To play beautifully, we have to train our hands to move with power and grace.
We need speed, agility, and flexibility. We need to be able to perform whatever the music throws at us.
But that takes work. So how do we come to enjoy that work as much as playing the actual tunes?
The Problem: Not Enough Technique Practice
Some guitarists don’t enjoy practicing technique. They don’t wake up looking forward to scales and arpeggios. They don’t relish training their hands to sound and move just so.
Instead, they spend all their time playing pieces. They may do a minute or two of technique practice for every hour spent playing pieces of music.
The problem we encounter practicing only pieces is one of bandwidth. We spend all our mental bandwidth on getting the notes. This leaves none for the “craft” of playing guitar – the actual “how” we play.
To play pieces well, we need to be able to play with
- consistent tone,
- compelling rhythm,
- and lyricly connected notes.
And all these demand attention.
It’s a mistake to think that we can reach our potentials playing only pieces. We need to train our hands. And that training can be every bit as fun and stimulating as playing pieces.
The Solution: Focus on Something Specific
One way to get more interested in technique practice is to focus on specific details.
“Playing scales” may not be much fun. After all, it’s the same thing over and over again, right?
But when we zoom in closer and listen to the little gap of silence between each two notes, making that gap as small as possible, then things start to get more interesting.
The more detailed and specific we make our practice, the more enjoyable it becomes. And better yet, focusing on specifics is what lets us play more beautifully.
The better we can connect notes, the more beautiful our melodies can be.
The faster we can play scales and right-hand patterns, the faster we can play our pieces.
The more awareness we have each note, the more we can sculpt and shape our music.
Specifics give us awareness and control. And these are the raw materials with which we can create anything we want.
But on what, specifically, do we focus?
Technique Focus #1: How You Move Your Hands
How are you sitting? How are your hands approaching the instrument? How do your fingers contact the guitar?
How we play a string with a right-hand finger is how we play. Our right-hand movements create the sound. They determine how rich or thin our sound comes out. How slow or fast. How graceful or gimpy.
Technique Focus #2: Rhythm
Rhythm is how our notes exist in time. We can play the most gorgeous chords, but if the rhythm is off, it will still sound wrong.
To breathe life into our music, we sometimes need to slow down or speed up.
But to manipulate time, we must first master it. We need to be able to keep a steady beat. Otherwise, it’s chaos.
Our technique practice is the perfect place to train our inner conductor. We can use a metronome and learn to play with it. We can become more comfortable with the common rhythms we find in our music.
Technique Focus #3: Articulation (notes connected or separate)
Sometimes, music needs to flow smoothly. Other times, short, clipped notes are the best expression for the music.
We need to be able to do both. We need to be able to alternate between the two.
We aren’t born with this skill. It’s trained, using intentional practice.
Technique Focus #4: Dynamics (swells and fades)
When the only tool we have is a hammer, we see everything as a nail. It isn’t until we become familiar with other tools that we begin to find opportunities to use them.
Swells and fades bring emotion and drama to our music. Dynamics help us to bridge the gap between playing notes and making music.
But changes in volume (without speeding up or slowing down) takes enormous control.
If we want to bring music to life, we need the control and facility to play each note with intention.
Technique practice is the container we create to build the control and awareness.
Technique Focus #5: Tone Quality
When we play pieces, our attention goes to the squeaky wheel: the notes. We can play for hours and not be aware of how the guitar sounds. Guitar music often has melody, bass and harmony. If we don’t craft it, they can all wash together like melted Neapolitan ice cream.
When we put the piece of music aside, we have the luxury of listening. We can take a breath and make a lovely sound. Then we can train our hands to make that sound consistently.
Tip: Bounce Around to Stay Engaged
At first, we don’t have the mental muscles to hold our attention on specific details for long periods of time.
The more curiosity we bring, the longer we can practice the items above. The more interested we become, the better we do.
And while each of the focii above are worthy of deep exploration, we may enjoy bouncing from one to the next.
We can focus in on one practice method for a few minutes, then switch to another.
Down the road, playing pieces becomes a moving circuit of attention. We fleet from rhythm, to movement, to tone, to connection, and more. This happens hundreds of times a minute, like a pilot checking his instruments.
Seek, and Ye Shall Find
The art of playing beautifully is the art of exquisite details.
But details don’t craft themselves. We have to recognize the opportunities before us, then take them.
We can be on the look out for clarity, connection, and consistency. We can listen. We can feel our fingers on the strings.
The first step to playing more beautifully is to become aware of the details. And the more time we spend focused on specific details in our technique practices, the better equipped we’ll be to create beautiful moments.