Alfred North Whitehead on Guitar Technique

Alfred North Whitehead on How to Advance Classical Guitar Technique

“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 classical guitar

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 work with teachers, 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 sore after playing.  I was frequently frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward.  Then I studied with two stellar teachers –  one focused on the technical, and one on the musical.  In time, I came to discover a fundamental set of formulas and movements. These unlocked my playing, and brought new life and enjoyment to my practice. Now I help other guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.

Allen, your website and teaching methods are excellent. You have an easy going yet encouraging way of inspiring people to learn and practice their art. And you are always accessible to your students to personally answer questions. I appreciate ... that personal touch. The course on reading rhythm and playing higher up the neck I found particularly helpful. God bless you and many thanks.

-Joe Bazan

Allen Mathews was recommended to me as somebody who could help me expand my guitar vocabulary. Allen started me on a really fun cycle of lessons and practice. He is a very good and very enthusiastic teacher, and I feel that I'm on the road to learning. I couldn't be more pleased with my experience.

-Peter Buck, R.E.M.

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