Peter Drucker guitar practice

How Saying No in Guitar Practice Helps Us Improve

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

“People are effective because they say no.”

Peter Drucker

When we play a piece of music, we aspire to:

  • Play the right notes
  • Play the right hand fingerings as written.
  • Play the left hand fingerings as written.
  • Play in the given rhythm
  • Swell and fade just so
  • Create beautiful tone with each note
  • Synchronize the hands and on and on.

But if we can’t do each of these separately, there’s no way we’ll do them all at the same time.

And here is where saying “no” comes in.

We practice most effectively when we focus on one thing at time.

To be clear, we don’t abandon any musical element for long. Instead, we put all else aside for a moment so we can focus on one little piece of the puzzle.

Then, we put that one aside and focus on some other element. Then another. And another.

Until soon, we’ve given each element our full attention. And when we put them all back together, the total package sounds better.

Chances are, not every element will be as “perfect” as when we isolate it. But it’s better, and we’ve learned something. We’ve learned to listen better. We’ve learned to practice better. And even if it’s only 1% better , that’s still positive progress.

Over time, we’ll be more able to track the individual tasks while combining them. But even then, we’ll still need to say “no” to a thousand possibilities in order to practice effectively.

We can call saying “no” to certain things to focus on others “elemental practice”. The irony is that while the work is often simpler and feels easier, it takes massive discipline to actually do it.

It feels right to just dive in and start thwacking away at the whole piece. But this is rarely effective. It can be hard to “say no”, but that’s where the good work gets done.

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, I am a Dutch guy who plays classical guitar (solo and together with a flute player). Unfortunately I have been suffering from focal dystonia since begin 2016. Of course I tried physical therapy which didn't help… But I tried some of your [technique] lessons (I had teachers before but I was never taught your techniques) and to my big surprise the nasty feeling in the back of my right hand which pulls my index finger upward was gone! So now I practice your lessons. Anyway, I am very happy to have found you on the internet. Thanks very much!


~ Arnoud Reinders

-Arnoud Reinders

I have to say after over 12 months of one-on-one training with a teacher before joining The Woodshed, this is the first time that I feel I’m making technical progress.


~ Nusret Aydemir

-Nusret Aydemir

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