Stella Adler on Getting the Most from Exercises
Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!
“Your job isn’t merely to do the exercise but to do it in the sense of something larger than the exercise.”
Stella Adler (in The Art of Acting)
Stella Adler was an acting coach. Many of her students became household names. She taught such stars as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Keitel, Candice Bergen, and many more.
One of her main beliefs was that exercises should be done with full commitment. There was no such thing as a trivial exercise. It was never okay to do exercises rote.
If you performed an exercise distracted or halfheartedly, she would rain fire.
This wasn’t because she had a love of exercises. It was because in our exercises, we create and reinforce our habits.
In her book, The Art of Acting, she says it this way. “Either you learn to respect each exercise as if it were the opening night at La Scala or opening night at La Scala will be nothing more than an exercise. Do you see?”
This is equally true of our guitar scales and right-hand patterns. Our hammer-ons and pull-offs. Our chord-switching and string-crossing.
Music is made of small moments. And it is our ability to breathe life into these moments that makes our music fulfilling and rewarding—both to play and to hear.
And the way we do this is by playing our scales and exercises musically.
We can bring our full selves to the challenges at hand. Connecting notes, keeping a steady rhythm, getting intentionally louder or softer.
In our technique exercises, we build the skills we’ll need for larger pieces. Technique practice is where we sharpen our tools, build our muscles, and craft our touch.
Like Adler and all those at the top of their games, we can bring our best to our study. We can give the same love and care to each exercise as we would a glittering masterpiece.
We live moment to moment. The moments we spend on scales or chords are no less important or valid than the moments we spend on pieces.
And more, how we practice is how we play.
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.
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