to review later but it is important to do it here.
Wait some time after you practice and listen to the recording. Look for weak areas or improvements. If you have one of the items down for each of the times you worked on it, the next time you practice you can work on an different item. If you are still having a problem with an item, carry it over to the next practice.
Obviously, this is not something you can do for every practice. Once a week spend part of a practice playing tunes you are working on all the way through. Make sure you record it. When you listen to the recording listen for the areas that you have been working as well as listen for new trouble spots. Add them to your plan.
If you are trying to learn a new tune, you can still use the 5 minute rule. Spend 5 minutes on each part. Then listen to your recording after and look for areas that need work. Add them to the plan for your next practice.
Changing how you practice can be hard and this process can indeed feel tedious. It's overall benefits though, are unmistakable. If you stick with it and adapt the plan to your needs, you will see results. By dedicating time at each practice to work on small parts of your playing, you will improve. When you master small chunks of a tune and then put them together the whole tune will be better.