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 stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, 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.

As I said before, I think your site is outstanding. I have spent my life teaching adults difficult stuff that they really wanted to learn but didn't have the time to learn at the speed we teach university students. Thus I understand only too well how many hundreds of hours you must have spent perfecting your lessons to make my learning as quick and easy as possible.

-Mike Barron

Hi Allen,
Greetings from the UK. I would like to thank you for providing such an excellent resource. The effort and skill which has gone into creating this program is very evident. I started classical guitar a year or so ago with a teacher but was unable to commit to same time regular slots each week.

The Woodshed Program was exactly what I was looking for. I have found the site very intuitive and well structured and have taken your advice and started from the very beginning of the program whilst still practising some of the pieces I was already working on. It is clear that I will benefit greatly from these early technical studies. There were clearly weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge even though I am still at an early stage. Once again many thanks for the program and very best wishes.

-Rodger Paylor

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