Alfred North Whitehead on How to Advance Classical Guitar Technique

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

Alfred North Whitehead

One main goal is to play music beautifully. This means, in part, that any complexity or speed appears (and largely is) effortless.

We train our technique (movements, abilities) to this end. We play scales and patterns and click along with the metronome. Day by day, we learn to use our hands more effectively.

But the ultimate goal of technique is to move beyond it. – To meet any musical challenge without breaking stride. – To give life to the dots on the page, unencumbered by any physical lacking.

This comes in stages, not all at once.

It takes time and practice to go from one level of competence to the next.

We go through four stages of competence on our journey to effortless mastery:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – We don’t know we don’t know
  2. Conscious Incompetence – We know we don’t know
  3. Conscious Competence – We can do it if we try
  4. Unconscious Competence – We do it automatically (aka “habit”)

To master anything, we move through these stages.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.

Our musical abilities also advance by this recipe.

So how do we make the most of our time, and progress along this path the fastest?

The secret is consistency. We can we train our hands to move the same way each time, starting with basic movements, then growing more advanced. And when we do, we create the neural pathways to make these movements without thinking of them.

This is like treading a new path through a field – it’s quickest and easiest if we follow the same route each time. We create a “groove” that, in time, we’ll not have to think about.

Once one skill is ingrained, we can free the mental bandwidth it had taken. This means we can learn new skills or be more creative.

And what stops us from learning and practicing in this logical way?

We pretend.

We pretend we have already done the work and can play effortlessly. So we hurry. We play faster than we can maintain full awareness. We lose the consistency, and so we lose the accuracy and precision. Then we pretend we don’t know what went wrong.

The remedy? Simple: Slow down. Focus on quality sound and movement. Stay aware. Listen.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

These warm-up and stretching exercises are helping me a lot! Because I’m a software developer I have to stay 8 hours typing on a computer keyboard, so I use my hands a lot during the day. At night, when I have some time to practice the guitar my hands and arms are usually in pain because they have been working a lot during the day, but I’ve found that doing the warm-up/stretching exercises in The Woodshed releases me from this pain and I’m then able to practice after doing them.

You are building a very interesting and working guitar course, because for what I’ve seen so far it really works!


~ Ulysses Alexandre Alves

-Ulysses Alexandre Alves

Thanks to you (you are my only teacher) in only a few months I've gone from very basic beginner pieces to having just completed learning Bach's Gavottes 1&2 in good form and execution. As a non-classical electric guitarist who has always used a pick and never his fingers, this has been no small feat!


~ Gregg Olson

-Gregg Olson

Become a Member and Play More, Beautifully!

“The basics are the basics, and you can’t beat the basics.”
Charles Poliquin

Join the program that takes you from the beginning fundamentals to advanced mastery, so you…1

  • Move your hands safely and fluidly
  • Enjoy fulfilling practices and meaningful work
  • Play beautifully with expression and flow

Click the button to take a step towards an
organized, effective guitar practice. >>>