1 | Play It Comfortably
Have you ever wondered how great performers make playing music look effortless? At first this seems counterintuitive to what you might expect. After all, common logic usually assumes that the harder something is, the harder we have to try. For example, picture a professional athlete in the heat of battle. You wouldn’t exactly call that effortless. Even extraordinary effort, however, can be characterized by a necessary degree of effortlessness. Think about the impeccable technique, free-flowing movements, clear thinking, and natural instinct needed to compete at the highest level. If an athlete were to tense up all their muscles, contort their body into a strange position, and hold their breath, how well do you think they’d perform?
Amazingly, this is what many guitar players do as soon as they start playing! They tense up their arms and shoulders, clench their jaw, hunch awkwardly over the guitar, and even hold their breath to concentrate. Perhaps more surprising is the lack of awareness that these things are happening at all. If we consistently place ourselves in difficult playing conditions, is it any wonder why playing feels so difficult?
Despite these tendencies, the body is most effective when it’s comfortable, relaxed, and able to move freely. Nothing is more counterproductive to effective technique than making your body work against itself. Doing so expends unnecessary energy and produces unnecessary tension. Notice that the term just used was unnecessary tension. Tension in itself isn’t a bad thing. We couldn’t even hold the guitar, let alone play it, if our muscles didn’t use some tension to expand and contract. Unnecessary tension is the excess stress we place on our body that doesn’t need to be there. It’s caused by things like poor body position, moving inefficiently, overworking muscles, and forgetting to breathe.
Smooth, relaxed movements are far more conducive to accuracy, speed, and endurance than tense, rigid ones. This is a central concept we’ll revisit continually. Your body will tell you if it’s tense or uncomfortable—listen to it. Playing naturally takes practice. It means learning to be aware of your body when you play, your general tendencies, your bad habits, and your specific idiosyncrasies. It means constantly reminding yourself to breathe normally, stay relaxed, and move comfortably. Great performers make complex things look effortless because they’ve learned to play complex things effortlessly.
2 | Play It Accurately
What makes a skilled musician so captivating? Even though we may admire a performer’s command of their instrument, we often praise them for their artistry, paying little attention to their technical proficiency. When was the last time you walked away from a concert commenting on the artist’s impressive finger dexterity and notable fine motor skills? Although these mechanical elements may not be the first things we think of, they’re as much responsible for a musician’s ability as their musicality or creativity. Artistry goes hand in hand with execution.
You don’t have to be a virtuoso to work out the simple equation: Poor execution equals poor performance. Consistent issues with intonation, lack of clear sustain, unwanted string noise, and excessive fret buzz are typical hallmarks of poor playing technique. These things can plague both beginners and relatively experienced players alike. Unfortunately, even a potential masterpiece won’t equate to much if we can’t translate it from our mind to our fingers.
Proper execution involves maneuvering your fingers with control and accuracy. It means getting them to do exactly what you want. Inaccurate playing is often the result of ineffective playing habits such as glossing over issues, forgetting to relax, and being inattentive to detail. These problems, however, are usually traced back to a common root cause: practicing things too fast. Attempting to play something faster than we’re capable is counterproductive. It teaches us to practice mistakes, causes our movements to stiffen, and doesn’t allow for the precision needed to learn something effectively.
Accuracy starts with two key things. First, knowing what you want to achieve. And second, knowing how to get there. When you slow something down enough to play it perfectly (often much slower than you assume), you give yourself the opportunity to isolate issues and then correct them. This process is fundamental to what practice essentially is: problem-solving. It’s about finding the roadblocks between where you are and where you want to go, and then working out how to overcome them.
Playing slowly allows you to play intentionally. It enhances your awareness, letting you focus on your body, your technique, and your tone. It gives you the opportunity to program good playing habits, instead of unintentionally learning bad ones. Of course, this doesn’t mean that playing fast should be avoided. It’s a simple reminder that walking always comes before running. The first step in learning to play fast is learning to play slow. Increasing speed comes easily once you’ve removed the barriers holding you back.
