A guitarist's hands are very much like an athlete's body. Muscles atrophy when they are not used for long periods of time. Callouses shed and disappear, and nails become long and unwieldy. Getting back into tip-top performance shape will take time, and is best to go about it gradually - after all, you wouldn't run a marathon after not working out for a month, right? Same thing with guitar. Ease into it and be smart about your practice time, and you'll be back up to gear in no time. Here are a few tips that I've been trying to follow as I do the same.
1. Always warm up. It's like doing your stretches before you exercise - start with some basic technique drills that you are familiar with. It helps if they are drills that your hands know well so that you are firing up the muscle memory that has not been used for awhile; there's no sense in having to teach your hands brand new exercises while trying to rebuild your strength at the same time. My go-to exercises are a series of slur exercises that I learned from Sharon Isbin, and the Segovia fingering scales practiced in different groupings and right hand combinations. The scales give tons of benefits for training your hands: they build up your left hand callouses, boost agility in shifting between positions, give practice to the coordination between the right and left hand fingers, work up right hand speed, and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, slur exercises are incredible for building up the strength in your left hand and increasing the flexibility between fingers. Stretching in the left hand can be learned, and for those of us with smaller hands, a stretch from index to pinky is an absolutely invaluable thing to have.
2. Do slow practice on an "old friend." An old friend - that's what I call those pieces that you absolutely love and have played forever. It's a "go-to" piece that makes you remember that you simply love to play the guitar. For me this week, it was Villa-Lobos's Valsa-Choro from the Suite Populaire Brésilienne, a beautiful piece that I love playing and have missed. Practicing a familiar piece fires up your muscle memory, just like the familiar warm-up exercises do, and doing it slowly eases your hands back into the facility that they had while you were at the peak of your playing. This is also a great time to relearn a piece with better technique or to focus on improving one aspect of your playing that you've always wanted to work on. For example, if your left hand fingers tend to flail about while playing, take this opportunity to relearn an old piece but with an additional goal in mind - to relearn it with better left hand technique than before. You'll enjoy the benefit of getting back into shape while improving an aspect of your playing in the process. An old piece is also necessary for building up your confidence again in playing and reminding you that you do this because it is enjoyable. Often times, the biggest hurdle in practicing after a long break is just the discouragement we feel from having been at a certain level and not being there anymore. So let these old friends give you a little boost of confidence and spend an evening with them - you'll be glad you did!
3. Sightread. I love to sightread, not because of my ability at it, but just because of the challenge of turning notes on a page into sound. Sightreading is a necessary part of practice for any guitarist, since we are known to be abominable sightreaders compared to violinists or pianists who need to sightread in many more situations than we do. Sightreading fires up all the synapses in your brain that link your visual intake to your muscular output, and the fact that you can go slowly and have a great excuse for not feeling like the piece has to sound perfect is an added plus. You're exercising the ever important relationship between your eyes and hands, and getting to learn something new. This adds to the joy of playing and having the excuse to take a little time to do it slow.
4. Create goals. No practicing is ever that efficient without goal-setting. Organize your practice time so that you can work towards a deadline or project. Then, identify the steps you need to take that will get the piece in performance shape and work on one goal per week (or whatever amount of time makes sense for you). For example, dedicate one week to practicing the piece slowly, another to redoing your fingerings, another to analyzing your interpretation, and another to memorizing it. Suddenly a mammoth amount of work becomes accessible and mentally manageable. There's no way to get us working like the threat of unpreparedness - so start early! Even if you have a performance six months or a year from now, you can start learning or relearning the music for it now, and you will have nothing to fear when that day comes even if you managed to take a nice summer vacation from the guitar.
Now that fall is quickly upon us, hopefully these tips help you shake off that summer laziness and start practicing today! There is such a thing as taking a break from work guilt-free, and you, my friend, deserve it.