Seneca on Direction and Focus in Guitar Practice

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

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”


How do we progress on guitar? How do we get better?

It depends. Why do we practice guitar? What is it we’re looking to achieve or attain?

The answer to these questions comes as many layers.

On one level, we aim for a specific piece of music or technical benchmark.

On another level, we want the satisfaction of reaching more general personal goals.

And on another level, we want meaningful experiences that transcend the routine day-to-day. Experiences that make us feel more alive and human. Experiences that make us feel connected to something greater than ourselves.

Thinking on these higher levels, we often find it can be difficult to know how to get there. What happens when we sit down with the goal of universal connectedness? We become confused and don’t achieve much of anything.

Instead, we can only work with the material in front of us–our bodies, our guitars, our attention.

Guitar gives us the opportunity to enjoy the higher-level wins. But they are not guaranteed. We still have to man the ship and do the work.

Eban Pagan wrote about the origins of the word “opportunity”. He said, “It comes from the Latin word ‘opportunus’, which means to move toward a port or harbor (ob = toward + portus = harbor). When a ship is coming into a harbor, and it can see the port that is its destination, this is opportunus.”

So to capture the opportunity, we need to have our immediate destination in sight.

And what is the immediate destination? It’s the specific challenge of the moment. It’s whatever we define as the current, this-minute goal.

To begin, it starts with simply picking up the instrument and touching the strings. Then our goals expand according to our knowledge and strategy.

A current goal could be a smooth landing on an awkward chord. It could be well-controlled volume, perfect rhythm, or any of a thousand other things.

But the goal should be specific and front of mind (in clear sight, so to speak).

Can this be difficult? Of course. As the proverb goes, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

We need the balance of “hard but not too hard” to drive us forward and build our skills. The more specific and immediate our goals are, the more opportunity we have for progress and improvement.

Over time, before we know it, we also realize the higher-levels benefits of music. And it all comes from setting a clear objective for the moment, then paying attention.

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.

Your GCS site and The Woodshed community are really super! I am glad I finally joined in, and smacking myself for waiting so long. Thanks again!


~ Carol Morin

-Carol Morin

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

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