If we bring our feet to knee-height with every step, walking is cumbersome and awkward.
And the same holds true in guitar if we lift our left-hand fingers too high off the fretboard. Playing guitar then becomes cumbersome and awkward.
It may take some time to train the fingers to stay low, but it will help over the long term.
Find a Neutral Position
To begin, we can find a neutral position, where our left-hand fingers neither flex or extend.
It may help to make a few light fists, then release. We can do this away from the guitar, then place that hand position onto the guitar.
This neutral position should feel easy and relaxed when we’re not playing.
However, it’s when we start playing that the fingers tend to fly up into the air.
Active Release vs. Lifting a Finger in Classical Guitar Technique
For a finger to lift high off the fretboard, we must actively lift it.
We may not do this on purpose, but we do it nonetheless.
Instead of lift a finger off the string after it’s played, we can instead stop pressing it down.
Where we were pressing, we can now release the pressure (but not lift).
At the beginning, we may have to do this slowly and experiment with how these two methods differ. In time, the releasing movement will become more habitual, and need less brainpower.
The Concept of “Emptying”
Another way people think of release vs. lift is the concept of “emptying”.
This is a mental image that works well for many players.
Imagine your finger fills with molten lead or another heavy liquid. It presses the string because it’s so heavy.
Then, when it’s time to change notes, that finger empties. The weight flows out, and the finger becomes as light as a feather.
No lift required, just empty the weight and let it float up.
How to Practice Guitar to Keep Your Fingers Low
It’s one thing to practice playing one note and releasing it. It’s another to play actual music (with all the complexity) and still keeping the fingers low.
Classical guitar requires many different skills. We can train each skill on its own. This means we focus on one thing at a time. When we practice keeping the fingers low, that’s all we do. Then we move to the next thing.
When we practice keeping the fingers low, that’s all we do. Then we move to the next thing.
Over time, we maintain the low-finger movements without putting as much focus on it.
Note: We don’t have to master one thing before moving to the next. In any practice, we can focus on many different skills or areas of technique, each in their turn.
Attention Turbocharges Intention
Using focused attention is the quickest way to make changes in our playing, or to learn new movements.
Even though we have many areas to track (fingerings, rhythm, etc.), we’ll master each more quickly if we (temporarily) ignore all but the one in focus.
Our intention is to play fluidly, with the exact right amount of tension at all times. But just as driving a car demands we pay attention to several things at all times, so does playing guitar.
When we insist on everything perfect all at once, the whole suffers.
When we give focused attention to each in turn, the overarching quality of our playing rises.
In time, we master the art of shifting focused attention from one thing to the next. From the outside, this looks like fluid and effortless playing.
The Training Ground: Classical Guitar Technique Practice
Classical guitar technique practice is the perfect workshop in which to train the fingers.
We can use chord practice to master switching common chords while keeping our fingers low to the fretboard.
We can play scales and pay close attention to how high each left-hand finger comes off the fretboard.
Technique practice exists to train and improve our skills. Keeping the fingers low is one such skill.
Get Feedback and Train Smarter
One of the most effective tools we can use to improve our playing is immediate feedback.
When we do something, and can immediately view it as if it were someone else, we can make adjustments to improve it.
Because we can adjust so quickly, we make fewer wrong repetitions, and more correct ones. We solve problems before they become habits. And we keep focused on the “how” we’re playing.
Here are a couple of useful methods we can use in daily practice:
Video Yourself for Immediate Feedback
Once you’ve practiced something for a few minutes and feel you’ve “gotten it”, make a short video of yourself doing it.
You can use a phone, camera, computer, or anything else you’ve got handy. The video and sound quality doesn’t matter, because only you will see it (then you’ll probably erase it).
View the video, and critique how well you did what you thought you were doing.
Wash, rinse repeat. You can use this many times per practice, or whenever you want to “be your own teacher”.
Use a Mirror in Guitar Rehearsal
Another useful tool in the practice room is a mirror.
A mirror not only gives immediate feedback, it also serves as a reminder to use our bodies well.
When know “someone’s looking” (even if it’s ourselves), we’ll be on our best behavior. We’ll be more likely to sit well, use good form, and stay mindful of our positions and movements.