Alfred North Whitehead on Guitar Technique

Alfred North Whitehead on How to Advance Classical Guitar Technique

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

Alfred North Whitehead

One main goal is to play music beautifully. This means, in part, that any complexity or speed appears (and largely is) effortless.

We train our technique (movements, abilities) to this end. We play scales and patterns and click along with the metronome. Day by day, we learn to use our hands more effectively.

But the ultimate goal of technique is to move beyond it. – To meet any musical challenge without breaking stride. – To give life to the dots on the page, unencumbered by any physical lacking.

This comes in stages, not all at once.

It takes time and practice to go from one level of competence to the next.

We go through four stages of competence on our journey to effortless mastery:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – We don’t know we don’t know
  2. Conscious Incompetence – We know we don’t know
  3. Conscious Competence – We can do it if we try
  4. Unconscious Competence – We do it automatically (aka “habit”)

To master anything, we move through these stages.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.

Our musical abilities also advance by this recipe.

So how do we make the most of our time, and progress along this path the fastest?

The secret is consistency. We can we train our hands to move the same way each time, starting with basic movements, then growing more advanced. And when we do, we create the neural pathways to make these movements without thinking of them.

This is like treading a new path through a field – it’s quickest and easiest if we follow the same route each time. We create a “groove” that, in time, we’ll not have to think about.

Once one skill is ingrained, we can free the mental bandwidth it had taken. This means we can learn new skills or be more creative.

And what stops us from learning and practicing in this logical way?

We pretend.

We pretend we have already done the work and can play effortlessly. So we hurry. We play faster than we can maintain full awareness. We lose the consistency, and so we lose the accuracy and precision. Then we pretend we don’t know what went wrong.

The remedy? Simple: Slow down. Focus on quality sound and movement. Stay aware. Listen.

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.

I have lost my entire metallic sound while I am playing now. Even my single note practice sounds more melodious, less tinny. [The Woodshed technique practice] has made a major difference in my tone. Thank you.


~ Harlan Friedman

-Harlan Friedman

For the first time ever, I have achieved great tone on my acoustic guitars. I've been studying fingerstyle guitar and music theory for about one year now. Tonight is the first time, I feel quite satisfied with my ability to produce a nice clear tone when striking the strings with my right hand fingers. By following your training videos in the program, I'm gradually developing my fingerstyle playing ability. KUDOS to you, Allen Mathews.


~ Joaquin Kenyon

-Joaquin Kenyon

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