As musicians, and aspiring musicians, there are some goals that we all likely share.
We toil and challenge ourselves day after day, year after year, and for what?
Stopping just shy of the existential, there are a few traits that we strive for in our music.
We all want to be able to play fluidly and easily. To just pick up the guitar, and effortlessly bring forth beautiful music that feels good and sounds clean, articulate, and inevitable.
Whatever physical demands arise in the music, we handle them with complete ease and comfort. Like a walk in the park.
We all want to play so that it means something on an emotional level.
Even if our main goal is currently this or that technique, or developing that new skill, we ultimately want to have a deeply human and emotional experience.
And we want to be able to share that human experience with others, in a genuine and generous way.
We want each day of music to seem spontaneous and freely emergent.
Even though the notes we play may exist on a page, we want the music itself to sound improvised and honest. Like having a glass of wine with a friend.
Play With Ease
And we want all of the above to feel easeful and organic.
We want to be completely comfortable and secure in the realm of making this music. Present, engaged, curious, in flow, just being. Like a toddler playing in the yard.
The Obstacles to Effortless Mastery
Of course, even though we all want these traits, few of us ever attain them on guitar. There are obstacles we must overcome, and these obstacles evolve over time. We climb one hill, only to see more hills beyond.
Here are some of the main themes:
Just as when we are beginning on the guitar journey, we don’t yet know how much effort it takes to press a fret, excess or inefficient tension is a seemingly constant challenge.
As you develop as a player, you start to notice tension in places other than your hands. In your face, your shoulder, your hip, your tongue, your toes, in places you didn’t even know were places.
We peel away tension over time like layers of an onion. And there are always more layers.
And at whatever level we currently play, there is an upper limit to what we can do.
Whether by speed, stretch, musical conception or understanding, or sheer stamina, there is point where we simply break down.
Being human, we are subject to our physical bodies, our emotions, our environments, and our training.
Increasing our ability to deal with resistance and adversity is part of the musical (and human) journey.
Another theme that challenges us in reaching our ultimate goals is confusion.
Confusion is the hole in our awareness. It’s the fog on the landscape. It’s the blind spot in our vision.
When we first learn a piece, all is confusion and unknown. How well we learn the piece and practice it determines how well we eliminate confusion.
How well we ingrain the patterns and movements our fingers and bodies must perform determines how reliable is our ability to recall and perform.
What Makes Something Easy?
The obvious and common (and often necessary, but not the only) track is generally to identify our weaknesses and work to strengthen them. We play progressively more challenging pieces. We study strong technical habits, form and positioning.
And over time we improve.
But this only works to a point.
You can work forever, and still not experience ease, fluidity, expression, and spontaneity. So what is needed to make playing easeful?
Ease is Everywhere
We all have many things that we do automatically every day that require no special effort.
These are actions that we’ve taken a million times and no longer think about.
Driving a car. Laughing at something truly funny. Shaking a hand. Eating cake. Waking up on a Sunday morning.
We have mastered thousands of everyday tasks that we no longer even notice.
The Anatomy of Ease
There are similarities in easy things. We use our bodies (movements and muscles) in similar ways.
In general, easy things are marked by our ability to perform them automatically while maintaining appropriate muscle tension and mental stability (ie without triggering cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline).
You may also notice that in certain states or situations, normally easy things become hard. At this point we become aware of them, increase tension and stress, and they are no longer easy. (Think of beginning actors, trying to look natural sipping a cup of tea with shaky hands.)
Positive emotions have a way of allowing ease to enter into activities that may be difficult otherwise. If we’re buoyant, warm, peaceful, appreciative and compassionate, our muscles relax and ease becomes effortless.
(As an aside, heart rate variability training can help you to feel better, operate at a higher level in anything you do, and quicken your progress toward ease on the guitar and throughout your life. )
Just Pretend Guitar is Easy
So how do we bring this everyday ease into playing the guitar?
Seriously. As silly as it may sound, it nonetheless works.
If you take on the attitude, demeanor, and physical state that marks easefulness, you can bring those qualities into whatever activity you like. In this case, guitar.
Of course, the goal of pretending something is easy is to have the experience of it being easy.
If you expect to also play perfectly and at full speed, you’ll probably end up disappointed. More on this in a moment.
However, by pretending that what you’re playing is easy, you’ll be able to associate difficult music (or fast scales, or what have you) to the the sensation of ease. This can be a game changer.
Then Pretend You’re Not Pretending
Once you’re practicing as if playing guitar was just as easy as sipping lemonade on the back patio, you’re actually experiencing some of the feelings you’ll feel when you’re a true master.
