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 endless details.

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

We can easily 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 Guitar 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.

And the winner is…….Curiosity

Curiosity. 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 field-mouse. 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 its 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 guitar

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.

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 we remain 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.)

And the next question will have to be, “what am I curious about?”.

Ask Good Musical Questions

Curiosity is a skill we develop through practice.  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 in not knowing all 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

There’s a quick way to take all the fun enjoyment out of practice, It 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 and the music.

Music can be a daily adventure that unfolds one surprise at a time.  When we ask questions and seek novel connections we open the door to new revelations and discoveries.

Practicing sometimes gets hard, or we find ourselves seemingly unable to break through to the next level.  When this happens, curiosity and probing questions can puncture through the problems and pave a new way forward.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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