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10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about some of my most recent discoveries in guitar playing and teaching. My work with polarities, going deeper into how they effect life in such profound ways has resulted in some breakthroughs in how I teach and in how I approach my own playing. Yin and Yang, giving/receiving, tension/relaxation, consonance/dissonance, listening/expressing—these are all polarities. A healthy relationship to any of these polarities means you are able to access both poles, allow them to flow back and forth—even if you have a preference for one or the other.

Often, though, we exaggerate our response to something that is important to us, and we experience it in terms of polarized opposites or extremes: avoidance/overcompensation, terrible/wonderful, brilliant genius natural musician/absolute hopeless loser wannabe….when you do that, there is an either/or, black/white quality that hampers any kind of progress.

We all make mistakes, and often we learn from them. That’s one thing mistakes tend to be great for. But sometimes we don’t learn at all–in fact, we get in the habit of not learning from certain kinds of mistakes.

The biggest mistakes that we guitarists make, the ones that really hold us back from their full potential, are not mistakes so much as habits.

What’s more, most of them are habits that we are only dimly aware of. We don’t develop these habits because we’re stupid. They usually come about because they solved a technical conundrum at some point , and then we try to apply what worked for one thing to something it is not appropriate for.

They end up being blind spots. And when there is a blind spot, it’s not because you are not capable of seeing something, it’s because you have developed the habit of ignoring it. Instead, you’ve developed the habit of focusing on something else—wherever you think all the action is.

What does this have to do with polarities? Here’s an illustration:

One very common blind spot for beginning and intermediate classical guitarists is how they use their right hand. They are spending most of their energy on the left hand, because it seems to be where the action is, where the difficulty and the challenge is—and the fun as well. The right hand is not as flashy, so it seems to require less attention. But if your right hand fingers hit the wrong string it doesn’t matter whether you are playing the right notes in your left hand. And the right hand is the voice of the guitar. It’s your tone. An un-evolved right hand technique will result in more potential ways to sound terrible than I care to enumerate here.

Left and right are opposites, and they illustrate an important, functional polarity for guitarists. The right hand and the left hand are two parts of a system that need to be balanced and coordinated. Not only do they need equal (if alternating) attention, and need to develop in tandem with each other—they need to be in constant communication with each other.They feed off of each other.

And this is important: if you’ve been neglecting your right hand, when you do start to finally pay it some heed and work on becoming conscious of it, things you thought were left hand problems were actually in the right hand or in the coordination and flow between the two. Your left hand benefits enormously from doing work on the right hand. It gives you more control over your shifts, your articulations, over the balance of your chords and the interplay of bass, treble, and harmony, and it allows you to masterfully create beautiful and compelling phrasing….a strong right hand basically gives the left hand confidence and freedom to do what it was born to do. A weak right hand makes your left hand work extra hard all the while never quite learning to trust itself.

Like ignoring the right hand in favor of the left, a  blind spot in your abilities is often the one side of a polarity that you ignore. It’s the result of a preference or a situation-based solution that gets exaggerated into a habit of imbalance, a sort of lopsidedness and results in both ends getting messed up.

The cool thing is, that when you become aware of this and simply start focusing on the neglected side, it starts to solve a lot of problems that you tryng to solve by focusing in the wrong place! New possibilities start to open up. Insights start to flow.

In applying these concepts to my playing and my teaching, I’ve been finding that there are many polarities that are immensely useful to become aware of and start working with.

There’s one basic polarity that seems to yield such a huge effect and has so many repercussions that one of my students sent me a long email about how much her experience of practicing had changed after she became aware of it. Here’s an excerpt (printed with her permission):

“I am feeling a direct connect between my mind, hands and back and shoulders and what sounds are happening.  So I feel in control.  By contrast I guess it felt, before focusing like this, that every time I played, I was pulling the handle on a slot machine…”

What is it? In my next post, I’ll reveal that, and I’ll give you a detailed exercise on how to access it’s benefits! Stay tuned.


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Here’s a limited time offer, while I work on some more learning-related content to offer you: if you join you will get  free mp3 download of my San Francisco Concert CD.

This is a concert that went exceptionally well, and I was fortunate to get a good recording of. It contains over an hour of high energy, highly communicative and virtuosic guitar playing, including great live versions of the Variations on a Mongolian Folk Song, the Spooky Blues, and other published scores. It also includes a rip-roaring performance of Jose Luis Merlin’s popular Suite Del Recuerdo, and some pieces that I love but only performed a few times: the adventuresome and quirky Quando Rondo, and three movement Sonata (published by Les Productions d’Oz.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

(p.s. when filling out the form, put anything you like in the Name box—entertain me, in fact! This widget requires that both be filled in. Just make sure you give me a working email so I can send you the download link, which will be good for 24 hrs. And if you have any technical problems, email me—I’m still working the bugs out of this process.)