10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
Have you heard the legend of the guitarist with no bad habits?
It goes like this: “there was this guy, who my friend used to go to school with, a monster guitarist, who’d been taught so well as a child that he never developed any bad habits!”
His father showed him proper hand position when he was two, and he went on to develop perfect technique, flawless tone, scales that flew from his fingers like a string of pearls or like machine gun bullets depending on your taste in music.
You name it, any technical challenge that has you cursing and moving on in frustration by the 20th attempt, he could pull off without even thinking twice. Basically, it was <em>impossible </em>for him to make any mistakes at all, because he’d long forgotten that they exist, sort of like most of us have forgotten that it was once a lot easier to crawl than it was to walk.
To the guitarist with no bad habits, we are all crawling, and this doesn’t make much sense to him, because it is so much easier and more fun to walk, don’t you know?
It could be that John Williams is the source of this urban legend…here’s an excerpted fan review of his Seville Concert DVD from Amazon:
This guy doesn’t make mistakes. Every note is right on the money. Perfect. Excellent tone. John Williams is a true hero of the classical guitar.
To be a true classical guitar hero, it would seem, it helps to be a guitarist with no bad habits.. At least it helps you to earn the right to shoot your video concerts in the Alhambra.
In an interview published on Classical Guitar Review Williams says, about technique:
I guess I have been lucky to an extent, because having a well formed technique from an early age I haven’t really had to think too hard about it…..I don’t practise a lot.
Yes, I’m sure he has been lucky to more than an ‘extent”….and I’m sure that John Williams’ ability to play like he does—with passion, brilliance, joy, grace, rhythmic vitality…without dropping a sweat… has inspired a lot of guitarists to practice like little manic impressarios, and develop all kinds of tension and frustration in their playing.
Is it ever possible to get to his level if your reflexes weren’t developed at a young age? Is it ever possible to unlearn the bad habits?
Bad habits are learned in the body, and then made unconscious, as are good ones. If you are to unlearn them, and relearn the more appropriate ones, especially if they have been reinforcing themselves for years or perhaps even decades, you have to have a pretty powerful, systematic, sensitive, and yet flexible method for doing so.
If you try to imitate John Williams without awareness of how much you are tensing up and straining yourself to do so, then your body is learning the habit of being tense whenever it tries to make the guitar sound like your hero, and since John Williams is not tense, you are not ever going to reach his level if you continue in that direction.
Next time you are inspired by John Williams or any other guitar hero of yours, siit down and play, and feel the inspiration, but let yourself fall into your own sensations…don’t try to be your hero. How do your hands, your arms, your back, your neck feel while you are pushing them to these levels of intensity? Keep coming back to your own body and its simple sensations. Try different levels of tenseness and relaxation. Do your passionate attempts go better when you push yourself to be what you aren’t—at least not yet—or when your awareness is on who you are, what your body and breath and fingers are doing in order to create the music you are playing?
If you have some habits that get in the way of playing as well as you want to, then this is only the beginning of unraveling and rebuilding your technique from the inside out. It might not be easy or feel natural to focus on how you feel rather than on what you are trying to make the music do, but it’s the only way you’ll get there in the long run.