10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
I’ve been thinking about about the difference between what I say here on this blog, and how I actually teach most of the time.
In a guitar lesson, we’re working on something specific….how to play a bar chord, how to interpret a piece of music, how to finger something, how to get a shift cleanly. How to get a note to sound. Often there’s not much room in a lesson, or time, for abstract explanation.
But I’ve found that through subtle suggestions, and creative, on-the-fly explanations, I can often give the student an “aha” moment, after which I notice a change in their approach and a shift in their ability.
I was teaching a first lesson to a 7 year old the other day, and the tendency of 7 year-olds is to want to look at their hands and their fingers as they do something new. The guitar ends up being flat on their lap—you could serve a meal on it—and as a result they can see their right hand but they can’t really use it! Your right hand is useless to you if it has to reeeee-ach around and under the neck of the guitar.
The other issue that 6 and 7- year-olds tend to have is called “ouchies.” They press the string down and their fingers feel sore. They will hold them up to you and complain, or stick their fingers in their mouth to soothe the pain.
Older students, take note: I think these two tendencies are but exaggerations of things we all tend to do. More on that in a minute.
There was a time when I would have told her to “just sit up straight and hold the guitar right,” and that “your finger will get used to it….it develops calluses, you know!”
But I know better now. She was frustrated that she couldn’t press hard enough to get the note she was trying to play. Her finger hurt, and she didn’t want to hold the guitar right because she needed to see the finger. ( Often I’ll see kids, holding the guitar in such a way that makes it impossible to play in the first place, make it even more awkward by trying to use the other hand to put the finger down in the right place.)
I connected the two problems—-and in one fell swoop solved them both in her mind. I explained: “Your finger is very sensitive to how you are pressing the strings. It’s a lot smarter than your eyes, actually. It’s so smart that it knows how to make the note sound really good, all by itself. You don’t even have to look at it—just feel what it’s saying to you. You want to try that?”
This made sense to her. I got her to move the guitar upright again, which solved her awkward hand position, and she stopped trying to use “eye-to-hand” coordination and tried out “finger-tip-to-fret” coordination. And of course, her notes started sounding, and…she forgot about her ouchy. For the time being.
Adult guitarists do exactly the same thing, but in a much more subtle way. We don’t want to feel anything in our hands or our bodies that is remotely uncomfortable, so the default habit is to try to solve everything with our eyes. As a result, we become unaware of our posture, positioning and the lengths to which we are going to simply avoid a process that is actually natural and can often solve things for itself.
I do it myself. I still catch myself looking at my hand, out of a need for reassurance that it is going to make it to the right place. Which effects my posture in a subtle but tension inducing way, and effects my ability to drop in to the music, by keeping my attention on the surface of things. When I allow myself to drop into the sensation of my fingertips and the sensation of the shapes my hand is making, things get solved on a different level, and I have more access to my own self-expression.
This is why I’d like to knock the phrase “eye-to-hand coordination” off of its pedestal. There are so many other kinds of coordination happening when you play a musical instrument, and our tendency to focus on “eye-to-hand” obscures them all into insignificance.
Next time when you are practicing, try out one of these:
“finger to sound coordination”
“guitar to body coordination”
“melody to heart coordination”
and “fingertip to fret” coordination.
There are plenty of others. See if you can come up with some of them. Then go ahead and indulge in some “eye to hand coordination.” See if it feels different as one tool in a much, much larger toolbox