The quickest route to mastery, and achieving the goals above, is to embody the traits that accompany it. Ease being one of them. (Focus is another, as is extreme attention to detail and quality.)
So pretend it’s easy, and then pretend like you’re not pretending.
This may sound strange, but if you can suspend your critical mind for a moment, and accept the fuzzy logic (as does the subconscious), this allows you first create a new reality, and then a second reality that assumes the reality of the first.
It’s a mind game, but it can have profound effects on your self-concept and your underlying beliefs about what’s possible and feasible on the guitar.
If you can convince yourself to act as if playing were easy (with ease, joy, effortless movement, etc), you’ll naturally avoid many of the problems and challenges in learning new skills and pieces.
Practice Everywhere. It Feels Good.
Of course, playing guitar is a complicated proposition. We have to keep track of many, many elements at once (LH, RH, notes, expression, rhythm, etc)
It’s much easier to practice making things easy when they actually are easier.
Exercise for right now: Right this moment, as you’re reading this, let go of any excess tension your entire body.
I like to call this “falling up”. Just let go of everything, while staying upright. Let your skeleton support you.
You may find that you can only release all your muscles for just a second before they tense back up again. That’s fine. Do it again. And again. It gets easier.
Make this a habit. While you’re sitting on your couch, or in your car, or in a waiting room, practice “falling up”.
The more you practice this in your everyday life, the easier it will be to use it on guitar (and the more ease, comfort and relaxation you’ll feel in general).
The Price of Playing Easy
They say nothing comes for free, and while I’m wary of statements that use words as absolute as “nothing”, it’s certainly true that to pretend your guitar playing is easy, you may have to lay aside other considerations.
To maintain the feeling of ease at your guitar, you will likely have to give something up. Depending on how you’re going about it, you may have to let go of:
Any and all of these and more can go out the window if you’re specifically practicing to instill a sense of ease.
Of course if you always practice this way (ignoring the above), you’ll always sound bad. Not recommended. You still have to play the right notes at the right time, with the right dynamics and inflections.
This is another tool in your box for quickly increasing your skills. Use it frequently with slow scales or other technique work, and with piece you’re working on.
Though it may not seem as linear as other forms or methods of practice, it’s nonetheless very effective, and very powerful.
Examples of Practicing Guitar with Ease
Here are a few sample scenarios:
Slow technique practice – Here, the goal is clarity, precision, and absolute ease. Hence the “slow”. Infuse each note with full-body ease, and constantly re-release and find more ease.
Slow practice on a piece – Just as above, clarity, precision, absolute ease. This is one of the most powerful ways to practice. As you build ease and precision into your pieces, speed naturally follows.
Over-tempo technique work – The benefit here is that of giving yourself the experience of moving quickly, beyond your current top speeds. To do this, you’ll sacrifice synchronization and clarity, buzz notes, and miss a lot of notes. For this reason, a little of this practice goes a long way. (note: Practicing this way will NOT lead to playing cleanly at high speeds. For that you need to slow down and focus on playing cleanly and synchronizing your hands.)
Over-tempo pieces – As above, this gives you a new experience, which can expand your sense of what is possible and give you different perspectives on your music. The same caveats and warnings from above also apply.
Tricky spots – For any tricky spot in a piece you’re playing, you can slow down and release all bodily tension (except what you need to remain upright, of course!) It’s common to build excess tension into technically challenging spots. This releases that and begins to reset the muscle memory.
Pretending you are your guitar hero – Act as if you are Segovia, or Roland Dyens, or whoever you like. As if someone was watching a video with the sound turned off. Fully embody a master player, and feel like you think they feel. Move like they move. Pretend! It’s amazing what you can learn through playful imitation.
Releasing the Need to Be Right
One of the biggest cause of messing up is being too careful and caring too much.
When we fear mistakes, we set up the perfect conditions to make mistakes. We try to over-control.
By pretending everything is easy, and allowing yourself as many mistakes as you want to make, you actually increase your chances of being right!
This is one of the biggest advantages of practicing using this technique. It trains us to let things go and practice some healthy detachment. To release the need for perfection and all the tension that comes with it.
Ease as a Virtue
As you spend some time with this, and practice it in different parts of life (at home, at work, in stressful situations, and mundane ones), you may find that life is easier when you pretend it is.
Sure, things still matter, but you can continue to honor those things and simultaneously release any excess tension in your face and body.
There are no rules that say that just because a situation is serious or complex that you are required to engage your muscles more than is needed. Tension is a choice and a habit, and so is easefulness.
Choose ease, and practice it until it becomes your natural way of being. Have fun!