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.
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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I also want to thank you for including more video lessons on the Bridges Guitar Series. I have learned to play Calatayud's Waltz. The most exciting thing about having done this is that I sight read the entire piece as I was learning it. Six months ago looking at a sheet of music was like looking at Egyptian hieroglyphics. Learning to read notation is empowering and I appreciate the sensible way you are teaching us to learn to read music.
Allen Mathews was recommended to me as somebody who could help me expand my guitar vocabulary. Allen started me on a really fun cycle of lessons and practice. He is a very good and very enthusiastic teacher, and I feel that I'm on the road to learning. I couldn't be more pleased with my experience.
-Peter Buck, R.E.M.
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