Annie Dillard on Guitar Practice Schedules and Avoiding Chaos

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

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

Annie Dillard

Learning guitar, we wear many hats.

First, we have a vision. We want to achieve something, be it a piece of music, an experience, or an ability.

To reach this vision, we set a strategy, deciding the general direction of our learning. This may be a program or book, or just a scattershot approach based on Youtube videos.

Then, we decide on projects. We choose songs and skills on which to work.

Then, we figure out how exactly we’ll work on those songs and skills. What steps will we take? Will we use a process, or just jump in and start trying things? These are managerial decisions.

Then, on a daily basis, we do the meaningful work.

This is where we practice switching from one chord to another. We struggle through learning our notes and music jargon. We slowly ingrain the movements that will allow us to play faster later. We learn and polish pieces of music. We solve the myriad problems and face the endless small challenges. This is where we grow.

But to practice well, we need to wear the “practicer” hat. This is the hat of the worker-bee. This is the clock-puncher who shows up and gets his hands dirty.

At our best, when we pick up our guitar and sit down to practice, we know what needs to happen. We can focus all our energy on quality practice and correct repetitions.

However, if we haven’t decided beforehand what to do, we must then play many roles. We have to wear the “manager” hat. We have to first plan our work, before we can actually do it.

This is where a schedule comes in. A schedule lets us go directly to worker-mode. It lets us dive in and get started with a minimum of friction.

A schedule doesn’t have be minute-by-minute. It can be as simple as a list of practice areas. It can be detailed, such as “slur exercises, 2 minutes each”. Or it can be general: “chords”. We can tailor our schedules to fit our personal styles and dispositions.

We can even create detailed schedules, then follow them only loosely.

The important part is that when we sit down to play, we don’t need to ask the question, “What do I do?”

As long as we’re focused and engaged, we’re making incremental gains. As long as we’re heading in a general direction and practicing the skills that will get us there, we’re improving.

Otherwise, we doubt and question ourselves. This questioning undermines our engagement and distracts us in practice. Our progress slows, and we see little musical growth. A schedule protects against this chaos, and moves us forward on the path.

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.

Hi Allen,
Greetings from the UK. I would like to thank you for providing such an excellent resource. The effort and skill which has gone into creating this program is very evident. I started classical guitar a year or so ago with a teacher but was unable to commit to same time regular slots each week.

The Woodshed Program was exactly what I was looking for. I have found the site very intuitive and well structured and have taken your advice and started from the very beginning of the program whilst still practising some of the pieces I was already working on. It is clear that I will benefit greatly from these early technical studies. There were clearly weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge even though I am still at an early stage. Once again many thanks for the program and very best wishes.


~ Rodger Paylor

-Rodger Paylor

Hi Allen,
First public performance ever! I am up to Level 1E in The Woodshed program. It is certainly mega helpful.


~ Peter Graham

-Peter Graham

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