Richard Feynman practice principle

Richard Feynman’s First Principle of Classical Guitar Practice

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

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

~Richard P. Feynman

How do we fool ourselves in guitar practice? Where are our blind spots? What assumptions do we commonly hold that aren’t proven?

We fool ourselves in many ways, usually through our senses. We tend to believe what we see, feel, and hear. But these are often faulty.

We see what isn’t there, and fail to see what is. What we see depends on our understanding of the movement and actions of guitar technique.

If we know our basic guidelines (technique), we’re more likely to notice when we slip out of them. But until we ingrain these, extreme contortions or inefficiencies may go unnoticed.

We also tend to trust our feelings. We feel something is “comfortable” or “natural”, or not. But “natural” feels like whatever we are already accustomed to. This is homeostasis, our survival tool. Objective truth is no concern – if we did it yesterday, it feels right today.

This is why people who walk hunched over feel crooked when they straighten. And this is even if they look in mirror and see themself straight, they still feel crooked. We feel “unnatural” doing anything other than what we are already used to.

And as in the Paul Simon lyric, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.

We can learn what to listen for in music. We can learn how to connect notes and make phrases beautiful. But until we do, we’re more likely to accept mediocrity as mastery.

When we play too fast, we fail to notice the mistakes and misaligned rhythms. When the music is complex, we may fail to hear the melody above all else.

Music is a work in progress. We all base our observations on faulty instrumentation (our senses).

However, as we practice and grow, we learn what is “ideal”. And with more practice and growth, we get better at comparing what we see, feel and hear to these ideals.

So how do we practice, in spite of our faulty sense-perceptions?

  • We go slow enough to stay focused and aware.
  • We isolate small elements and practice them with extra care. We get feedback through video or audio recording, and from teachers.
  • We seek clarity on what is “ideal”. We ask questions and explore. We keep the attitude of curiosity and wonder.

And most of all, we stay alert and try not to fool ourselves.

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

These warm-up and stretching exercises are helping me a lot! Because I’m a software developer I have to stay 8 hours typing on a computer keyboard, so I use my hands a lot during the day. At night, when I have some time to practice the guitar my hands and arms are usually in pain because they have been working a lot during the day, but I’ve found that doing the warm-up/stretching exercises in The Woodshed releases me from this pain and I’m then able to practice after doing them.  

You are building a very interesting and working guitar course, because for what I’ve seen so far it really works!

-Ulysses Alexandre Alves

Great advise here. I find I am taking more time with the pieces than I would have in the past as I am focusing on the technique you have taught me. It is slower going at first but has fewer frustrations, is easier and sounds better in the end.

-Karen Richardson

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