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The TRUTH about Learning Guitar
The Basics > Practice Theory > Changing Bad Habits On Guitar
Changing Bad Habits On Guitar

I want to address an issue that seems to keep coming up for people who are familiar with my work, and beginning to use my methods. People are reading my essays, and it seems a new awareness is beginning to dawn for them, which is good, that’s the whole point. But for many people, it is a very disconcerting experience. I have gotten letters from people who have read some things I have written, and become afraid to practice! They are so aware of, and on their guard against, excess muscle tension, and the devastating effects for the developing player, they are afraid to touch a string!

They start to feel like that song by Al Yankovich, “Everything You Know Is Wrong”. They realize that even though they may have been playing for 25 years, there are certain really fundamental things they have never known, and if they did know them from the beginning, everything would have gone differently for them in their growth as guitarists.

Well, that IS the truth. That is the message I am always trying to get across. I am always trying to convey to people that if you have tried to learn the guitar and failed, it is not you, it is the approach to it all that is at fault. If you are stuck at a certain level of development, it is not you, it is your approach that is keeping you there. Change the approach, and you will create different results. I know this is a fact, because I do it every day, for myself, and for others.

Knowing the fact that the approach you use to learn the guitar is THE key-determining factor in your success or failure to actually learn, these three conclusions follow:

1. Playing the guitar well is NOT reserved for just some special people. It is available and possible for everyone

2. You are never too old to learn to play the guitar well. 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, you are still young in guitar playing years In fact, as soon as you touch the guitar in the right spirit, you will begin to become younger.

3. You can undo bad habits you have learned along the way. You can begin the process of undoing bad habits right away, when you begin to acquire the correct understandings, and use the approaches based on them.

So, even though it is a shock to find out that you have had a bad or insufficient approach for years, you must get over that shock right away. In fact, get used to it, it’s only the beginning! Get used to feeling like an idiot, get used to feeling like a beginner. Staying with that feeling positions you in the best possible way for being able to see what YOUR obstacles to growth really are. As soon as you think you are “complete” in some way as a guitarist, you will be unable to see your own weak spots.

Now that we have the proper attitude in focus, let’s talk about how to go about “managing” the process of changing bad playing habits. How do we actually conduct ourselves, and our practicing and playing? As I have said, some people become paralyzed, afraid to play, afraid of undoing work done in practice sessions by what they do when they play. And for those who play professionally, it is of course, absolutely necessary that they continue to play, even if they are doing “remedial” work on their technique.

People ask, “should I stop playing everything I am used to playing, until I get rid of all my bad habits”? Well, if you have a lot more discipline than I have, go ahead and do that! If you can stand not making music for months, go ahead, but I don’t recommend it.

An extreme example of this would be to entirely stop playing any of our usual music, where all the bad habits show themselves, and buckle down to things like the Foundation Exercises in my "Principles" book, or the ones I have written about in my essays. You could work on those for months and months until you felt you had overcome your bad habits, and then go back to playing music. I'd have to love self-punishment a whole lot more than I do (which is not at all!) to take that route. I need fun and enjoyment in my life on a daily basis, so I can't go with that one!

Take the Middle Path

I prefer to be wise like the Buddha, and take the Middle Path. This is the one I have chosen, and I will describe it for you.

First, if you are using my book, "The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar", begin to do all the Foundation Exercises, because they will start to undo the foundation of ALL your bad habits. Do them every day for perhaps ten minutes. If you are not using my book, get all you can from my essays, and apply those approaches, experiment with them, and elaborate upon them, and adapt them to new situations.

Second, after coming to an awareness of the existence of a "bad habit", develop an understanding of HOW it got there. What WEREN'T you doing that allowed that situation to develop. Of course, it always reduces down to something you weren't aware of that you should have been paying attention to, been more INTENSE about during your practice.

Third, absolutely spend a good amount of time in practicing REVERSING that habit. Practice in a new way, where you make sure you DO what you weren't doing before. Analyze the essence of that bad habit, extract it from it's musical context, and perhaps make up "auxiliary exercises" based on the essence of it. Use all the practice techniques that I teach to effectively begin this process of reversal.

Fourth, make sure the reversal of the habit is actually beginning to take place. This means we make sure that our practice is effective. If it's not, go back to steps One and Two and Three!

Fifth, take up one of your usual pieces of music where that habit has been showing itself by producing UNWANTED RESULTS, and we begin to practice IT in the same careful way that you did the exercises you were using to change the essence of the bad habit.

As weeks and months go by, your old “bad habit” will begin to weaken, it will change. It will be replaced by the new finger action you are training into the fingers. The important point to realize is that the new habit WILL take over, if you are doing the proper proportion of CORRECT PRACTICE on the bad habit. Merely playing the music where the bad habit displays itself will not disturb the changes you are building into the fingers by your powerful, correct practice. As time goes by, the new habit will begin to show itself IN your playing, and become stronger and stronger.