3 | Play It Efficiently
How do we get the most from our technique with the least amount of effort? This question underpins our entire discussion on playing technique. There’s no benefit in unnecessary effort. It increases the stress on your body and decreases the stamina of your playing. Consider the difference between a person who touch-types fluently and one who punches the keyboard awkwardly using their index fingers. One moves quickly with minimal effort. The other progresses slowly, flapping their hands wildly. Which technique is more effective and sustainable?
Economy of motion is a pivotal concept in effective technique. Even playing something comfortably and accurately at a slow tempo doesn’t mean you’re playing it efficiently. Try progressing slowly through a scale while moving your hand away from the guitar neck and relaxing your arm between each note. This is probably comfortable and possibly even accurate, but it’s not very effective. A focus on efficiency dictates how our movements can be used most effectively to achieve the best results. Playing slowly isn’t the goal—it’s the process, the method through which we program our body to make relaxed and efficient movements.
In contrast, we tend to exaggerate our movements when learning because it emphasizes the important information. For example, think about how we sound out unfamiliar words to small children or use animated hand gestures to give directions on the street. For guitar players, these exaggerated movements are usually compounded by the tendency to tense up and apply too much pressure when playing. Learning to minimize motion (e.g., the distance our fingers travel from the fretboard or our pick’s proximity to the strings) avoids overemphasizing the actual movement required by either hand. Economizing our technique in this way makes playing easier, more controlled, and can dramatically improve our playing speed.
Playing efficiently doesn’t mean making your movements more timid—just more condensed. After some practice, you may be surprised at how little motion is needed to maintain clear tone, dynamics, and expression. Cultivating efficient technique is one of the most valuable skills you have in unlocking your playing potential. Streamlined motion is the secret component behind many great players. It minimizes tension, improves accuracy, increases speed, and maximizes endurance. As the saying goes, Why work harder when you can work smarter?
4 | Play It Freely
What makes a great performance? Think of a time when you really wanted to play well. Perhaps an important gig, an audition, a recording session, or just the first time you played in front of someone else. How did it go? Did the need to sound good produce great playing, or did it cause you to overthink and underperform? Most people find that the pressure to play well diminishes their ability to do so. Why? Because when performing, we often become overly fixated on the outcome, the gripping desire to be perceived a certain way. Ironically, this need to sound good is often what gets in the way of actually sounding good!
Contrast this with our mentality when practicing. In the process of learning and improving, we give ourselves permission to play, experiment, and make mistakes. In other words, we’re far less attached to the outcome because we’re absorbed in the process. Admittedly, the goal of practice is different to that of performance. Practice focuses on weaknesses; performance relies on strengths. One requires concentrated observation and critique, while the other requires spontaneity and lack of inhibition. The point is, in practice we need to build control—in performance we need to surrender it.
Ideally, practice should be where we do all our thinking so it doesn’t distract us in performance. With that said, developing great technique is also a circular process. You need good technique to play freely, but as just discussed, you also need to play freely to have good technique. Sounds contradictory, right? If one doesn’t exist without the other, where do we start? The answer begins with simply acknowledging this fact. The goal of practice isn’t to increase the complexity of our playing; it’s to make complex things increasingly easier. Our focus shouldn’t be on needing to play well or sounding good, but on wanting to play freely. Mastery comes from continually removing the things that inhibit our musicality. As we learn to play with greater freedom (both in our technique and in our thinking), sounding good takes care of itself.
This says a lot about how we should approach learning. We’ve established that the pressure caused by our inner critic often hinders performance. If our internal dialogue impacts our playing ability, why are we so quick to reinforce those assertions that impede our progress? If we constantly tell ourselves that something is too difficult, for example, is it any surprise that we usually prove ourselves right? Playing with freedom means adjusting our mindset to believe that difficult things can be done with great ease, and then slowly convincing our fingers to cooperate. Always start with the question: What would this look, sound, and feel like if I could already do it?
Copyright © 2016 Luke Zecchin
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