March 15, 2019

changing bad habits on guitar


When people begin to use “The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar”, the first question they have is "What is the best way to practice guitar and fix all the bad playing habits I have".  

Now You Feel The Tension! So...

 “The Principles” bring you a new awareness of all the tension you really have in your fingers when you play. You don't feel this tension, but this is where your  playing problems come from.   Some people become so aware of this tension that they begin to think they are getting worse instead of better. They may even become afraid to practice! 

 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 you are using that is to blame. If you are stuck at a certain level of development, it is not you, it is how you practice that is keeping you there. Change the approach, and you will create different results. 

 The approach we use to learn the guitar is the key determining factor in our success or failure.  You can undo all the bad habits you have learned along the way. You can begin to do this right away as soon as you use the practice approaches found in "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar" 

 The Best Way To Practice Depends

Let’s discuss how to go about managing the process of changing bad guitar playing habits. What is the best way to practice guitar now? 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”? That depends on a number of things:  

  1. Your personality and work ethic. Are you able to be very disciplined and work only on the foundation exercises from “The Principles”. This is often the smartest and shortest path.
  2. How much time do you have to practice? Can you work on the foundation exercises in a disciplined way for perhaps half your practice time, then go to other music?
  3. Are you performing? In that case, you must play your music even during the process of transforming your fingers.

Only you can answer these questions.              

Taking the Middle Path

Another approach would  be to take the Middle Path. This is the one I have chosen, and I will describe it for you.

First, 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 at least, or anywhere up to half your available practice time.

Second, as you practice, and come 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,  and paid more intense attention to during practice. An example would be a finger sticking up in the air while another is playing.  

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 (in “The Principles” and in “Beyond The Basic Practice Approach”) to effectively begin this process of reversal.

Beyond the Basic Practice Approach: Strategies for Higher Levels of Achievement on Guitar

Beyond the Basic Practice Approach: Strategies for Higher Levels of Achievement on Guitar

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 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.

Many of the advanced practice strategies you will use to change bad habits are found in "Beyond The Basic Practice Approach". 

The Best Way To Practice After Starting

 "The Principles"

How To Change Bad Habits

1. Do all The Foundation Exercises

2. Discover and analyze bad habits

3. Practice in a new way to reverse that habit

4. Check frequently to make sure the bad habit is improving.

5. Test the improvement in various pieces you play. 

Change Takes Time

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 enough correct practice on the bad habit. Do correct practice on the problem area every day, and it will improve over time.  

For instance, the process may go like this:

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

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

3. 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 its neighboring finger, and I have not been paying attention to it. I realize this is a bad habit that pervades my playing. I have a third finger that tenses up in reaction to the use of the second finger.

4. 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 its neighbor, the second finger, being used. 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.

5. 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.

An Example For Beginners

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, see the results.

Understand and Allow 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.

 Truly understanding the best way to practice guitar is done by reading and re-reading “The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar”.  In addition to reading "The Principles", the best thing you can do is to get personal guidance from the author, Jamie Andreas. To do that, check out our "Stage 1 Training Class", where Jamie makes sure all students are doing things correctly. 

My Finger Just Does That!

There is a statement that students will often exclaim, and it is a big tip-off that they do not have a sufficiently deep understanding of how to practice to change bad habits. That statement is, when referring to some bad behavior a finger may be exhibiting, “I can’t help it, my finger just does that”!

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, in which case 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.

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.  

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. Never take the fundamentals for granted, they are the key to excellence.

When the fundamentals of guitar practice are in place, you can  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.

Set The Proper Next Goal

 Now it is just a matter of continuing the 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:

The Attitude of Players Who Know How To Practice

1. They don’t get upset when they discover some major flaw in their playing, they become curious and interested. They become excited and energized by the challenge.

2. They don’t feel sorry for themselves when they begin to clearly see the source of some problem in playing. They don't keep wishing someone told them long ago, they just get to work to fix it.  

3. 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!??

 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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"Using The Principles"

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I'd love to know your thoughts,please leave a comment, thanks..............Jamie

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  1. This reinforces the understanding of the need to practice with the correct principles and confirms that it is not possible to quickly learn to play licks like my favourite guitarists but with patience and practice good progress will be made

  2. It is not often I read practical wisdom about learning, the guitar in this instance, which has applications across other areas of life.

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