Header Bar

curiosity in music

Curiosity: The Single Most Important Practice Skill

In our daily endeavors practicing the classical guitar, we are required to master a number of skills and practice techniques, and we must learn to place our attention on a myriad of details.

In our lessons, our teachers bring to our attention little issues of fingerings, tone, duration, articulation. The list goes on and on.

It can be easy to become overwhelmed with all of these details. It’s not unusual for a few to slip through the cracks. We can be going along and then suddenly we realize that we have forgotten some important detail of our technique or musicality.


The Most Important Practice Skill:

But there is one skill that trumps all others. There’s one thing that you can do in your practice that will serve you till the end of your days and continually make you a better musician, a better player, and more effective practicer.  And it makes the experience of practice more fun and rewarding than anything else I know of.

And the winner is…….

Curiosity. I know, it seems too simple. It seems too vague, esoteric, whimsical even. But it’s not. In fact maintaining the quality of curiosity transforms every moment of practice from rote repetition into active engagement and effective problem-finding and solving.

When we are curious about something, we are simply interested. We wonder what will happen. We say, “what if…”. And the best part about this, is that it embraces not knowing.

When we’re curious, we are comfortable not knowing.

When we’re curious, we’re comfortable not knowing. We wonder what will happen. This takes off any pressure of trying to be right. We are simply engaged with the process and actively interested in how it turns out.  Fun!

Cat and Mouse

Have you ever watched an exciting scene unfold? I was in my yard the other day and happen to see the neighbors cat stalking something. It was probably a bug, or a fieldmouse. Or maybe a little bird. I have no idea.

I saw that he was stalking something and I was immediately curious whether he would get it. I couldn’t help but stop and watch, because I was generally interested in seeing the outcome of this little game. With this cat get its prey? Or would it miss it’s mark?

There was nothing at stake. It didn’t really matter to me whether he got his prey or not. But I was curious to see what happened. I was relaxed and engaged. He had my full attention, and from a completely neutral state.

So often while we are playing, we are attached to the outcome. We want to be right. This may seem obvious. (“Of course we want to be right. That’s what we’re doing here!”)  However, this desire to be right causes all types of problems. In our quest to be right, we fear being wrong.

Excess bodily tension while playing music

But what we also get from this desire to be right, is excess bodily tension. It creates stress, and we allow our muscles to become more engaged than they need to be given the task at hand.

If we can release this need to be right, and shift our focus on to a genuine curiosity, then we are free to make mistakes, and unattached to their consequences. (Incidentally, we are more prone to make mistakes when we are attached to the outcome, so switching over to curiosity can lead, in itself, to better playing.)

To test this, tell yourself, “Right now, play perfectly! No mistakes allowed!  321Go!”  And see how well you do.  Even if your notes are there, it’s most likely not a very compelling performance.

So this is all fine and good, but the next question will have to be, “what am I curious about?”.


Asking Good Musical Questions

This is why, in the title, I call it a skill. Being curious is about asking questions. It’s about wondering. It’s about being inquisitive.

Useful questions are ones that consist of open ended possibilities or demand exploration. These can be questions like the following:

  • What happens when I do this?
  • How is this part connected to the other parts?
  • How should this sound? Can I make this more beautiful?
  • What do my fingers feel like on the fretboard?
  • How are my voices balancing?
  • If this line of music where a character in a play, what would that character be like?
  • If this music was a verb, what would it be?
  • Is there a best place for my thumb to be right now?
  • Is there a better position for my hand?
  • How could this be easier than I’m making it?
  • How many of the notes in this scale passage can I play at tempo with perfect right hand preparation or placement?
  • What if everything I think I know about this piece of music (or my technique, or whatever) is completely wrong?  What might it actually be?
  • How can I make this piece of music one cohesive musical statement, from beginning to end?
  • Can you think of 10 more?  20?

One of the traits of a good question is that it cannot be answered with one word. These are not yes or no questions. There is no finality to them. They welcome exploration. They are meant to spur investigation.

There is freedom and liberation and not knowing the answers. A truly creative mind is constantly exploring new avenues and new possibilities. As soon as we think we do or should know something, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and imagination. Our music becomes academic, cold, and whether we like it or not, boring.


Satisfaction is the Death of Desire

The quickest way to take all the fun enjoyment out of your practice, is to think that you already know everything about what you’re doing. And with the fun and enjoyment, also go the life, spontaneity, and the personal connection with listeners.

The world is full of uninspired (especially classical) musicians playing strictly academically and devoid of life.  (It’s practically the norm on the classical guitar.)  Who wants to listen to that?  Not me.

But show me a musician asking the hard questions, following their curiosity, taking risks to find new answers and putting in the work to project them cleanly, and I’ll show you someone worth listening to!


Over to you…

What questions are you asking of your practice?  What new territories are you currently exploring?  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

, , , ,

7 Responses to Curiosity: The Single Most Important Practice Skill

  1. John June 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm #

    I’ve been playing the classical guitar (self taught) for about 12 months or so now and I’m finding that my playing position is constantly changing. By that, I mean that I am constantly refining (if that’s the word) the position of the headstock…I’m forever bringing it closer and closer to my head, so that the guitar is in quite an upright position. The headstock is now sitting about 7/8 inches from my head. I think I prefer the tone I can get when my fingers strike the strings in this more upright position. Could you advise me as to whether I’m holding the guitar a bit too close?

    Many Thanks,

    John (near Sydney, Australia).

  2. Gerry Phillipson September 26, 2016 at 2:33 am #

    The first question I always ask is whether I’m capable, at my level, of playing the piece beautifully. I don’t think I’ve every played any piece without a mistake of some kind. Somewhere you say something about the danger of perfectionism. I’m a published author and if my text wasn’t perfectly in order my publishers would reject it. I’d rework it of course and get it right but I’m not sure getting everything in playing a piece of music is something I’m capable of. Thanks for focusing on curiosity. It’s soul-mate to one-pointed focused (concentration) but not too intense or introverted.

    • Allen September 26, 2016 at 11:16 am #

      Hi Gerry,
      I can’t remember ever playing a piece perfectly either. Even if I got all the notes, there was some musical issue that I “could have done better”. I ultimately think that playing with any mistakes is the wrong goal. Or I should say that it’s a poor ONLY goal. I would much rather hear some musical intention with a few note slips than bland note-perfect playing.


  3. Cadie September 24, 2016 at 6:49 am #

    I think playing guitar as to be a love affair with music and the instrument… To me when you love something or somebody it make you automaticaly curious about it… For 50 years now I am in love and still in search of something new about it.you are to me a great source of interesting New ideas…



    • Allen September 24, 2016 at 7:27 am #

      Thanks Cadie!

  4. eame June 14, 2013 at 2:57 am #

    I think that is the only approach these days.I think Many give up because they make themselves bored because of so much rigid study

Leave a Reply