The one thing that I most emphasize to my students is to concentrate on listening to the sound of your guitar. To become both the listener and the performer at once not only makes playing infinitely more enjoyable, it also is the primary component of emotive playing and even an important part of overcoming stage anxiety.
When playing fingerstyle, listen to the difference in tone when you play with different angles of the fingernail and the fingertip. Be sure to file and sand the edge of the fingernail to as smooth a surface as possible. Try playing at different places along the string length, closer or farther away from the bridge, and start to get to know all the different tones you can produce. The same principles apply to playing with a pick. Be sure the edge of your pick is smooth, and experiment with different angles of attack and different places along the string length. Play some tunes that you know very slowly, listening to the tone you are producing. Adjust your tone by changing the angle at which you strike the string, to be sure you are getting exactly the sound you desire for that part of the music. You may find that the best tone with the fingers is produced when you relax the hand, contact the fingernail and fingertip at exactly the same time, and glide across with a slight angle towards the left shoulder. When you come to a phrase that repeats or a phrase that begins something new, change how or where you strike the string and/or the volume at which you strike the string to get the most different sound possible. Change the sound so much that it makes you laugh!
When you truly listen to the tone you are producing and the lines you are playing, the guitar tells you how to interpret the music. As a starting point in adding dynamics, when the notes are going up, get louder (not faster). When the notes are going down, get softer. Listen to how it effects the character of the music, and then you can opt to reverse the dynamics on one or two of the phrases. As long as you are always getting louder or softer, the music will begin to breathe, and it will tell you where it wants to go.
While you are enjoying the sound of your guitar, take your favorite notes and hold them just a little longer than the others. For example, a beautiful note at the top of a phrase doesn't want to be clipped, it wants to be held long enough so that you can hear its beauty. Imagine that note as a cup "holding" the other notes of the phrase and then as you descend the cup tips and the other notes "fall out of it." One way to gauge how long to hold a note is to add and a little vibrato with the left hand. By the time you do two shakes of the hand is about the right amount of time for most notes. The vibrato will also make it sound more beautiful. For a very important note that wants to be held longer, listen to the sound of the note on your guitar. When it begins to decay to 3/4 (7/8 in some cases) of the original volume, that is exactly the point at which the next note should come in. The interpretation differs depending upon the sustain of your guitar. You can also use the decay of the notes when doing a decrescendo in a slow tune. Listen to the sound beginning to decay, and try to come in at exactly the same volume the previous note left off. This is easier to accomplish on a classical guitar.
When you experience stage fright, try focusing your attention exclusively on the sound of your guitar. With great concentration, focus on enjoying the tone of the note you are playing, and think ahead only as far as the very next note you are about to play. This takes the attention off oneself and back onto the music, and by doing this, the performer will feel more as a part of the music and less self-conscious.
Listening to and enjoying the sound of your instrument will not only make practicing more enjoyable, indeed it will keep you from developing improper techniques that produce a bad sound. When your main objective is playing with a beautiful tone, you will automatically be searching for the techniques that best produce it. Aha, and there's another excuse for buying that guitar you've always wanted!
Composer and award winning guitarist Muriel Anderson has released seven CD's in the US, three in Japan, several books and videos, and is host and originator of the renowned "Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night." Her "Heartstrings" album traveled as far as outer space, accompanying the astronauts on a space shuttle mission.
Muriel is co-author of the new book "All Scales In All Positions" (Hal Leonard Publ.)
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