Josh Waitzkin on Principles vs. Tactics

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

“Tactics become easy once the principles are in the blood.” 

Josh Waitzkin

As hobbyist musicians, many of us seek tips. We scour the web for the secret trick for immediate and noticeable improvements.

This makes complete sense. We have a result in mind, such as playing through a piece of music without major mistakes. Our goal is to play the piece, and we want to know how to get there.

But often, these helpful tips can slow our development. They could make it less likely we get the current or future pieces to the level we dream of.

So what do we do instead? How do we move ahead and avoid the dead ends and wild goose chases?

The answer lies, as chess Grandmaster Josh Waitzkin suggests, in principles.

Principles, or basics, are the fundamental movements, patterns, ideas, techniques, etc. that inform everything we do on guitar.

Principles include how we sit and hold the guitar. How we use our hands and fingers. How we practice. How we understand the music we play.

Tactics apply to certain situations. Principles are a level deeper. They inform how we choose which tactics and then how we apply them.

The best guitar practice focuses largely on principles. We spend time daily ingraining solid fundamentals so that we can conjure them automatically when we’re not thinking about them. We drill the core movements so they are there when we need them.

And we use the pieces we play as studies in applying our principles.

Each piece becomes part of a larger path. We can expand the context of each piece so that the process by which we practice matters more than the outcome.

By prioritizing principles, we raise the quality of everything we do. Our pieces sound better because the glue that holds them together is stronger.

The basics give us a reference point to evaluate our playing. Problem-solving becomes easier because we know what to look for. We can go to the root of problems, rather than seeking quick tactics that attempt to conceal them.

Dr. Russell Ackoff wrote, ” …the righter you do the wrong things, the wronger you become.”

And the flip of this is also true: the righter we do the right things, the righter we become. And the right things are most often principles that carry from one piece to the next.

Where a single issue or piece of music is local, principles are global.

Looking closer at the core elements of our playing, we find the opportunities to work on the basics. Slowing down, listening in, we become better teachers for ourselves. And in this way we progress—confident and sure.

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.

Those videos on practicing the piece were just awesome, Allen! I've always thought that learning songs might be something completely different than practicing exercises, but the way you teach it makes it much easier than I thought. I'm positive that joining the Woodshed has been the best investment I've ever done for learning the classical guitar. Thank you so much for these lessons.


~ Ulysses Alexandre Alves

-Ulysses Alexandre Alves

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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