Peter Drucker guitar practice

How Saying No in Guitar Practice Helps Us Improve

When we play a piece of music, we aspire to:

  • Play the right notes
  • Play the right hand fingerings as written.
  • Play the left hand fingerings as written.
  • Play in the given rhythm
  • Swell and fade just so
  • Create beautiful tone with each note
  • Synchronize the hands and on and on.

But if we can’t do each of these separately, there’s no way we’ll do them all at the same time.

And here is where saying “no” comes in.

We practice most effectively when we focus on one thing at time.

To be clear, we don’t abandon any musical element for long. Instead, we put all else aside for a moment so we can focus on one little piece of the puzzle.

Then, we put that one aside and focus on some other element. Then another. And another.

Until soon, we’ve given each element our full attention. And when we put them all back together, the total package sounds better.

Chances are, not every element will be as “perfect” as when we isolate it. But it’s better, and we’ve learned something. We’ve learned to listen better. We’ve learned to practice better. And even if it’s only 1% better , that’s still positive progress.

Over time, we’ll be more able to track the individual tasks while combining them. But even then, we’ll still need to say “no” to a thousand possibilities in order to practice effectively.

We can call saying “no” to certain things to focus on others “elemental practice”. The irony is that while the work is often simpler and feels easier, it takes massive discipline to actually do it.

It feels right to just dive in and start thwacking away at the whole piece. But this is rarely effective. It can be hard to “say no”, but that’s where the good work gets done.

“People are effective because they say no.”

Peter Drucker

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

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

Hi Allen, just wanted to provide some feedback. Since I've started doing the exercises [in The Woodshed program] my guitar is sounding a lot better, with fuller sound, less effort. Its as if I bought a new guitar or got a new pair of hands (or both). Amazing my friend. Thank you!

-Nusret Aydemir

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