Moving In The Direction Of Skill

I am fond of saying, to others and to myself, one of my guiding principles of life and guitar: "the most important thing in life is knowing what you want, and the second most important thing is knowing whether you are getting it". You may dispute with me about whether or not this is of primary importance in life, but, take my word for it, it is of primary importance in playing the guitar.

The guitar student is faced with many challenges, and plagued by many doubts. One of these challenges is "how to make progress, real progress, in my abilities as a player", and one of the doubts is "am I making any progress in my abilities as a player" (we understand this to mean "am I creating vertical growth, or only horizontal growth"). We cannot answer this question about whether we are getting what we want, growth in our abilities as players, unless we understand what it is we really want.

How can we judge our progress, how can we asses our ability to create growth in our abilities, which also means assessing the quality of our practice? What is it we should be looking for? I once saw a master violin teacher helping a student with a difficult passage. She took the students fingers as they were on the fingerboard and said "let's see if we can make this easier". There is much to learn from this approach. Master players know that it is very difficult to play badly, and it is very easy to play well! Of course, we are being a bit glib here. It means that when you see a bad player, you see someone putting out a lot of effort for very little result, and when you see a good player, you see someone getting a lot of results for little effort. However, it can take a lot of effort to get to the point of playing with little effort!

Real progress will always carry this sign, it will always have this characteristic; what felt difficult will feel easier, if not right away, then over time. The essential point to grasp is this: we know we are making progress if we can honestly see and feel that the things that once seemed difficult are becoming easy, and of course, sounding better. This is what we always want to see, at any point in our development. I call it "moving in the direction of skill". Now, let us look a bit more deeply into this concept.

What is skill?

Skill is the ability to reconcile opposing dynamics toward achievement of a purpose.

Now, think about that very intensely, now and for a while after. "The reconciliation of opposing dynamics", what does that mean? Well, think of a baby trying to stand up for the first time. He or she stands up on little wobbly legs, encounters the force of gravity, takes a step and falls over! With practice, the opposing forces of muscle contraction are reconciled with the force of gravity, by the intention to stand upright, and the goal of that intention is achieved, the baby can stand up! On to the next challenge! Skill has developed, the ability to reconcile opposing forces, or dynamics, toward achievement of a purpose.

This is what we are looking for as guitar students. And yes, as we develop skill, as we learn to reconcile opposing dynamics, achieving our purposes (playing our music) not only becomes possible, it becomes easier. And so, this is the first criteria for assessing growth; are we becoming increasingly able to achieve our purposes as guitar players? For guitar players, this simply means, "can I make those notes I am supposed to make!?

If we do not find ourselves, over time, being able to do things we could not do before, we are not moving in the direction of skill. We are not learning to reconcile the opposing dynamics and conditions which comprise the process of playing the guitar. And that is most likely because we don't even have a clue as to what those opposing forces and dynamics are, anyway! Of course, that is where The Principles come in, because they make us aware of those dynamics and conditions, and even better, they tell us how to reconcile them!

Many guitar players will play for years and never move in the direction of skill. They may have attained a certain level of skill, as much as their natural talent has afforded them, but they do not know how to capitalize on that talent, extend it, and keep extending it. In fact, many players do not even know there is such a thing as actually getting better. They kind of assume that everyone just picks up the guitar and does what they can, and some can do more than others, and that is that. They don't really believe that there is "mobility" in the class system of guitar players. They have a "feudal" mentality about it; some people are born "peasants" and some are born "nobles". Well, to some extent that is true. The peasant will stay a peasant, unless he has access to education, that is.

Once the guitar peasant is able to have access to real education on playing guitar, they find the same thing the rising middle class discovered in medieval times: "that duke in the castle isn't really any better than me, they were just luckier, they had access to education, and leisure time to pursue it, that I didn't have. Now that I have studied at the university for 4 years, I can read and write too. I thought you had to be a genius to do that"!

And in the world of guitar education, it seems this feudal system is maintained by those "in power" just as it was in medieval times, and in the same way. I was reading something the other day by a very accomplished player and teacher. He was remarking how sad and strange it is that the great players and teachers seem to zealously guard the "secrets" of their great playing, they don't want anyone else discovering how they accomplish the "miracles" they perform on their instrument. The great Paganini, who astounded Europe with his unprecedented virtuosity on the violin, would quickly gather up all his music from the orchestra immediately after a concert, lest anyone study his music and discover any of his playing secrets! (Of course, today the "secrets" are out, and any properly trained violinist can play Paganini.)

So, the illusion that "class mobility" is not possible for everyone is carefully maintained by those who have an interest in having it believed. Well, anyone familiar with GuitarPrinciples knows that The Principles are the great equalizer. They are the educational resource that make it possible for any guitar peasant to become a guitar King or Queen. They make it possible for anyone to move in the direction of skill, and keep moving. Of course, that doesn't mean there is not a lot of work involved. It took a lot of work for a King to build his castle too!

No matter where you presently are located in your guitar playing abilities, it is possible for you to move in the direction of skill. However, there are a few important considerations involved.

First, the exact steps for you to take may be unique. They may not be the same as anyone else's steps, and this is especially true if we have been playing for awhile. That is because we are all "put together" differently to begin with, and as we develop (or don't develop) we form complex conditions as regards our playing mechanism that may be very unique to ourselves. For us, moving in the direction of skill may require a unique combination of approaches, each one focusing on a particular obstacle. In addition, we may need to focus on one obstacle, improve or eliminate it, and then focus on another, then another, in a particular sequence. It is very much like untying a knot. Pull on the wrong thread and you make the knot tighter. Locate just the right thread, loosen it a little, and then switch to another, loosen it, then go back to the first, and viola!, we begin to unravel the knot.

