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Classical Guitar Visualization: What, Why and How

You can use visualization to speed your progress, learn faster, memorize your music, and more.

Visualization is a technique that world-class athletes have been using for decades. It’s been proven time and time again to be almost as effective as actual practice, without the strain on the body, and without requiring an actual instrument.

So what is visualization, and how can we use it for classical guitar practice? We’ll get there. But first we need to talk about mental representations.

What is a “Mental Representation”?

A mental representation is all one’s understanding, knowledge, and experience with something. It includes the relationships between the different “parts”, and notions of what is ultimately possible. Mental representations can include all the senses, and any number of emotions.

The Hometown Example

As an example, you may have a mental representation of your town. You probably understand how the streets work, but you may also know bus routes. You may know specific buildings within the city, and what happens in those buildings. And you also know any number of people and how they relate to other people.

From this understanding and experience, you can imagine how these elements could be combined in new ways. You could optimize situations based on your knowledge (such as: Business A would be a good fit for Building B, and would benefit from the help of Person C. Or “Oh my, those two never should have married!”)

The more elaborate and complex your mental representations become, the more masterful you become in that area. Chances are, you already have many areas or subjects of which you have extremely complex mental representations. We all do.

To get better at classical guitar, we need to create a working mental representation, as well as the physical skills required. One without the other is incomplete.

The Body Follows the Head: Seek Understanding

In “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, Anders Ericsson notes that the level of mastery someone has in any field is proportional to the complexity of his/her mental representations.

To bring this concept to learning classical guitar, it means that the path to mastery in paved in mental representations of

  • Where a finger needs to go,
  • How the hands work,
  • What the music demands.

As well as our understanding of

  • terms,
  • ideas,
  • notations,
  • concepts,
  • and processes.

Clarity Paves the Way to Competence

The longer we study and learn and explore, the clearer we become. With clarity comes competence.

Clarity is the fast-track to competence.

In fact, clarity is the fast-track to competence. If we understand the goal and how it fits into the whole endeavor, we can practice and focus on the most direct path to that goal.

Conversely, if we just mindlessly do repetitions with no understanding of how it’s useful, we waste time.

Guitar Progress is Born of Mental Representations

So to progress beyond beginning classical guitar, we must form useful mental representations, and the quicker the better (for motivation’s sake).

When we start to understand how the guitar works, how chords are “shaped”, how our hands move most effectively, and what music notations means, we come forward in leaps in bounds.

Of course we still need physical practice and to develop habits of movement so that we can actually play, but these are most effectively guided and trained by our mental representations.

The way forward on guitar is through ever expanding mental representations. And mental representations are made up, in large part, by internal images.

Visualize for Classical Guitar Progress

One of the ways we create rich mental representations is through visualization.

Visualization is when you “see” something in your mind’s eye, creating an internal image. But visualization can also include all the senses, not just images.

You’ll get better at visualizing with time and practice.

Some people find it easier to make mental images than others. You may be best at creating mental images, creating mental “sounds”, or creating feelings.

Everyone has a dominant sense that comes easier than the rest. If at first you can only make a mental image for a split second (just a flash of the image), that’s perfectly fine and normal.

With practice and time, you’ll be able to form extremely complex visualizations and clearly “see” very detailed images.

Visualization on Classical Guitar

On guitar, you can visualize:

Fingers –

  • What position and form should the fingers take, on each hand?
  • What does a “D” chord look like?
  • How should the fingers move? What does that look like?
  • What are the movements and positions that should be avoided? Why?

Strings –

  • What are the relative thicknesses of the strings?
  • How are the strings arranged?
  • How many strings does a “D” chord use?
  • What are the strings named, and referred to?
  • Which are wound strings, and which are nylon?

Frets –

  • How are the frets spaced at different areas of the guitar neck?
  • How many frets does a “D” chord cover?
  • How many frets can you stretch between with each finger.
  • What are the note names of each fret?

Grids –

  • What do the vertical and horizontal lines represent?
  • How are chords denoted on a grid?
  • What does a “D” chord look like on a grid?
  • What’s the first note of your most recent piece of music, on a grid? Then the second note?
  • What notes on the grid sound the same (different positions of the same note)?

Movements –

  • How should I ideally be sitting? Why?
  • How should my right hand be positioned over the strings?
  • How should my right hand fingers move?
  • How should they not move?
  • How is it different when I play loud vs. quietly, if at all?
  • How do my left hand fingers switch from a “C” chord to a “D” chord?
  • What does my first finger on my left hand do when I play a “D” chord?
  • How is my wrist position different, if at all, when playing a “D” vs. “C” chord?