For instance, the process may go like this:

I notice I have trouble with a fast scale passage in a piece I am playing.

I notice a particular note starts disappearing when I reach a certain speed. The note is being missed.

I notice the finger responsible for playing that note is the third finger. It is not getting to the note because it is going up in the air in reaction to the second finger being used right before it in that particular scale passage. In other words, it is tensing in reaction to the movement of it’s neighboring finger, and I have not been paying attention to it. I realize this is a bad habit that pervades my playing, a third finger that tenses up in reaction to the use of the second finger.

Now I know I have to work on something very fundamental. I have to work on the behavior of my third finger, and change the way it reacts to it’s neighbor being used, the second finger. If I can get down to the matter with that degree of specificity, that degree of clarity and focus, I am in a position to cause major Vertical Growth. If I can change the way that finger is behaving in that situation, I will see many playing problems I am having in other pieces of music begin to “melt”, and eventually disappear.

I must find a way of practicing that movement that DOES NOT ALLOW the bad action to occur. Principled Players know that means using Posing, No Tempo Practice, and the Basic Practice Approach, all done with the proper intense focus.

Here is a simpler scenario for beginning players. Perhaps you suffer from the common complaint of not being able to change chords smoothly so you can sing that old favorite of yours without feeling like a new driver learning to drive a stick shift (go, stall, go, stall, etc.)

Well, that is very simple. You are simply suffering from shoulder tension while making the moves (also, tension in the muscles of the upper back and chest, they all move the arm). Because of this, you must address the fundamental aspects mentioned before. You cannot control your fingers, or even train them, because control is being choked off higher up, in the larger muscles.

Now, the challenge will be to be able to use the practice approaches that CAN actually change something like that. Users of “The Principles” know that this means Posing, and No Tempo practice, and the use of The Basic Practice Approach. Again, unfortunately, too often I meet readers of my book who are NOT really using these practice approaches. They bought the tool, but they don’t use it! Those that do certainly see the results.

Understanding and Allowing the Step by Step Process

You must understand that your ability to effectively change bad habits is going to depend completely upon how deeply and truly you understand the fundamental mechanics of the process of playing the guitar, and the process of “practicing” the guitar, meaning the actual process of how we teach the mind and body new things. If you do not have a sufficiently deep understanding of these things, you will not be able to change bad habits.

I hope you realize the importance of what I just said! I suggest you read it over a few times, and think about it. I suggest you take some serious time right now, and in the next days and weeks to size yourself up, and answer this question “Do I feel like I have a sufficient understanding of the mechanics of playing the guitar so that I know how to practice in a way that will “change bad habits”, which means “solve problems” which really means “fix bad things about my playing”.

And the reason I am saying this is because so many people write to me and ask me the simple, basic question “how do I change this bad habit of mine”? Or, they may be asking the question in reverse. They may ask a question like “how can I play faster”, which is really saying “How can I get rid of the elements of my present playing technique (a bad habit) that are preventing me from playing as fast as other people play”, so it is really the same question.

So my point is this: if you do not have sufficient understanding of how things work, of what really happens when you sit down to practice, then you will not be able to change bad habits. So if this is the case, there is no answer to such a question. The answer to this question, for a person without the sufficient understanding is that you can’t change that bad habit. 

Then, of course, the real answer, the necessary next step, is to go and GET that understanding, and learn how to do the kind of practice that is based on that understanding. THEN, we can talk.

So, the real answer to the question is “the way you get to be able to change bad habits is by understanding how you got them in the first place”. If you can understand that Muscle Memory put that bad habit there, while you were busy spending hours practicing with your shoulder tense, or your wrist and hand tensed up, then you will see that Muscle Memory will also change, or rather, allow you to REPLACE the bad habit with a new, and better one. If, that is, you know how to summon the mental focus necessary to make that happen, if you know how to become aware of, and stay aware of, what you were not aware of before. 

Now understand this. It is often extremely difficult for me to get results from a person sitting in front of me, to get them to REALLY have this mental intensity, pay that much attention, and keep doing that in their daily practice at home. It can be extremely difficult to get someone to REALLY be aware of what they are actually doing when they play, even what they actually sound like! And I have no hope of getting results with someone if I cannot move them to that level of intensity. 

That is why I am always so happy when someone writes and tells me of progress they are making using my methods. It proves to me that people CAN be moved to that intensity long-distance, as it were.

But I am going through all this to really drive a point home to all the people with one of the “how can I change bad habits” type questions. You can’t, unless the level of your understanding of all aspects of the process is sufficiently deep! So make sure it is, and continue to deepen it. The way to do that is to educate yourself, by reading my writings, and any other sources you discover that are out there, and also to constantly THINK for yourself, experiment, observe, draw conclusions, and re-experiment in your practice. 

