John Muir guitar practice

Naturalist John Muir on the Ecology of Guitar Practice

Each of us knows (to some extent) what we want.

As we pick up our guitars and play, we become aware of areas we could improve.

“If only I could play faster…” “If only I was more flexible….” “If only I was stronger and had more stamina…”

Whatever we notice, we assume that’s where we should put our energy. If we want more speed, we should practice speed drills. If we want flexibility, we should do stretching exercises.

For any desire, there’s an obvious answer.

But the obvious answer is rarely going to get us where we want to go. And the reason for this lies in today’s quote from the great naturalist John Muir:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

This means that speed cannot be separated from strength and flexibility.

To maintain accuracy at high speed, we need precise and reliable finger movements. We need our hands to synchronize like a Swiss watch. We need to master the on/off switch of muscle tension.

And for any of the above, we need keen observation skills. We need focus and awareness. We need curiosity and the ability to respond to new information.

And to develop these, we need to slow down and look past the obvious answers.

And all of this takes time.

Of course, we want what we want, and we want it now. We’re only human, after all.

So perhaps the master-skill in all our classical guitar training is the ability to keep the long game in mind – to see whatever we’re working on now as part of a larger progression towards mastery.

In each practice, we can hold ourselves to our highest standards as we know them, and resist the urge to take short-cuts. We can gauge success by our levels of focus and awareness in the moment. And we can break the habit of judging ourselves against some future ideal.

We can make it a game of steady, incremental improvement.

Before we know it, we get what we want. And as a bonus, we enjoy the journey even more.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir

allen mathews classical guitar

About Allen Mathews

Allen Mathews learned guitar as an adult, and has been a full-time guitar teacher for almost two decades to students age 4 to 96.  He has taught classical guitar at Reed College and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has been a guest lecturer and clinician at schools and universities throughout the U.S.  Allen is often praised for his creative teaching abilities, and his dedication to helping adults learn classical guitar.  He has a popular Youtube Channel offering regular classical guitar tutorials, and has gained fans worldwide for his weekly emails and articles at

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