Thoreau Meaningful Practice Guitar

Henry David Thoreau on Meaningful Practice and the Trap of Busy

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

“It is not enough to be busy—so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” 

Henry David Thoreau

So much to do! Sure, in general life, but also in guitar practice. We have hundreds of scales, exercises, pieces, and more.

And most of us have limited time. We all certainly have limited energy and focus.

So we need some sort of plan. But even with the perfect guitar practice schedule, we can still arrive frenzied and distracted.

David Allen, creator of “Getting Things Done,” offers a framework to gain perspective. He uses the metaphor of altitude to make it easier to navigate.

Tasks are at ground level. These are the things we actually do. Our practice plan is probably a list of specific tasks.

The project is at 10,000 feet. This could be the current piece of music, for example. Or it could be our scale technique or chords. We have many areas to study within guitar, and each is its own “project.”

Move up to 20,000 feet and we have the area of focus – music practice in general. Others areas may include our work, relationships, health, spirituality, finances, etc.

30,000 feet gives us the perspective of our goals. These could be what we want to achieve over the next few years or decades. Our goals may include favorite pieces of music. Or perhaps a general level of mastery.

At 40,000 feet we find our vision. This is what we want in the “game of work and the business of life.” For guitar, we may see ourselves with a meaningful daily practice. In it, we find emotional adventure and intellectual exploration. We feel both humble and proud. We may have images of performing for friends, or passing the time on winter evenings.

And up at 50,000 feet we have our values and principles. Our values point the general direction. And our principles govern the rules of play. In practice this may manifest as a drive to meet challenges and avoid short-cuts. Or it may be that we crave structure and organization. These are unique to each of us.

So this is all a tidy and useful structure we can use to gain perspective on anything in life. We can zoom in or out on any aspect of our music.

For example, why practice scales today? Technique work, including scales, can feel like busy-work. That is, unless we visit a higher perspective.

Zooming up a level, we may want better tone quality, for which scales are very effective. We may be preparing our hands for a dazzling new piece soon. Or we may have the goal of reaching a certain level of dexterity and speed.

And to continue this example, we then zoom up further. Here, we remember why we’re practicing guitar in the first place.

We can recall that this not just another chore, like scrubbing pans or folding laundry. This is something we do for ourselves. We do it to make our lives better in real and deeply personal ways.

At the ground level of daily practice, we may encounter the classic “forest vs. trees” dilemma. And when we do, we may devalue that which we may otherwise hold sacred.

These scales are not a nuisance. Instead they are today’s opportunity to focus and feel our fingers. They are the container we’ve crafted to honor our human needs of growth and connection.

We practice not to stay busy, but as a long-term nurturing of something beautiful.

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 am truly enjoying the growth and challenge that the Woodshed material provides.  I look forward to working hard and learning much in the years ahead.  Thanks for all the effort and care that you have taken in providing these lessons and resources!


~ Mark Whitsett

-Mark Whitsett

Great Work!!!  I thank you sincerely for all the effort you have put in and the terrific work you do for the classical guitar community.


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