It Just Happens (The Devil Made Me Do It)!!!

There is a statement that students will often exclaim, and it is a big tip-off that they DO NOT HAVE the sufficiently deep understanding that I am referring to. That statement is, when referring to some bad behavior a finger may be exhibiting, “I can’t help it, it just happens by itself!”

This statement shows that the person is the unfortunate victim of the dynamics of the practice process, such as Muscle Memory, instead of being the master of those dynamics, so that Muscle Memory is put to work for us, instead of against us. The person who has the necessary understanding MAKES the right thing happen because they can do two things: they can summon the strong Intention and Attention (mental focus) necessary to make the correct thing happen, and they can have the stillness of mind and body required to do real No Tempo Practice and Posing, which will erase old muscle memory and replace it with new, improved muscle memory. I discuss all of these understandings in depth in my book, "The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar".

A strong mental focus, and the stillness of mind and body I am talking about, make your practice sufficiently deep, sufficiently powerful to change bad habits, or in fact, acquire good ones. I call this “the bottom of your practice”. If the bottom of your practice is not deep enough, your practice will have no effect. Essentially, most of what I do with students is simply to deepen the bottom of their practice for them, and try to get them to be able to keep it that deep for themselves.

So, if you have that “it just happens” feeling, well, now you know what it really means, and what to do about it.

Take Things In The Proper Order

Once you have begun to get this deep understanding, you will be able to take certain aspects of playing the guitar in their proper order. You are not going to address the issue of how your hands and fingers function until you have addressed the issue of something more fundamental, like how you sit with the instrument, and how aware you are of your body in general while playing. If you don’t know that the way you are sitting and positioning your arms is forcing you to tense muscles needed to play, you will always be working with a handicap that limits your progress. Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case MOST of the time with players.

The remedy here is to CONSTANTLY EXAMINE the fundamentals of your playing. Your sitting, hand positions, finger action, pick action, etc. Observe, think, analyze, experiment, repeat the process in every practice session. DO NOT TAKE THE FUNDAMENTALS FOR GRANTED.

Once your understanding of the mechanics of playing and practicing are sufficiently deep to allow you to see things in the right order of importance, and you have addressed the necessary fundamentals, begin to get specific about the other elements of playing technique. Whatever level of player you are, begin to get a clear focus on your weak areas, and BE SPECIFIC!

Always Set The Proper Next Goal

Once you are able to get this specific, see into the heart of some flaw in your technique, and are able to approach it in a fundamental and effective manner, it is now just a matter of continuing that process, and setting one goal after another.

When you work on a fundamental, such as the one described above, you make it a project that may last anywhere from a month, to several months, or even a year. You hammer at that aspect of your technique relentlessly. You do whatever exercises you know that will help, if properly practiced. You make up exercises that will help, if properly practiced. You use the actual passage that gave rise to the whole “investigation”. You take note of and measure your progress and results.

Once you see that bad habit begin to weaken, and new habits come through in your playing, you ask yourself, “Ok, what is the next worst thing about my playing, what is the next fundamental aspect of playing that is underlying various trouble spots in my repertoire?” Find it, and go after it.

Get and Keep the Correct Attitude

The final point I want to make in considering the subject of changing bad habits, which is another way of saying creating Vertical Growth as players, is the adoption and full acceptance of the CORRECT ATTITUDE of someone desiring to achieve their full potential. And that is the attitude of ABSOLUTE OPENNESS about yourself, about you as a guitar player, and about the endless possibilities of things you have yet to learn. Here are the attributes of someone who has this correct attitude:

 They don’t get upset when they discover some major flaw in their playing, they become curious and interested.

 They don’t feel sorry for themselves when they begin to clearly see the source of some problem in playing, and realize that it could have been avoided if someone pointed it out, or they had noticed it themselves (that tensed up shoulder they have been playing with for years). They are thankful that they finally see it, and resolve to set about integrating the new awareness into all their playing, right away. They are in fact, happy, every time they begin to become aware of how wrong they have been about some aspect of their playing and practicing approach.

Whenever I have one of my “Wow, what an idiot I’ve been” moments, I am always very happy. Now I know I am on the verge of becoming an even better player than I am now. How could that upset me!?

And this is something all of you can say at such times. Make sure you do. Make sure you keep the feeling of excitement and gratitude if you read something, by me or someone else, and it makes you realize that you have been missing something in your understanding and approach to the guitar. Do not get whinny and negative because something has come along to upset the nice opinion you have managed to create and maintain about yourself as a guitarist!

And make sure you maintain that attitude of excitement, discovery and gratitude every day on your path of development as a guitarist, musician and artist. It is an endless journey, and those who have gone farthest know that best.

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