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How to Enjoy Constant Improvement on Classical Guitar

Playing classical guitar is no easy task. It takes a skill-set that’s only acquired through practice, study and attention.

And it can seem overwhelming sometimes to think of how far we have to go to play the music we want to play.

But instead of getting disheartened at the path ahead and our rate of progress, we can adjust our perspectives. We can think of practice and learning differently so that we’re inspired and motivated.

The key to a life of enjoyable guitar practice is an attitude of constant improvement.

Eye On the Prize: The Big Goals

Most of us got into classical guitar because we heard something we liked. We heard a top-notch player performing a top-notch tune and fell in love with it.

So naturally, we want to sound like that.

The key to a life of enjoyable guitar practice is an attitude of constant improvement.

We want to play the masterpieces of the repertoire. We want to express those musical ideas. We want to feel what it feels like to have that music flowing out of our hands and instruments.

But those pieces are hard.

It takes a long time to get to the point where we can play at such a high level. There are many levels between here and there.

Focus on the Means vs. the Ends

We have our ultimate goals (i.e. the “big piece”), and western cultural trends would have us set our sights directly on them and blast full steam ahead.

However, going directly for the end result without attention on the means whereby we get there prohibits us from getting what we want.

We can only play the big pieces well if we can play one note well, then connect that note well with the next.

Over time, if we constantly focus on the quality of small details, we arrive at the big pieces. And when there, we then see those pieces also as steps in a longer path.

This notion of constant improvement, known in Japan as “kaizen”, both

  1. makes the present more productive and enjoyable, and
  2. ensures that we create even more beautiful music later.

“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~Harriet Braiker

Case Study: The “End-Gainer”

I once sat in on a masterclass (public lesson) with a very well-respected guitarist, Denis Azabagic.

One of the players walked up on stage and played a Bach piece.

He had obviously learned it rote, and didn’t understand the different parts of the music.

He sat like a folk player, and his technique was careless and haphazard at best.

He played the notes (more or less), and quickly. But it sounded like a jalopy speeding down a potholed dirt road. It sounded as if it might shake apart or explode at any second.

After he played, Denis paused for a long moment. Then he said, somewhat bewildered, “You’re asking me what color to paint your walls, but you don’t even have your house built.”

He said, “You’re asking me what color to paint your walls, but you don’t even have your house built.”

His advice: Get a teacher. Study. Slow down and focus on the fundamentals.

There was really nothing else to say.

Keep the Long-Term in Mind for Constant Improvement

We need to keep those big pieces in sight and on the horizon. It gives purpose and direction to our daily practice. It also provides motivation and excitement.

If the piece we’re currently working on seems like a beginner piece, that’s fine. The skills we build here will directly help the bigger pieces later. (And if we can’t play the easy piece beautifully, we certainly won’t play a harder one any more beautifully.)

Quality Now Equals Quality Later

The quality of the big pieces depends on how well we’ve mastered the basics. Rhythm, balance, legato, tone quality, phrasing. All these and more we learn most easily when we can isolate the issues and work on them in easier pieces.

The quality of attention we bring to our moment-by-moment practice determines how quickly we progress, and how well we play.

The quality of attention we bring to our moment-by-moment practice determines how quickly we progress, and how well we play.

When we focus on quality in our daily practices, we create the conditions to hear more quality later.

The Opposite is Also True

And the converse holds true as well: Lack of quality in your daily practice will ensure a lack of quality down the road.

Even at the most beginning levels, we can still bring our full attention. We can actively listen to the sounds we make. We can go slow and seek to understand the fine details.

The Payoff, Now and Later

The big advantage to focusing on quality in our daily practices is that we feel better.

When we practice well, with attention and a positive agenda, we are more likely to lose track of time and enter a “flow” state. This feels good makes life better.

Base Your Success Looking Back, Not Forward

It’s easy to swoon at the sheer distance between where we are now and where we want to be. And if our only basis for success is the end goal, we set ourselves up for years of failure before we get that one, short-lived success.

Instead of judging success based on the ideal of where we want to be, we can appreciate how far we’ve come.

We can celebrate the small successes that come with slowing down and playing in rhythm. Or working methodically through a tricky spot.

If success is measured forward, we always fail. This is because the ideal we shoot for is a moving target. When we get close, it moves away from us. Like the horizon, it’s always just out of reach.

Like the horizon, our biggest goals are always just out of reach.

Enjoy the daily successes of intentional practice and incremental improvements. This will allow you to constantly improve, and consistently feel great about your musical study.

Especially If You’re Feeling Stuck

And this is all doubly true if you’re feeling stuck or that you’re not progressing.

If you do feel stuck it could be that
(1) you’re trying too much to reach the ends without due attention to the means. Or…
(2) that you’re judging your progress based on where you want to go, instead of from where you’ve come from.

Either way, focusing on quality of attention and details in your moment-by-moment practice is the way to move ahead more quickly and feel better about your daily guitar time.

