10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
Summer has just ended here in New York city but the mosquitoes are still around, along with plenty of other critters whose natural inclination it is to deliver little distractions to us humans as we go through our day….a tiny bite, maybe on one’s ankle, or wrist…something to scratch at for a day or so until it goes away. Strangely satisfying and even comforting in a way.
But enter bedbugs into the mix, and every little bite carries much more psychological weight. Didn’t they close several Gap stores due to bedbug issues? Didn’t you hear that 70 percent of movie theaters have them, that irresponsible global travelers carry them from the boondocks in their backpacks? Suddenly every little crawly sensation at your wrist or ankles as you sit in some public setting causes your entire body to crawl. Your mind sharpens, your body recoils, and you react to everything around you in a new way, with suspicion.
You look at your wrist. It’s just a little bite, like any other bite you’ve had, The same itchy sensation, the same satisfying sense of scratching it…but…what…if….it’s…A…BEDBUG!!!!
Or maybe it’s not? Take a deep, deep, deeeeep breath. What if it’s just a mosquito bite? Scratch, scratch.
Here’s my point: your experience of any sensation is drastically colored by what you believe about it.
This applies to pretty much everything. It applies in a big way to playing guitar.
Every time you try to play that certain piece, the piece that has been driving you a bit crazy for a few months because you just can’t get those slurs to work, and there are a few shifts that you always miss, and a stretch in that one spot that you can’t quite stretch out to…..
If you were able to focus merely on the feeling of what is happening…your fingers,your hands, your body…,you would get some straightforward information that you could work with, and in all likelihood, solve the issue and move on. But instead, your attempt to make this clean shift is attached to an immediate, unconscious reaction, and that reaction drastically changes your ability to practice it and learn it successfully.
When you move your hand from the 2nd fret to the 7th and you keep missing the note…what is actually happening?
Here’s a key phrase: How does it feel? Perhaps it brings up fear, and your whole body tenses up and your hand shakes. You miss the shift. Perhaps it makes you impatient, and you speed up, overshoot the mark, get mad, try it again. You miss the shift. Perhaps it is at a musical spot where you want to be deeply expressive and you are trying so hard to do so that you…miss the shift. Or perhaps the thought of learning to nail this shift just seems so daunting that you can’t even muster the energy to try. You miss the shift, shrug, and move on to something more pleasant.
If you were to stop right there and take inventory—how does this feel?—you might start to notice that all of this other “stuff” is going on. Just noticing what is clouding your sensations can give you the ability choose what to focus on, in order to work with what is important: The feeling of your left hand as it finds–or misses–ts various spots on the fingerboard. The sensation in your right hand as it plucks the chords at just the right—or wrong–time. How your shoulders feel as they support or constrain the movements your hands are attempting to make. The clenching in your gut just before you go for it….
Yes, this is easier said than done. Our mental and emotional reactions to things are often deeply programmed. But it’s also easier to do than you might think, and once you start to engage in this practice, your experience of practicing guitar becomes richer, more satisfying and more effective.