David Allen on Healthy Skepticism and Challenging Musical Ideas

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

Healthy skepticism is often the best way to glean the value of what’s being presented—challenge it; prove it wrong, if you can. That creates engagement, which is the key to understanding.

David Allen

Is there a best way to learn classical guitar? Is there an ideal practice routine? A perfect ratio of technique work to polishing pieces of music?

Is there a best way to move our fingers, or hold the guitar?

And if we ask a hundred guitar teachers these questions? Then we may receive back as many different answers.

So how do we decide who to trust? Which techniques or philosophies do we keep and which do we discard?

One way, as “Getting Things Done” author David Allen says, is to test them. Skepticism can be a powerful tool in our learning kit.

But for it to be useful, we also need to act on it.

Skepticism without active experimentation is not productive. Quite the opposite. We don’t improve unless we seek to prove our skepticism founded. Otherwise, it encourages calcified thought and a closed mind.

But how do we challenge what’s being presented? How do we test?

To test effectively, we must first be open to the possibility that the idea may be correct.

It may not, of course. But to make an honest test, we need to suspend disbelief and seek to make an objective evaluation.

This is the scientific method. The goal is not to prove ourself correct. It is to find truth and insight.

Many elements of guitar study are not black and white. We may find both benefits and drawbacks to any given suggestion.

We could provide examples of high-level players using almost any form, position, or technique. But this does not mean that this technique is practical or safe for us. Many players succeed despite certain habits, not because of them. And we may not be aware of the challenges they face as a result of these habits.

So expert adoption is not always a good indicator of usefulness. We need personal experience and understanding.

The act of challenging ideas draws us into our study. This heightened engagement leads to improvement. Even if our skepticism is founded and the idea doesn’t work, we still get better for exploring it.

The more we probe and stress-test, the more able we become to control our hands and bodies. We understand more of the art of playing guitar. We come to better understand our bodies, minds, and movements.

And to say with authority that something does or does not work, we must first be able to demonstrate it.

This does not mean we need to engage in hours of playing in potentially harmful positions. But our understanding will be stronger when we can describe and demonstrate it to the satisfaction of the one suggesting it. This exercise is called Dissoi logoi, or dialexeis.

A natural companion to healthy skepticism is curiosity. As we explore, we ask new and interesting questions. And our pursuit of answers leads to more questions.

In this way, we form a richer and more highly textured grasp of our craft.

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.

Hi Allen, I am a Dutch guy who plays classical guitar (solo and together with a flute player). Unfortunately I have been suffering from focal dystonia since begin 2016. Of course I tried physical therapy which didn't help… But I tried some of your [technique] lessons (I had teachers before but I was never taught your techniques) and to my big surprise the nasty feeling in the back of my right hand which pulls my index finger upward was gone! So now I practice your lessons. Anyway, I am very happy to have found you on the internet. Thanks very much!

-Arnoud Reinders

I have lost my entire metallic sound while I am playing now. Even my single note practice sounds more melodious, less tinny. [The Woodshed technique practice] has made a major difference in my tone. Thank you.

-Harlan Friedman

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