Naturalist John Muir on the Ecology of Guitar Practice

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

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir

Each of us knows (to some extent) what we want.

As we pick up our guitars and play, we become aware of areas we could improve.

“If only I could play faster…” “If only I was more flexible….” “If only I was stronger and had more stamina…”

Whatever we notice, we assume that’s where we should put our energy. If we want more speed, we should practice speed drills. If we want flexibility, we should do stretching exercises.

For any desire, there’s an obvious answer.

But the obvious answer is rarely going to get us where we want to go. And the reason for this lies in today’s quote from the great naturalist John Muir:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

This means that speed cannot be separated from strength and flexibility.

To maintain accuracy at high speed, we need precise and reliable finger movements. We need our hands to synchronize like a Swiss watch. We need to master the on/off switch of muscle tension.

And for any of the above, we need keen observation skills. We need focus and awareness. We need curiosity and the ability to respond to new information.

And to develop these, we need to slow down and look past the obvious answers.

And all of this takes time.

Of course, we want what we want, and we want it now. We’re only human, after all.

So perhaps the master-skill in all our classical guitar training is the ability to keep the long game in mind – to see whatever we’re working on now as part of a larger progression towards mastery.

In each practice, we can hold ourselves to our highest standards as we know them, and resist the urge to take short-cuts. We can gauge success by our levels of focus and awareness in the moment. And we can break the habit of judging ourselves against some future ideal.

We can make it a game of steady, incremental improvement.

Before we know it, we get what we want. And as a bonus, we enjoy the journey even more.

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.

As I said before, I think your site is outstanding. I have spent my life teaching adults difficult stuff that they really wanted to learn but didn't have the time to learn at the speed we teach university students. Thus I understand only too well how many hundreds of hours you must have spent perfecting your lessons to make my learning as quick and easy as possible.


~ Mike Barron

-Mike Barron

Thanks to you (you are my only teacher) in only a few months I've gone from very basic beginner pieces to having just completed learning Bach's Gavottes 1&2 in good form and execution. As a non-classical electric guitarist who has always used a pick and never his fingers, this has been no small feat!


~ Gregg Olson

-Gregg Olson

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