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guitar practice vs exercise

Are You Practicing, or Exercising? The Truth Will Set You Free!

What if you could predict having a serious injury:  Would you change your routine?  What if you could play twice as beautifully in half the time:  Would you change your classical guitar practice?  Startling statistics, video, and lessons from the pros lie ahead!


Imagine these scenarios:


1.) You’re a swimming coach.  An aspiring swimmer comes to you wanting to become more efficient in their swimming.  The only catch: they are convinced that they do not need to put their face in the water. How do you proceed?


2.) You’re a financial advisor. You have a client who wants to have better control of their money.  They refuse track or examine their spending, but they very much want your help. What do you tell them?
3.) You are a doctor. You have a patient who is grossly overweight and wants to feel better. They are willing to do anything, except for change their diet or increase their activity. What do you do to help them?


In all three of these, you’re faced with a conundrum. Anything that you do with these people will ultimately fail.


As long as they refuse to acknowledge and work on the fundamental issues, they will never get to where they want to be.

Real-Life Example


There is a statistic that is worth mentioning here.


There are approximately 30 million runners in the United States. At least 50% (perhaps far more) of them will injure themselves running THIS YEAR. That is an amazing number!


And what’s also amazing is that more than 50% will also injure themselves next year.  So if you skate through this year, you will probably get hurt soon anyway.


Tell me this: Whenever anyone decides to start running, what do they do? Do they:

  • A.) Take a class on running
  • B.) Work with a running coach
  • C.) Just start running


Apart from tying their shoes, most runners use absolutely no skill or proven technique. They simply “wing it”.  No lessons, no coach, not even one Youtube video on the subject.


They assume (wrongly) that their body knows what to do, or that they’ll pick it up along the way.


But what happens instead is that they hurt themselves. And what’s sad is that the vast majority do not even realize that their injuries are because of flaws in their technique.  They are right back at it as soon as they heal.  They do it the same way, and expect a different result.  Over time this can lead to some serious problems (not to mention severe pain and discomfort).


This exact same tendency is exhibited by guitarists. Guitar is the most common instrument in the world. And we approach it in exactly the same way as running.


Fundamentals in Guitar Practice


I’m frequently asked for help on specific issues. I get questions like these:


  • How do I get my tremolo more even and faster?
  • How do I play my scales faster?
  • How can I get this piece of music up the tempo?
  • How do I keep my hands from bouncing when I go fast?
  • How do I get the little finger on my left hand stronger?


“It’s like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.”

While I could dig into anyone of these questions at length, and offer specific exercises for plans of attack to take care of the problem, the truth is that some other problem would just pop up.


It’s often like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.


The reason is this: The problems that typically show up are not isolated issues. Instead, they are simply symptoms of poor technique and form.


If your hand is in an inefficient position, it doesn’t matter how much your fingers work, they will always be compensating for a fundamental shortcoming.

What the Pros Do


If you take a look at what many of the top athletes, dancers, performers, martial artists etc. do in their practice, you will find that they spend just as much time (or more) mastering form and positions as they do actually exerting and exercising.


“Pros spend just as much time (or more) mastering form and positions as they do actually working out.”

This mastering form and position is at the heart of any movement art. It’s true for dancing, powerlifting, running, swimming, musicianship, sculpting, martial arts, or anything else that involves movement taken to a high level.


Of course we can compensate and “fake it” for quite a while before we run into some imperative need to work on fundamentals. But if we are to look at top performance, the name of the game is fundamentals.


One of the traits of fundamentals is that they transfer from one skill to another. For instance, great fundamentals in your scale playing (I and M alternation) directly contribute to success in your arpeggio playing (and vice versa).


Likewise, weaknesses in our fundamental form and positioning can often lead to injuries in other areas.



For instance, imagine the bodybuilder who can benchpress 750 pounds, but tears a hamstring when out running.  This is very common, not just sports, but with musicians as well.


Many of the stories I have heard about focal dystonia are from people who claim to have played for many years. This would suggest that some fundamental error in their positioning and use of their hands lead to the undesirable outcome. (Incidentally, focal dystonia in the hands is more common among musicians than any other group.)




The reason that musicians (and everyone else) continue to enjoy themselves and consistently failed to reach their potential is, of course, ego.


It’s that pesky need of ours to play something more difficult, faster, and harder then we are able to. We want the immediate gratification.


