Pulling Up The Slack: Mining Your Potential

The Basic Practice Approach (as found in The Principles) states, as Step #1: "Review and increase your understanding of what you are about to do, and how you are going to do it." There is a world of meaning here, and I would like to take a look at a few of the applications and ways of understanding this directive.

We all need to realize that at any given moment, we are capable of being "more than we are". If we knew how to have a certain totality of awareness of ourselves, then we would be able to, in every moment, see more than we saw before, and so, be able to be more than we have been before. This is true on every level of life, and of course, my favorite level, playing the guitar!

One of the important things I do with students is to show them how to pull the most out of themselves by getting closer to that "totality of awareness" I am speaking of, how to work with this awareness, and how to instantly (or at least in the course of the lesson) play at a level far beyond what they are used to. With new students this is done by giving certain critical understandings about the dynamics of guitar technique, as well as the dynamics of motor learning, and then directing a practice session in which these dynamics are respected, and worked with correctly. With experienced students, it is a matter of all of this also, as well as reminding them of things already "learned", and helping them create a synthesis of all this material that sheds light on present playing situations.

I think of this as "pulling up the slack" in the student. In other words, the potential is already there, the student just does not know how to access it.

When we pull up the slack on something, say a rope, we are making it useful by getting rid of what is making it un-useful: extraneous and/or "un-integrated" conditions. We get rid of the extra length of rope, tighten and integrate its material and substance, and make it useful to our purposes by doing so. We can now transmit our power, and our will, to the rope. Once we have done this, we have increased our power, because we have made something more useful and available to us.

A person who can do this in all areas of life, is a person of power, and so, can become a person of great achievement. They will be a person who has the ability to create change, because power is the ability to create change.

All of this is the forceful process of doing what I have stated in the aforementioned first step of the Basic Practice Approach; making a conscious and deliberate attempt to "inventory" all recent experiences and insights based upon them, and then making sure that those insights are applied to the present moment of practice. This is a primary characteristic of a player who is going to become as good as they can be, as fast as possible. This ability, used habitually, is a primary characteristic of a great student, and ultimately, a great player.

When I pull up the slack on someone, it is always interesting to me that the potential to do these things was already there in the student, before they came to see me (it is amazing how much natural talent is out there). But, like most people, they did not know how to practice, and they did not know the mechanically correct way to go about doing various techniques on the guitar, and so the practice they have done up till now has crippled their talent, they cannot fully exploit their natural coordination, or flexibility, or whatever aspect of physical ability they may possess. When a dose of proper training is administered, the results are often instant and dramatic.

Having natural talent in no way exempts us from falling prey to all the potential pitfalls that lie in wait for anyone on the path of guitar excellence, and there are many. Many people, when they first pick up a guitar, find they have no trouble "getting around" on the guitar. Their fingers have an obvious ability to move with speed and flexibility, their brain has an obvious ability to formulate and execute complex motor programs with their fingers. In spite of this, somewhere along the way, and to one degree or another, they will begin to veer off the path of proper development. They will most likely begin to take one or another of the many "exit ramps" off the highway that leads to professional levels of guitar playing ability.

And then there is the poor student with modest talent but no lack of fervent desire to play, who innocently places their guitar playing future in the hands of a "teacher". So often, they end up like the hundreds of students I have met who never became able to change simple chords with enough ease to do a song, even after years of trying, and years of so called lessons"! It is scary! If this many patients were going to doctors and hospitals with no results, the streets would be lined with bodies!

People take different exits. Some never get back on the road. Some get back on with loose wheels, and notice they start to "shake" at high speeds. There is only one way to stay on the highway and move swiftly and safely toward increasing levels of ability, and that is to have as much instruction as possible from a master teacher. When the teacher sees the student start to veer off the road, the teacher reaches out and guides the vehicle back safely to the center of the fast lane.

Whichever exit they take, it will involve a few common elements. Some technique or the other (it may be scales, picking, hammers, bars, etc.) will cause the student to do things with a lack of skill. Even if the student can do it, they will be doing it badly, with bad sound or rhythm, and/or they will be using 10 to 100 times the effort and energy to "do it". Or maybe the student can do chords, but has a problem with scales, or bars. Sooner or later, it is going to be something. Most deadly of all, they will be locking tensions into the body which will limit, perhaps severely, their ability to create further growth in their playing abilities.

These students, if they stay on the highway and continue to play, will be like cars that have their noses jammed against a side rail. They keep generating a lot of effort, but wonder why they don't go anywhere! A good teacher will take hold and point there nose in the right direction by showing them what they are doing wrong, and how to do it right, and they will begin to experience forward progress once again.

Once I have revealed to a student what their true potential is, once they see what can occur if certain laws of body/mind learning are respected, it is their responsibility to make these changes to their usual approach a permanent part of their practice approach. They must learn how to pull up their own slack, and prevent future slack from developing. In this way, we can develop talent, because talent is simply the tendency to do things the right way.

And that is where the wisdom of the 1st Step of the Basic Practice Approach comes in. This is the reason we do this step, the reason we bother to review and increase our understanding. We do this because we want to make sure that we apply all our recent insights, everything we have learned in recent times. If someone is taking lessons with me, they are getting a very heavy dose of new understandings, as well as a deeper exploration and application of previous knowledge, in every lesson. It is their responsibility to make the greatest effort to retain every drop of it, and to use it as well. It is my responsibility to make sure they are doing this. When this is done, powerful and consistent growth is inevitable.

It is no easy task, but everyone can make a beginning, and everyone will find that it is worth doing.

Probably the most powerful way of doing this is to use a practice journal, as many people are learning to do. In fact, our forum is a place where many people are "journaling", as they post their progress, problems, and just about every facet of the guitar learning process. Doing this, and reading what other people are doing, is one of the best ways of positioning yourself to pull up your own slack.

Also, constant review of old material, done with the awareness and application of all knowledge gained since the last time that material was played is vital. For instance, it is very common that I will make a new fundamental discovery about guitar technique, some new approach to doing something I have been doing for years, that is obviously superior and worthy of adopting into my technique. When playing previously learned material (and when you have been playing for 34 years, there is a lot of previously learned material!) I will constantly discover that new technical insights are not being used in my playing simply because I happened to become aware of them; they must be consciously and deliberately trained into the old music, the old movements. It is a constant process of pulling up the slack, integrating non-integrated elements and resources.

It takes a constant focus and effort during practice, but it must be done in order to know that I am playing up to my highest potential. It is true for me, you, and everyone. If we are serious about ourselves as guitarists, we will make sure we are always pulling up our slack, by making this first step of The Basic Practice Approach a constant background theme to all our music making efforts.

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