René Descartes on Elemental Guitar Practice and 3-D Playing

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

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” 

René Descartes

Classical guitar music is often composed of two or three different lines of music. We play these together, like a “one-man band.”

We fill all roles. We play the part of the diva with the melody. We add support with the bass. We meld in color with the accompaniment. And within each of these, we create mood and psychological insight via tone, articulation, and the rises and falls in volume.

But those new to classical guitar may miss this symphony. They often only see the whole picture in two dimensions. They fail to recognize all the different parts that make up the whole. They miss the three-dimensional nature of music written this way.

And here is where problems arise. Issues likely occur when we don’t know the separate lines of music and how they flow from one note to the next. The music may sound chunky or disconnected, and we may not know why.

To play a piece of classical guitar music to its fullest, it helps to know all the elements individually. We can practice the melody alone, with ideal phrasing and expression. Then the bass, then the other voices.

We may play just the harmony (chords). Or tap the rhythms of the different parts first separately then together.

This deconstruction practice is what pianist Mark Westcott calls “elemental practice.” We practice the elements separately in an effort to understand and master them. Then we combine them together again.

When we practice this way, we hear the music in more detail. We notice the interplay between parts. We recognize when an individual line (such as the melody) becomes overshadowed by a less prominent voice (like the accompaniment).

Elemental practice is a practice method. It’s a tool we can use to learn complex music. And we can use it to troubleshoot problems and polish our music.

This becomes a game. Like a child taking apart a toaster to see how it works, we explore. We get our hands dirty and experiment. We let our imaginations open. We ask questions and seek answers.

In this way, we immerse ourselves in our practice. Time disappears as we follow curiosity and inquiry. We enter flow states, and practice is a joy.

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 am a 61 year old physician, reconnecting with the classical guitar after a hiatus of nearly 40 years. After a couple of weeks [in the program], I’m now producing a much clearer, yet somehow more mellow and beautiful sound. It was really good to feel it happening in my hand, and that it felt more comfortable and somehow “right”, compared to the way I had played before (“curved picking”). The fog started to lift and I found that I was remembering more, and it felt great (also a bit of a relief!), giving me confidence to keep going. Thank you for making your course available - your love of music and the guitar shines through the teaching. I am very happy I found and registered with CGS.

-Brian Davey

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