George Santayana on Musical Fanaticism and Losing Our Way

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

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

George Santayana

The word “fanaticism” often conjures images of fringe political or religious groups. But with this simple definition, George Santayana allows us to look closer to home.

Often in our guitar practice, we play scales. We drill exercises, chords, right-hand patterns and more. We may do this to train our “technique”.

And we also learn and practice pieces of music.

But in both our technique and repertoire practice, there are larger aims. But we may forget them.

The aim of scales, for instance, is not to play scales. The purpose of scales is to synchronize the two hands. It’s to connect notes smoothly. It’s to play with consistent tone and controlled volume. Scales are a vehicle we use to gain these abilities.

And when we began guitar, we likely wanted to play beautiful pieces of music. We wanted certain experiences and revelations. The goal was probably not to simply check the box on one piece and move to the next, over and over. (Most graded book series and programs encourage this mindless approach.)

Hours of scales each day will yield lackluster results if we don’t direct our work towards desired outcomes. And yes, playing the notes of a piece is a worthy goal in the beginning stages. But it is only a first step to playing with musical maturity and insight.

As we grow, we can discover new possibilities. We can refine and redefine our conceptions of what is possible for our music.

When we forget our aims, yet redouble our efforts, we trigger Santayana’s definition of fanaticism.

To stay engaged and move toward our goals, it helps to revisit them. Before the scales, we can state our objectives. Before practicing a piece of music, we can state our ultimate aims.

This way, our practice today can move us forward – calibrated and guided by our larger visions for the future.

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.
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