Music Notation –

  • What does the musical staff look like?
  • Where are all the “C’s” on the staff?
  • What do quarter notes look like?
  • What is the rhythm in the first measure of your most recent piece?
  • How do the notes on the staff relate with notes on the guitar?
  • Where would X note be on a guitar grid?
  • What does the sheet music to your most recent piece of music look like?

How to Visualize

There are no “wrong” ways to visualize (though you can visualize doing something wrong).  However, you may find it easier when you….

  1. Relax.  Take a couple of relaxing breathes and release any excess tension in your body.
  2. Start by imagining the immediate environment within which your visualization will take place.  For us, that means imagine your guitar, your hands, the room where you play, etc.
  3. Take the third person perspective.  Imagine looking at your hands or the music from an outsider’s perspective.  Add more detail and clarity.
  4. Take the first person perspective.  See the guitar, strings, and hands as if through your own eyes while playing.
  5. “Watch” one or more perfect repetitions of whatever you’re working on.

Spend as much time as you like in mental rehearsal.  Every minute is extra practice, and brings you closer to playing with effortless beauty and grace.

No Guitar Required

Numerous studies have shown that practice through visualization is almost as effective as physical practice. This means that time spent visualizing IS time spent practicing.

The beauty of visualization is that it requires no guitar.

You can visualize anytime, anywhere, and for any length of time. You can use this to double or triple (or more) the rate at which you improve on guitar and learn music.

For instance, if you are learning your chords, and are working on getting quicker at switching between a “C” chord and a “D” chord, you can visualize the “C” chord, then the “D” chord, then visualize your fingers moving between the two.

The clearer and more detailed your visualizations, the more effective the practice will be. Imagine each finger and how it moves in space. Make it complete with any defining features of your own fingers (scars, nail length, shape, etc.).

Even two or three repetitions, clearly visualized, repeated over the course of a day will add measurably to the rate at which you master whatever you’re working on.

Decide Now and Plan for Success

Instead of just reading this article and taking it as information, I invite you to try another scenario.

Take a moment right now to list 4–6  times (or more) your typical day when you could spend 15–30 seconds visualizing whatever you’re currently practicing on guitar.

If you want extra bonus points, write them down.

Next, visualize yourself at those times stopping for a moment and visualizing your practice. This is mental rehearsal for your mental rehearsal!

If you think it would help, set a reminder in your phone, or write yourself a note to remind you to visualize at those times.

Remember, this is all for good living and personal interest. So keep it light and fun!

Related:  How to Shadow Practice on Classical Guitar

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8 Responses to Classical Guitar Visualization: What, Why and How

  1. Jane Terry February 25, 2017 at 8:04 pm #

    Hi, Allen,
    Thank you for this article, very helpful!
    I began doing this naturally while walking and listening to the songs I’m learning on guitar that are on my iPod. As I listen to the song, I visualize myself playing the piece.
    This visualization practice quickly highlighted the parts of the piece where I am unclear, either about the notes or the technique. Good to know! So when I am actually playing the guitar, I can focus on solving those problem areas and, later, gauge my progress during the next visualization practice.
    I really appreciate your informative and inspiring e-mails and website! ??

    • Allen February 27, 2017 at 7:42 am #

      Thanks, Jane. I love mentally practicing on walks, too!

      All the best,

  2. Jan eidson February 25, 2017 at 8:34 am #

    There is a guitarist/ teacher who teaches at the Lamont School of Music at Denver University. He is British and teaches classical guitar to people who wish to get a masters. His name is Jonathan Leathwood. He can sit on a plane with music he has never played and get off that plane and sit down with his guitar and play the whole thing through…pages and pages and pages through. There’s so much value in visualization. This truly does happen not only on a virtuoso level but on a beginner level as well. I mean what else do you have to do at a red light or when you’re stuck in a traffic grid ?

    • Allen February 25, 2017 at 8:39 am #

      Hi Jan, I’ve heard many great things about Jonathan Leathwood. So this comes as no surprise. Great example, thanks!

      I also usually take music on planes to practice or learn, though perhaps not to such extent and mastery as you’re describing. But I’ll work on it!


  3. Nusret February 25, 2017 at 8:28 am #

    …Convergence of mind and body powers at a particular action which means absolute experience…can take one anywhere aimed at. Thanks very much Allen Mathews!..

    • Allen February 25, 2017 at 8:30 am #

      Thanks, Nusret!

  4. Andy McDowell February 25, 2017 at 6:27 am #

    Wow, THIS is great stuff! Unlimited development potential in this, for as long as I play guitar! And applicable to any area of life. Allen, you always amaze me with your thoroughness, depth and creativity!

    • Allen February 25, 2017 at 8:21 am #

      Thanks, Andy!

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