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16 Responses to How to Enjoy Constant Improvement on Classical Guitar

  1. Judy May 7, 2017 at 7:00 am #

    A wise and powerful Saturday message, Allen…. I always find something meaningful in your writings but this one especially resonated for me.

    You know how every once in awhile someone says just the right thing at just the right time?

    This was one of those times.

    • Allen May 8, 2017 at 8:15 am #

      Thanks so much, Judy! I’m glad to hear it hit home.

  2. Danny Vandevelde May 7, 2017 at 2:38 am #

    Hi Allen

    I really enjoy to read your saturday mails because they are not so much about playing guitar as about how to be a musician.

    I allways thought of myself as an eternal beginner at the guitar, playing easy pieces the would-be guitarist in me called “crap”. But looking back, I can see the progress I’ve made, gradually leaving the keys of C and G and first position. I have come to enjoy the path more than the goal I’m headed to.

    And being on my way playing the guitar, I’ve come to realise that this “crap” makes a very good fertiliser for all the music I would like to be able to play in the future.

    So looking back, gives me more confidence to look ahead.

    Thanks for be an inspiring musical coach!

    Danny

    • Allen May 8, 2017 at 8:14 am #

      Thanks, Danny! Great metaphor!

  3. Ian Holding May 6, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi Allen,
    Thanks for this. I recently read Mastery, by George Leonard,1998. He analyses the concept of Mastery from an Aikido perspective but it is applicable to anything in life.
    One needs to surrender to the demands of the discipline,the instruction of the teacher,have the vision to follow the practice path and stay on it.You can’t miss parts of the journey or skip stages.
    Mastery not about perfection but dedication and loving the path.
    Thanks for trying to keep us on the path.

    • Allen May 6, 2017 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks for the book tip, Ian. Robert Greene also has an excellent book on the subject.

      Thanks again,
      Allen

  4. Ed Herider May 6, 2017 at 8:15 am #

    Great article with infinite application to every aspect of life. We would live less defeated lives with a greater degree of peace were we to follow these principles faithfully. I greatly appreciate what you have said here. I would hope we all might take notice of these truths. They touch upon the infinite.

  5. cinde May 6, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    Good Morning Allen,
    I just love reading your Saturday weekly posts. I always gather much needed inspiration.
    Your mention of knowing where you’ve come from hit home with me today. Just this last week I was feeling a little down about my progress ( probably working on pieces too hard , but I’m a stubborn one ) . At the end of a disappointing practice, I happened to see my last year’s binder, which contains all the sheet music I printed out and played all last year. It also has some music I didn’t get around to playing, because I was anxious to ” move on”.
    Silly me.
    Wow! I got a great feeling about where I’ve been, where I’ve come from after going through the music. I got suddenly very pleased with myself and satisfied . I’m looking forward to getting back into that familiar place . But, do,you think going backwards is just comfort seeking ? Most of the music is first position, no barres, A minor stuff. Fun, kinda.
    have a wonderful day,
    Cinde

    • Allen May 6, 2017 at 8:56 am #

      Thanks Cinde! last year’s binder is a treasure trove of realistic perspective. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of comfort!

      All the best,
      Allen

  6. bill mcdonald May 6, 2017 at 6:39 am #

    Allen,
    Although not a member of the woodshed, I always enjoy and learn from your thoughtful, insightful, and often funny thoughts on guitar. And this one just really hit the spot! I have been feeling exactly what you described in this article:. Listless and discouraged in my practice. It is helpful and heartwarming to hear such an advanced player suffering the same issues! And what a helpful idea(!): Judge progress by looking at where you’ve come from, Not how far you have to go! Profound? Well, not really, but easily forgotten? Absolutely. In fact, I’m not sure I ever really understood this.
    And, as I prepare to head for the practice room, it is with a lighter heart as I look back on myself when I first started. In fact, I can barely see that guy for the many intervening miles between him and me. Maybe I’ll be the first guitarist to install a rearview mirror on my axe . . .
    Thanks for the time and effort
    Bill

    • Allen May 6, 2017 at 8:54 am #

      That’s great, thanks so much, Bill.

      have a wonderful practice!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  7. Richard Levy May 6, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    Have you ever though of expanding your audience to include the “self improvement” market. This short talk is just one of many you give that I think could be very well received by a larger audience. Life’s lessons with a classical guitar. That would be a unique niche in the market. You have a very calming presence and a good voice. I always enjoy your videos. I think you would be a natural. Have you given a Ted talk?

    • Allen May 6, 2017 at 8:53 am #

      Ha! Thanks so much, Richard. I’ll take that under advisement. Right now, guitar keeps me thoroughly occupied.

      Thanks again,
      Allen

  8. martha webster May 6, 2017 at 5:30 am #

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you so much!

    • Allen May 6, 2017 at 8:52 am #

      Great! You’re welcome!

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