If you have been playing for a long time and you have just discovered “The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar” and started working with the Foundation Exercises, you are probably starting to have a number of uncomfortable feelings.
As you study “The Principles”, a new awareness will begin to dawn for you. This is good, but it can also have its bad aspects. Some people become so aware of body tension they have while playing, tension they previously ignored, they begin to think they are getting worse instead of better. They may even become afraid to practice! Some players 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 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. I know this is a fact, because I do it every day, for myself, and for others.
Once we know that the approach we use to learn the guitar is the key determining factor in our success or failure, 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.
How Should I Practice Now?
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”? That depends on a number of things:
- ur 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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”.
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. The most important thing you can do to help yourself get better on guitar is to study “The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar”. After that, everything else you read will make so much more sense. You must also constantly think for yourself, experiment, observe, draw conclusions, and re-experiment in your practice.
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:
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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