This human tendency to overreach and fail to practice fundamental form and positioning is why physical therapists will always have job security!


Practice is Not the Same as Exercise


When most people sit down to practice, very little real practicing actually happens.


“Practicing is training and instilling fundamental skills.”

Practicing is training and instilling fundamental skills. It’s working on the fundamental motions and positions and forms that will enable us to the things we want to do on our instruments.  Then it is repeating these motions with integrity until they become habit.


The exercises we choose (pieces, scales, arpeggios, etc.) should be there as diagnostic tools with which to evaluate our practice.In other words, we practice fundamental movements.  We exercise to test and challenge those fundamental movements.


The More Common Path


So what happens when we spend our time doing the exercises, without spending the requisite time with the fundamentals?


The answer is that we get good at doing something poorly.


Of course we don’t like to think about it in this way. “I’m great at doing this wrong!”  It’s somehow doesn’t feel quite as good as just pretending that we are simply great at it.


Redefining Guitar Practice for Ourselves


In order to build a foundation of strong technique and form, we’re forced to alter the objectives of our daily practice.


“A great goal would be perfection of positions and movements.”

We have to be willing to slow down and put aside our need for immediate high-level results.  Our goal has to be perfection of position and movement.


We have to trust that this will give up the end result we are after (such as faster scales, even tremolo, strong little finger, playing the piece at tempo, etc.)


This takes a bit more discipline, and certainly more brain power, than just picking up the guitar and starting to play.  It takes self control, humility, and a dedication to our long-term growth as musicians.


Most players are hobbyists, and just want to have fun learning guitar.  Practicing the fundamentals may sound more challenging at first.  But in a short while it becomes incredibly rewarding, gratifying, and highly enjoyable.  This may be why a large number of musicians who play very late in their lives often spend much of their time playing slow scales and exercises.  By deeply exploring the micro, we master the macro.


Life in the Modern World


The tricky part is that all this goes against modern culture. We are surrounded by the opposite way of approaching everything in life.


Modern ideals:


  • Being thin instead of healthy
  • Having white or straight teeth instead of healthy teeth
  • Having high pay instead of rewarding work
  • Having fancy “things” instead of financial security or independence
  • Having more instead of better
  • Or in music, fast instead of clean


Next Steps


So how do you ensure you are practicing, and not just exercising?


The main ingredients in good practice of fundamentals are


  1. focus
  2. attention to detail.


If you are going slow enough to keep track of all the small details of your positions, forms, and movements, you are on the right track.  With time, you will become better at this while increasing speed.  But the main point is keeping everything you are doing at the standard you want for yourself (even if it’s slow for now).


If your mind is wandering and you are just performing repetitions, chances are you are buggering something up and not realizing it.


The wonderful thing is: Once you learn to focus on your fundamental movements with a high attention to detail, anything you want to play becomes an exercise in technique.  This means that you get better technique not only through your “technique practice”, but also through the pieces you play.  This means you get better overall much more quickly than you would otherwise.


Helpful links:





What do you notice about your levels of focus and attention to detail in your own practice?  Is there some small change you could make in your practice that would enable you to focus on fundamentals more?  Leave your answer in the comments!


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9 Responses to Are You Practicing, or Exercising? The Truth Will Set You Free!

  1. Willem May 28, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Allen,
    Thanks for your reminder, I needed that. I am in a place in my life where I have almost all the time I want to learn to play because I am at home unable to work. But instead of focusing on the basics I just exercise, just like you describe. I have guitar lessons, but my teacher isn’t a very great teacher. But my options are rather limited and as he is affordable and nearby, I use him to “motivate” myself to pr— eh… exercise. Since my personal discipline is not that good I use him as an external motivation to keep going instead of what I have been doing for many years: starting to learn and “forgetting” about it after a few weeks or so.

    I am 41 now and have had several guitars throughout my life, but never learned to play although I have always been attracted to music. About 8 months ago I decided to do myself a favor and finally put my guitars to use. So I found this teacher and started lessons with my steelstring acoustic. After about 2 months I stumbled upon a cheap secondhand classical guitar and kinda fell in love with playing it.

    Ever since I have started lessons (which are only 30 min. once a week) I have been looking for knowledge all over the WWW, so I had already found several sources that say the same as you, like Jamie Andreas. I like picking the “cherries” from this knowledge, but I am not really putting all that knowledge to use. Stupid, right?

