Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
Preface: Practice Point
Today’s entry actually opens up a window into the way that I practice, into the process through which I’ve grown into my current ability. Just a disclaimer, this post’s core content might be more useful for folks who are actually studying an instrument, specifically guitar.
Original Entry: Agility Training
Target in halftime/manageable subdivision of target speed
⁃ Left-Hand Focus
⁃ Right-Hand Focus
⁃ Headstock Focus
⁃ Body Focus
⁃ Middle of Fretboard Focus
• Target at speed, following above points of visual focus.
This will theoretically train my body and eyes to function independently, yet interdependently with different points of grounding.
Variation: Mix in closed eyes.
Let’s take a little time to unpack the contents of this process, which might seem a little unrelatable at first glance.
“Target in halftime/manageable subdivision of target speed”
If you are at all like me when it comes to learning and playing guitar, you probably wanna jump right to the cool stuff: face melting guitar solos, crazy cool and intricate rhythm, the prettiest chords imaginable…
And though I still agree with you – yes, guitar is an awesome instrument and LET’S GET IT – might I offer some encouragement that has helped me?
S L O W D O W N
I can NOT overemphasize the importance of taking your time when you are learning a new technique, pattern, or voicing. I know that we often want to skip all the bullshit and get right to shredding, but I would argue that, by slowing down, you are actually helping yourself get to the shredding stage even faster.
If you can take the time to learn how to play with a metronome, to feel time, to count… if you can make that initial step towards crossing the mysterious gulf of training with metered time, then you are giving yourself a gift with unending returns.
This can be a little tricky at first, and if you are really struggling, it might be useful to employ the help of a professional friend and teacher (I know a guy), but once you start to develop a relationship with a metronome, in my personal opinion, you are now equipped to tackle ANY musical passage, technique, or solo that you can imagine.
Heavyweight New York Bassist and YouTuber, Adam Neely, has a wonderful video about practicing slowly where he demonstrates the magic that is just WAITING to be unlocked by taking the time to S L O W D O W N.
Why slow down, you ask?
If you can slow yourself down, you are giving yourself the opportunity to become, in my opinion, a scientist of Time. It is possible to use your awareness to zoom-in on a single moment of time. When you consciously decide to create space IN time, to really pick apart a moment of music, you can begin to dial in on details that you have no hope of noticing when you try to machine gun through the piece.
Can you feel every individual muscle contracting as you move across your instrument? If not, what the fuck would that feel like if you could?
How can you fret or finger the note to give yourself the best tone quality?
How do you want the notes to connect? Are they slurring? All hammered-on or pulled-off? Are they short and staccato? Are they long and connected, legato?
Can you channel the motion of the sound across or through your instrument in a smooth and single flow? Or are you stuck in choppy and jerky movements?
How are you relating to the sound you are creating? What is your mind doing? Are you thinking about nachos? What if you could create a psychic resonance with what you are doing? Can you focus on this specific moment? Can you engage your mind? Can you give yourself a cognitive framework to help automatically regulate the rhythm? If not, what would that be like?
What the hell is this guy even talking about?
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
Left-hand focus, Right-hand focus, Headstock focus, Body Focus, Middle-of-the-Neck focus.
What the hell is this all about?
I discovered in college (where I was constantly under pressure to learn new tunes, exercises, and general repertoire) that I could develop my own methods to help myself cultivate intimacy with the music I needed to learn.
We’ve talked about it before, but it’s worth mentioning again – the guitar is a very visual instrument. The fretboard maps out like a grid that easily conducts visual patterns and shapes. In college, I utilized the guitar’s tendency towards visual focus to help myself ingrain information more quickly.
Usually when I would play, I would automatically and unthinkingly focus my eyes on the neck of the guitar – here I could see the fretboard, my left hand, and where my fingers were landing. I quickly discovered that, if I tried to shift my visual focus, say to my right hand, I would suddenly feel like I was on a different planet and would stumble around trying to remember how to play in the midst of this new visual reality before me. Often times, I would have NO trouble with my picking/right hand when I played, but as soon as I looked at it, my entire process would fall apart. I wasn’t used to seeing what my right hand was doing. When I actually focused on it, it looked so weird. Weird enough that I could no longer play.
This struck me as intriguing. How could I know how to play, yet still be rendered incapacitated if I simply tried to observe myself playing? Quickly, I slowed down (Ha, yup) and started relearning the passage while looking at my RIGHT hand. It took a little effort, but I was able to do it. Good.
Looking back to my LEFT hand, I suddenly realized that, actually, I had been playing the passage pretty sloppily, subconsciously staring off into the ether, spacing out in the general direction of the fretboard. I hadn’t really been paying THAT close of attention.
Practicing with my RIGHT hand in focus, I realized that my LEFT hand hadn’t been quite as clear as I had assumed.
I decided to relearn the SAME passage, again, but this time looking at my left hand, but now more earnestly aware.
Going nice and slow.
That was better.
Then I wondered, “Hey, Can I play this same passage, but now looking even farther left? Like, what if I don’t necessarily look at the fretboard, but instead look past it, maybe to the headstock and tuners. Can I play through this same musical moment If I focus my eyes here?”
Turns out – pretty tricky. I relearned the SAME passage, AGAIN, now looking at the headstock of my guitar; but in my mind, I was seeing my left and right hands.
“What about if I invert this? Can I look past my RIGHT hand? At the Body of the guitar? Maybe the bridge?” Rinse and repeat.
I had now learned the same passage four different ways. There was only one obvious way left, so it seemed to me.
“Can I look straight down at the center of the fretboard, in the space between both my hands?”
After some practice, the answer was yes. That gives me five ways.
Oh! But one more:
“Can you play it with your eyes closed now?” Apply some effort and time, and yes. Yes I could.
The result of this way of practicing?
Slowly. Very slowly. I realized that I was stitching together a visual map of my guitar. By maintaining the same practice, looking at five different regions of the guitar (Far Left, Left, Center, Right, Far Right), then closing my eyes, I began to realize I could look anywhere. Eventually, this lead me to realizing, I didn’t necessarily HAVE to look anywhere specific at all. I could see, no matter where I looked.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have to look at my hands to map out what’s happening when I’m learning new pieces, but I am no longer as constricted as I used to be; I have the freedom to direct my attention around anywhere I want, while maintaining my practice. If you are learning to play guitar, this is a gift, in my opinion, that you deserve to enjoy.
Moving through this process, I realized that I was able to learn and integrate passages more quickly. By confirming that I could play a passage in each of these six visual postures, I was giving my self the ample opportunity to constructively overlearn (More about that here).
It reminded me of being a kid when I first learned how to ride my bike. After I got my basic balance down without training wheels, I would shakily pedal around the small block of my neighborhood. With each successive circuit, I found myself getting steadier and steadier.
Each time I would relearn a passage with a different point of visual focus, It got easier and easier to keep my musical “balance” in time.
I’d like to humbly offer these perspectives and practices to anyone who is learning an instrument and who has been struggling with developing a process. I hope that this sliver of experience may inspire you to explore your own approaches to help yourself learn how to learn.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or qualms, I’d love to hear them. I hope everyone is having a nice day.
Love and Bows