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 (Spanish Music is particularly rewarding).  This means you get better overall much more quickly than you would otherwise.

Helpful links:

The Fundamentals of Movement on Classical Guitar
5 Most Common Mistakes Guitarists Make
Arpeggio Technique
Right Hand Scale Technique

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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