Have a Positive Agenda in Your Guitar Practice

Classical guitar has many, many rules and best practices to remember. It also has several things to constantly avoid. So with all the “remember this” and “don’t do that”, where is the mental bandwidth supposed to come from to actually play some real music?

By the end of this article, you’ll be better equipped to manage your focus and improve the effectiveness of your guitar practice.

You’ll get an overview of practice and musical goals, and have a manageable process to make sure you’re covering all your bases.

What It Takes to Play Beautifully

To play beautifully, we need to successfully balance (in no particular order):

  1. Maintaining good technique
  2. Avoiding mistakes, traps, and common errors
  3. Projecting our music ideas (or, making it sound like we want it to.)

This is a lot to think about all at one time. But, as my musical coach often says, “Well, if it was easy, anyone could do it.

Of course, over time, our understanding of all the above three components expands and becomes more automatic. But even at the beginning stages we can explore the concepts and practice more effectively to learn them.

Agendas: What You Focus on in Practice

1. Maintaining Good Technique

The first component, maintaining good technique, comes of habits learned in your technique practice.

This is a positive agenda: “Do it THIS way.”

Classical guitar scales, arpeggios and fingerpicking patterns, exercises, and others allow us to explore how we move.  Ideally, we create habits of movement.

This way, when our minds are elsewhere (such as on the notes or rhythm) we still play with consistent classical guitar tone quality.   And with the form and positioning we know works.

2. Avoiding Mistakes, Traps and Common Errors

The second component has us focusing on avoiding things we know we want to avoid.

These may be general, common errors, or ones more specific to our individual bad habits or tendencies. As we learn better technique, we may have to stay constantly aware of what we used to do.  Then stay mindful to avoid the old way in favor of the new.

This is a negative agenda: “Don’t do That.”

3. Projecting Our Music Ideas

The above two exist to allow for this component: Projecting our music ideas.

Musical ideas are made up of dynamics, articulations, phrasing, the “story behind the music”, and anything else we bring to it.

This is what we are truly after. This is the ultimate purpose of developing good technique and abilities, and for pursuing the daily endeavor of practicing.

When all’s said and done, everything we practice, study, and learn are, at the root level, in service to creating beautiful music that connects, transcends, and transports.

When we are first starting out, our ideas are small and may be largely formulated by “So-n-so plays it this way…”. Or, “It says forte, so I’m playing it loud.”

As we develop, we learn about phrasing,  We learn about the long line, pairs of notes, rubato, and all the rest.

The study goes on forever, gloriously.

This is the larger, musical positive agenda. This is the why behind the why.

Agendas and the Alexander Technique

In Alexander Technique, a study in bodily use, there are two main parts: inhibition and direction.

Inhibition is “don’t do that”. Actively keep yourself from doing something you know you don’t want to do.

Direction is keeping front of mind what you want to have happen.

The two go hand in hand. A negative and positive agenda.  “Don’t do that; I want this.”

Negative Agendas

We need negative agendas. We have to know what to avoid. (Otherwise, we’d all be maimed by now by preventable accidents in everyday life, like crossing the street or chopping vegetables.)

A negative agenda is important, but it’s only one part of the whole.

If you lack a positive agenda and react based on a negative one, the result you end up with will likely be as bad or worse as what you tried to avoid.

(If you’d like ample examples of outcomes based on negative agendas and the increased problems that ensue, examine the outcomes of The War on _____.)

Positive Agendas

Positive agendas are where we lay the groundwork for desired results.

We’re not just moving away from something, but instead moving toward something.

This is where we get what we want.

However, if we blindly blunder toward our desires without heeding consequences, common pitfalls, experience, and historical lessons learned, then we’re no more than children setting out to save the world. It feels promising, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

A Place For Everything

So we need both the negative and positive agendas in our practices.

We need to understand deeply what we want to avoid so that we instantly recognize it before it takes hold.

And we need to know what we are shooting for, so that we stand a chance of attaining it.

And to do all this, we have to sometimes isolate issues.

Isolate Issues

In technique practice, we learn and play patterns that we can ingrain so deeply that we can spare the “mental RAM” to work on specific little issues contained in the larger action.

For instance, if you memorize a scale shape, and practice it often, then the pattern itself becomes habitual. Then you can focus on the specific issue of string-crossing (for example). Or dynamics, finger placement, tone quality, or myriad other issues.

If we only play pieces, we are always using our “mental RAM” to simply play the notes. We don’t get better as guitarists, only perhaps as note-players (lacking real artistry).

Inexperienced teachers may focus only on learning pieces.  This offers short-term perceived improvement and long-term problems.

When we first become aware that we are doing something that we would be better off not doing (such as bicycling the right hand fingers), we may need to simplify our practice down to one exercise with one hand, intentionally avoiding the old habit.

With time, we can incorporate the other hand or more complexity to test and strengthen the new habit.

All Good Things Spring from a Positive Agenda

If we are not mindful of our negative agenda (what to avoid), our efforts will be undermined by old habits, distractions, and preventable problems.

But all beauty we create will come by way of a positive agenda.

Another quote from my coach, Mark Westcott: “Beautiful music doesn’t play itself.

Even phenomenal compositions must be brought to life by the player.  Beautiful music is a collaboration between composer and performer.  It takes two to tango.

(As a side note, there is a camp of performers that play devoid of musical intention and claim that they are “letting the music speak for itself”. To this I can only say “The emperor wears no clothes”. Even if it’s clean and fast, it still needs a positive musical agenda, otherwise, we may as well listen to the computer play it.)

It Can be Simple…

Of course, if you are just beginning on guitar, some of this may seem large and daunting. But it needn’t.

We all start from “Go” and progress one step at a time. The issues and practice methods are the same for the fresh beginner and the seasoned professional:

  1. Develop solid technique
  2. Avoid pitfalls
  3. Project your musical ideas

We are all at varying points on the path of each of these. The important thing is to be aware of them and ensure that you are progressing in each. (Or, as a negative agenda: don’t stagnate.”)

Do This:

To ensure that you are moving forward and growing in all three areas, perhaps the best thing you can do is to commit to being aware of what you are doing.

As much as possible, always play through each repetition of your practice with some specific purpose and intent.  Mindless repetition will send you off in the wrong direction.  Instead, choose one little thing to focus on (either doing or not doing), and make the repetition about that one thing.

This may be a bit different for you at first, but with very little time, you’ll create a habit of being more intentional and having more “specifics” in your practice.  It’s well worth the effort!

Oh, and if you need to spice things up, here are a few practice questions.

Releasing the Need for Perfection and Just Playing

Because we can always improve our playing, it can be easy to become perfectionistic about our playing.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert once said (to wit), “Perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes.

At the end of the day, we are in this game because we want something beautiful and lovely in our lives. We may be attracted to different aspects of the art and study at different times. But in the end, we want it to be nice.

In the perfect practice, we are identifying issues, and working directly (positive agenda) to master them. This may mean letting something else slide in service to the main focus. So be it. We can work on the other issue next time.

As time goes on, our ability to identify good technique, things to avoid, and opportunities for musical expression will increase and become more refined.

As long as we can stay focused on our “prime directive” (be aware, have fun), we’ll have rewarding sessions each day that bring us step by step forward on the musical path. Classical guitar lives in the practice, not the performance.

As Joseph Campbell said, “When you’re on the path, you’re at the goal.”

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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