The Philosophy of Kaizen in Classical Guitar Practice

We often think of improvements as big, dramatic changes. This is true with anything from personal life to home projects.

But the idea of “kaizen” has a different approach. Here, instead of only grand changes, we focus on the small ones. These add up over time, and everything gets better.

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What is Kaizen?

“Kaizen” is the Japanese word for improvement. After World War II, Japan focused on rebuilding the nations industry. As part of this, they brought in American engineer and statistician W. Edwards Deming.

In American assembly lines of the time, any mistakes were caught at the end of the process and fixed.

Deming worked with Toyota. He suggested that small improvements in the assembly line would raise the overall quality.

In what was to become “The Toyota Way”, any worker on the line could stop the entire line at any time. Any small issue was fixed immediately.

Instead of relying on managers to find improvements, he went to the workers. Workers at every level were rewarded for suggesting small, seemingly inconsequential improvements. Every second saved or process improved was celebrated.

This brought higher quality, higher customer satisfaction, less waste, and higher employee engagement. In short, these became the best factories in the world.

And lucky for the rest of us, kaizen works not just for car manufacturers, but for us all. We can use it in every part of our lives, including guitar.

What Kaizen Means for Guitar Practice

So how do we use kaizen to help our guitar playing? Easily…

In fact, “easily” is the best way to use kaizen in general. Instead of massive changes to our practice methods, schedules or techniques, we can make very small ones.

When we make small changes over time, we avoid the shock of change. Our homeostatis systems continue to tell us everything is normal. Because nothing major has changed, we feel safe and don’t resist.

So what small changes can we make in our guitar practice? Here are a few example habits that will lead to big results over time:

  • A brief pause before picking up the guitar
  • Light stretching for a moment before playing
  • Deciding in advance what to practice for the day
  • Including a specific technique or music practice (such as slurs, or a tricky spot from a piece)

If we did these all at once, we may not stick with them. But if we introduced just one at a time, the change would be easy.

We can also think of this in terms of 1% improvements.

Ask Generative Questions

But how do we know what small changes to make or habits to form?

To use kaizen, it’s best to ask generative questions each day. Ideally, we ask the same question for a few days. This puts our minds to work on the question. Then, “out of the blue”, we may get an idea for a small change that would lead to improvement.

A “generative question” is one that leads to thought. Instead of a simple yes/no answer, the question is designed to foster thinking. This thinking could be either conscious, or in the background.

Generative questions have no one correct answer. So asking them creates an “open loop”.

Here are a few examples of generative questions: What small improvement could help me remember more of what I learn? What small changes could I make to enjoy playing guitar even more? What small changes could I make to my practice space to facilitate my learning? What small things could I do in practice to stay more focused?

Ask one or more of these every day for a week, and we may come up with new ideas we never would have otherwise considered.

To Get Started with Kaizen on Guitar, Start Small

Start small. If there is a small change you know would be helpful (such as turning off your phone when you practice), do it.

Select just one or two changes at first. The goal is to not raise any “alarms” that could lead to resistance. The changes should seem ridiculously trivial.

After a couple of weeks or months, make more small changes. Over time, these improvements compound exponentially. Then, we find ourselves playing better, and enjoying music more.

Kaizen is a life-long exercise. We will never arrive at the point where no other small improvements are possible. So the key is to choose one small change now, and make it.

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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