    I recognize what Pete says about his teacher. I guess a lot of people take up teaching because they can play, but that doesn’t mean they are good teachers. Mine does exactly what Pete’s does: focus on pieces to play from a guitar method book, but not really paying attention to technique. He just shows me what to play and practice for the next lesson and the next lesson I play and it repeats itself. He has never told me to do certain exercises or whatever.

    So what I do is basically play all the pieces I have learned up to now and then play some stuff I come up with myself. But I never really practice. And although I have been somewhat disappointed with myself not making that much progression over the last months, I never consciously made the connection…

    So now I guess I will have to come up with a plan to make a practice schedule. I will have to find out where to start and where to go from there. There isn’t really any other option for teachers at the moment so I’ll just stay at my current one, but more to use him as that external motivation than to learn something. And if I do pich something up, it’s more like a bonus 😉

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your knowledge through your videos and website, I will make use of it!
    Best regards,

    • Allen May 28, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

      Hi Willem,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You may like to explore this post about structuring your practice.

      I came to nylon strings in the same way: randomly coming by a cheap old classical guitar and falling in love with it.

      Best of luck with everything,

  2. Pete Wasabi January 8, 2016 at 6:51 am #

    Hi Alen, thanks for all your stuff you put on the site and particularly for videos like the one above. I have found myself working out and exercising but just getting frustrated with my sound. I am wondering what to do about learning with my teacher. Her general strategy is to push through songs one after the other in books and we rarely if ever focus on anything about the actual beauty of the piece. It’s all about just managing to get through song the that is ‘passed’ and we just move on. The problem is that as I am struggling through pieces I have little time to focus back at the fundamentals. So I am wondering whether I should just got back to the first book and work through it again and ask for coaching on details. Part of the problem is that my teacher does sent really speak English! Thanks again for your stuff Allen- a lot of it really has given me inspiration and a kind of vision which I didn’t have before I found your site. I was starting to wonder what I was doing and where I was going. At rock bottom a few weeks ago I even started learning a pop song.

    • Allen January 8, 2016 at 8:52 am #

      Hi Pete,
      Great question/comment. I think this is unfortunately common.
      My suspicion is that you teacher doesn’t really know how to approach phrasing, so there’s no emphasis on it in lessons.
      I am a big fan of going very deep on simpler pieces, and spending more time on them to get at the real musical issues. Here is a link to the category page of articles on phrasing and such. You could browse through and see what catches your attention.
      In the pieces I explore, both in the archives, and in the courses, I go through and give some considerations for making things beautiful. Digging into some of those would be a great place to start.

      Best of luck, let me know if you need anything,

      • Pete Waasabi January 12, 2016 at 12:12 am #

        Cheers Allen, I have already taken a pause and now starting to work on some of the stuff you have suggested. Just working on scales (which I have never really done) seems to be having some positive influence on how some of the stuff I can play actually sounds. Thanks a lot. Cheers for the inspiration and guidance.

  3. Jose Hermoza March 16, 2015 at 10:34 am #

    Hi Allen, thank you for your video, it came at the right time, from this moment on I’ll be practicing exactly the way you mention in your video , it is the only way to learn and master the musical score we are practicing, I’ll no speed it up until I know exactly what I’m doing.
    Thanks a lot .
    P.S. you are a very good teacher (I’m 67 years old , and I have seen a few guitar teachers in my days and it is hard to find a good one, ) you are good . Take care .

    • Allen March 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

      Thanks so much, Jose! Best of luck with everything. If I can ever help further, let me know.

  4. Isaac March 15, 2015 at 1:18 am #

    Hi, Dear Allen! I can’t believe the timeliness of your email that it has arrived at the very moment I need it^^ Thank you trillions, Allen!!!

    Fortunately, I have been practicing the fundementals just the way you have mentioned. I practice very slowly trying to make right sounds. I do it even when I tune the strings. If I play famous pieces, such as BWV 1003 andante, all of them sound like they are in largo. I abandoned the thought of getting faster. I believe high speed will come from slow down. I have been waiting to see the right result so far, and sometimes,very happily, I myself see the fruits in my exercises. Gladly I will introduce your website to my club members!

    Thanks trillions again, Allen!

    • Allen March 15, 2015 at 8:21 am #

      Thanks for the note, Isaac. I am glad it hit home. I love the 1003! Cheers, Allen

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