I have never seen a "knot" that can't be untied, that cannot be worked on and the loosening process begun. Any time we become aware that we are not moving in the direction of skill, any time our "knots" are not loosening, we must conclude that there are dynamics and conditions involved in the structure and maintenance of that knot that we are not aware of, and/or that we do not know how to interact with, manipulate, and reconcile. We cannot find that next right thread to grab hold of and loosen, or, we do not know how to work with it to "loosen" it, and begin the process of untying the knot.

We may have a problem playing fast scales. The problem may be a combination of left hand finger tension and/or form, coupled with pick hand flaws (weakness or tension), together with insufficient mental conception of the rhythm itself. It takes constant examination, analytical thought, and good old trial and error to unravel such a knot in our technique. But it is always possible.

A second consideration is that the initial necessary steps toward moving in the direction of skill may not be recognizable as such to anyone but the experienced and skilled teacher. They may not even feel comfortable, in fact, they may be quite uncomfortable. For instance, I will often see or sense something wrong in a student's left hand position and functioning, and I will grab their hand and elbow while it is playing, and force it to maintain a particular position while the fingers move. I will be preventing a movement of the shoulder or arm which I know is a less skilled, and compensatory reaction to a difficulty the hand is experiencing. This forces the fingers to make efforts they would not otherwise make, and those efforts are what is necessary in order to promote new muscle or ligament development, and so have a new skill emerge. It is not comfortable in the beginning, and it is not obvious, and so the student would not likely discover it on their own. Of course, the superiority of it will be evident very soon, sometimes immediately. The student will find themselves with a new ability to reconcile opposing dynamics that could not be reconciled before, and so be able to achieve purposes they could not achieve before.

I have the constant experience of meeting students who have been spending lots of time and lots of money sitting in front of guitar teachers with their "knots" clearly displayed, and much to the students growing uneasiness, those knots just keep getting tighter! It is a sad fact that many guitar teachers simply do not know how to move the student in the direction of skill. Instead, when the knot will not loosen, the teacher plays the "shell game" with the student. In other words, you will be working on something, some piece or some solo, and you will be obviously unable to do or improve some part of it, and after awhile, the teacher will merely suggest that you begin working on something else! So, instead of that nasty thing you are making no progress with, you find a new song to learn suddenly appearing on the music stand. Now, you can busy yourself with that, until you hit the parts you can't handle in that piece, at which point another "switch" will take place, and the illusion of "movement" can be maintained in lessons (for as long as the student can stand it, or will put up with it). This is not moving in the direction of skill; this is "moving in the direction of despair"!

Instead of our obstacles becoming proof of our incompetence, and points of departure for new excursions into the direction of despair, we can learn to use each obstacle as a new opportunity to move in the direction of skill. The way to do this is continually practice what I have described as "discovering our discomfort". The most overlooked aspect of playing the guitar is also its most fundamental aspect: it is a physical process of bodily movement. Music listeners have the luxury of relating to music on the purely sensual level, the purely artistic or even spiritual level. Music players should do this too of course, but in addition, they must pay their dues to the purely physical aspect of playing. We are the ones who interact with that purely physical thing we call "our guitar" to make the music, and we do so with our physical selves. All players must respect this fact, and also respect the fact that during their entire playing lives they will be training and maintaining that incredibly complex physical mechanism used to create music.

The surest, and the earliest sign that we are moving away from the direction of skill is our perception of physical discomfort during practice and playing. Most people have the all too common and all too human response to discomfort: they block it from awareness. We must do the opposite. We must embrace our discomfort, we must "surround the situation" by increasing our awareness and attention, and coupled with our accumulated understanding of the dynamics of playing and correct practice approach, we can use that perception of discomfort as a starting point and springboard for a new excursion in the direction of skill.

A final consideration for those wishing to move powerfully in the direction of skill is this: improvement of fundamental skills does not occur through the process of repetition of procedures, it comes from the continual upgrading of procedures. This is a finding reported in scientific studies of those individuals who have acquired "expert performance" abilities. Here is a quote from "Expert Performance: It's Structure and Acquisition" by Erickson and Charness (first appearing in American Psychologist, Aug. 1994):

"Hence, individuals do not achieve expert performance by gradually refining and extrapolating the performance they exhibited before starting to practice but instead by restructuring the performance and acquiring new methods and skills. In the final section, we show that individuals improve their performance and attain an expert level, not as an automatic consequence of more experience with an activity but rather through structured learning and effortful adaptation."

This understanding is of primary importance. It simply means that the road to mastery or any amount of increased skill lies not in quantity of practice as a first consideration. It lies in the constant improvement of the way we go about doing things. The key phrases here are "structured learning" and "effortful adaptation". We must be fundamentally changing and improving as time goes by. This is why the Principled Player is always practicing with intense attention, and always keeping Beginners Mind. There must always be a place in us that is open, so that something new can enter. That "something new" is our key to improvement, and the vehicle that moves us in the direction of skill.

Does everyone need to be moving in the direction of skill? Of course not, unless you are a beginner. If you have no skill, you need some before you can even play. Every baby must learn to walk, but does not need to grow up to be an Olympic athlete. As a guitarist, you can stop at any point in your development, and sit with your guitar for the rest of your life and play your little heart out! But, many of us do seemed to be obsessed with playing like "the masters", and if that is your story, if that is your path, well, then, now you know the right direction in which to point yourself. Keep The Principles in mind, and the wind will be always at your back.

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas