Virtuoso guitarist and teacher Jamie Andreas delivers a technique that will help you improve your instrument skills so you can break through barriers and play like a pro.
We all know what it feels like to be learning a piece of music and running into certain passages that our fingers simply refuse to make friends with. We’ll be happily playing along and then, Whoops! there’s a missed note, or an imprecise, muddled passage.
If you want to make progress on your instrument, you have to know how to fix these problems. You have to know how to get your fingers to do what they are having trouble doing. That is what correct instrument practice is all about.
Find the what, then the why
The first step is to find out exactly what is going wrong. For instance, you may be trying to reach a new level of speed in your scale practice. Halfway through the scale, things start to fall apart. You stop, utter a little cry of disgust, and try again, and again, and again.
Unless you know exactly what note was the first note missed or played badly, you will not be able to fix the problem. Most often, you might only have a vague idea that trouble starts somewhere in a certain part of the scale.
Once you’ve determined exactly which note was the first sign of trouble, you must ask why. Why was there trouble playing this note? Were you holding your breath? Was your finger tense and too far from its note just before it needed to play? Did you not clearly visualize the movement before executing it?
After you find the what and the why, you can now employ practice methods to fix it.
It’s time to take it apart (the problem – not your instrument)
Even though everything I am discussing applies to any musical passage or exercise, let’s stay with our example of having a problem with a scale. Let’s continue with the idea of encountering a problem while trying to raise our scale speed.
Once I’ve determined the what and the why — I know what the problem is and why it is happening — I am going to do three things:
- I am going to lower the speed.
- I am going to play up to the note that is giving me trouble.
- I am going to pay strict attention to everything: my breathing, my overall state of body relaxation, and of course, my fingers.
Then I am going to raise the speed by small increments and work back up to the speed that gave me trouble. So, if my scale fell apart at 120 bpm in 16th notes, I will lower the speed to 100 (or whatever speed I am in complete control). Then I will raise the speed slowly — maybe 3 bpm at a time — as I continue to play up to the problem note.
As I do this, I am on the lookout for the first thing that goes wrong. I must be aware of the first note that gives me trouble as I raise the speed. Now I know where I must work.
Working in groups
Once you know the first note that is giving you trouble, start your repetitions a few notes before that note and end a few notes after. Don’t play the whole scale, play a section of it that begins before the trouble and ends a bit after.
This method is extremely effective in general, and I use it with all my students to help them break through to new levels of speed.
For instance, if a student has managed to have control up to eighth notes at 60 bpm, we proceed to coax a little more speed out of the fingers. To do that, we do not ask the fingers to perform the whole scale at the new, higher speed. We ask them to only play a few notes, then stop. If we are working with eighth notes, we would use three-note groups. If we are working with 16th notes, we will take five-note groups. This is because it is best to start by working from one beat to the next.
We do a few repetitions with a group of notes, then we add on the next group. If we run into a problem note, we switch to analysis mode, following the steps above to find the what and the why, and using “add a note.”
By using this method every day, your fingers gradually become used to the increased demand of the higher speed. Eventually, that new higher speed will feel easy, and you can proceed to conquer faster speeds using the same methods.
What is a note?
For a listener, a note is just a sound. For the player who is creating that note, a note is much more. In fact, the sound is the last link in a long chain of causation. For a player, each note is all the actions and conditions that are necessary to produce that note. And that can be a very long list!
We must come from this viewpoint to fix playing problems. We must review and assess the quality of all actions and conditions necessary to produce each note.
First on that list of actions and conditions is your mental conception of the movement to be performed to create the note and your mental awareness of the note itself. Very often, the reason a player has trouble playing something is because they actually don’t know what they are supposed to be playing. They think they do, but they don’t. This would easily be proved by attempting to say each note to be played, along with the fingers needed to play them.
Next is awareness of the breath. Obviously, this is of extreme importance if you are a singer or play a wind instrument. But you are more likely to constrict your breath if you play guitar or piano. Believe it or not, most guitar students hold their breath when attempting difficult movements. Once the breath is held, it’s game over.
If one of these factors is weak, thought or breath, the fingers will have a problem making the movement. Always look here first.
Shoulders and neck
After you check your thought and breath, check your neck and shoulders. If they are holding unnecessary tension, you will have trouble controlling your fingers.
The energy to make your fingers move comes down from the brain stem, moving down the nerves to the muscles. Unnecessary tension held in the large muscles of the neck and shoulders will short-circuit that energy, just like squeezing a hose stops the water from flowing.
Motor control learning
When we practice our instrument on the technical level, trying to improve our playing ability, we are really dealing with motor control learning.
Motor control learning is the science of how muscles learn movements, and it has been studied for decades in the laboratory. Lucky musicians intuitively follow these laws during practice. Smart musicians study the principles of this science and so enjoy the full flowering of their natural talent and hard work.
When this is your path, practicing will be an ever deepening activity. You will find yourself constantly improving, and constantly seeing more deeply into the mysteries of music and your instrument. The deeper you go, the deeper it will get.
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.” —Ludwig van Beethoven
Steps to take when fixing playing problems
- Find the what, then the why.
- Isolate the passage, lower the speed, and play up to the problem note.
- Raise the speed by very small increments and continue repetitions.
- Add the next note, or work in small groups of notes.
Make sure you are completely aware of:
- Your mental conception of the notes
- Your breath
- Your neck and shoulders
- Overall body relaxation
Jamie Andreas has taught all style of guitar for 50 years and plays the classical guitar at the virtuoso level. She is the author of The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar, which offers a scientific approach to guitar playing that can give anyone professional-level technique on guitar. Her work can be found at www.guitarprinciples.com.