Thomas Carlyle on Musical Tools and Effective Practice

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

“Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools, he is nothing, with tools he is all.”

Thomas Carlyle

As we approach any project, the tools we have available will guide our process. Having and knowing how to use tools determines the quality and sophistication of the outcome.

And learning guitar, what are our tools?

At the physical level, we have our guitar, sheet musicmetronome, pencil. We can choose a good chair. We can find the best guitar support to hold our instrument. Perhaps a few more odds and ends.

And at the mental level, we have formulas and processes. We can use the 7-step process to learn pieces. We can clap and count the rhythm aloud. We can play “add-a-note” or dotted rhythms to work through the tricky bits.

And looking beyond these we find tools we often overlook. Here, we have our senses.

Our senses are tools with which we explore our worlds. They are such a part of our daily lives that we may forget them. We use them automatically, without trying.

But because we are so accustomed to using our senses, we often fail to make the most of them.

Impairments aside, we’ve all had the experience of looking without seeing. Or being lost in thought and not hearing someone call our name.

In our music practice, we can funnel extra energy and attention to these powerful tools.

We can listen more closely. We can listen for the end of one note connecting to the beginning of the next. We can listen to the volume of each note and its relationship to the one previous. We can listen for the melody rising above the other notes. We can listen for consistency or contrast.

We can look at a piece of music on the page as if we’ve never seen it before. We can re-see each marking and symbol. We can re-assess our fingerings to ensure that they are as we see on the page. We can watch our left hand for perfect placement of each finger behind the fret. We can watch our movements in a mirror (another tool).

We can feel the way our muscles work as we sit in the chair. We can feel the pressure of each finger as it presses down a string. We can notice when we squeeze too hard. We can feel the tension in our eyes and forehead. We can notice the changes as we play.

We open to more and better information when we actively use our senses. And to actively use our senses, we need a special catalyst.

This is the kingpin of all our tools–our attention.

Attention magnifies our experience and makes learning come easier. We can have the nicest guitar and know all the tricks in the book. But if we fail to bring our focused attention, we fall short.

As we progress on guitar, we’ll continue to gain new tools. We’ll pick up methods and tricks. We’ll learn new ways to learn and move and troubleshoot.

But at any stage, from beginner to advanced, we can always use our attention. And this will allow us to move forward in giant steps.

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.

I have to say, two practices later [after a video review] with the new position - the difference it's made in my playing is... unbelievable, really. It's like many months of improvement overnight.

Everything is so much more secure, left-hand stretches are easier, I feel like I'm getting way more volume for the same effort, the tone is noticeably better all along the neck, and the list goes on.

Thank you!

~ Alexander Mosolov


Your GCS site and The Woodshed community are really super! I am glad I finally joined in, and smacking myself for waiting so long. Thanks again!


~ Carol Morin

-Carol Morin

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