The importance of awareness – my own journey

My last post was a brief article on the need to practice and practice regularly.

It was borne out of what I often see and hear from players and students alike, that put incredible and unrealistic expectations on themselves to be “good” at playing the guitar almost instantaneously.

Perhaps we’re impacted by the instantaneous culture we live in these days – 24 hour rolling news, fast food, music downloads whenever we want, movies at the click of a button in the comfort of our own homes. “Stars” made overnight on TV talent shows.

So, it may or may not be the case that our expectations of what can be achieved in terms of learning an instrument are impacted by that. Possibly. Anyway, the point of the previous article was to emphasise that we simply cannot expect to make decent inroads into the journey on the guitar, or any instrument for that matter, without actually committing to doing some work. This is a fact. Some folks have talent, but it’s those that cultivate their talent, at whatever level they have that, are the ones that see the greatest benefits.

And this is where we must also be very careful indeed. Putting in the work and doing practice without actually thinking about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and importantly why, is a very, very dangerous thing indeed. And I know only too well about that.

Let me tell you a story…..

So, in my early twenties I wasn’t really playing very much guitar at all (yes, hard to believe now!), but on moving to Australia in my mid-ish twenties I decided to pick it back up again and start studying. At first I wasn’t that committed to it and was just kind of fluffing around with it really, kind of making progress but not really. Then one day I decided that I either needed to take things up a notch and commit properly or put it aside again. Well, the choice I made is probably reasonably evident, I hope! So yes, I decided to commit and thought, at the prompting of my tutor at the time, to put myself forward for the AMEB Eighth Grade exam.

Time to get serious I thought. And quite rightly so.

However, I thought “time to get serious” meant doing a sh*tload of practice, like hours and hours and hours and hours, and just repeating things over and over and over and over. And all of this activity was encouraged by a well-intentioned and well-meaning teacher. Little did they or I know that we were actually storing up some potential troubles……

By this method I did make some reasonable progress (and I scored an A in my exam to boot!), but there were some elements which really weren’t improving in the right way.  Further to that I was starting to get some pains creeping into my left wrist, just minor at first, but then gradually building, building, building over time, getting to the point where I couldn’t play for more than twenty minutes or half an hour at a time. Bad news!

I didn’t know any other way of going about my playing and my practice, but I knew enough to know I needed to seek some other input to my development.

So I sought out the tutelage of the great Phillip Houghton who opened my eyes right up – as well as my posture and my playing! I spent many hours with Phillip working on body posture, awareness of the body, the seated position, arm movements and the concept of using the big joints and big muscles as the levers to drive the major movements, using leverage of the torso, right hand positioning, nails, tone and much more besides (and in all that time I think I played the sum total of one two octave C major scale!). This time with Phillip was a massive turning point in my playing career and quite possibly my life – who knows, if I’d have kept on the path I was headed I might have ended up needing to give the guitar away…..! Dread the thought!!

So yes, from this moment on my approach to playing was changed. It was all about a much greater level of awareness of the body – and I tell no lies when I say I have not had one single pain in the right arm, wrist or hand since working with Phillip. Not one. Since he helped to raise my level of awareness about correct approach my playing has then lept from strength to strength. Thanks Phillip. And I’m passing these valuable lessons on to my own students today, right from the very first lesson.

I then also realised that I need to move to a different guide, mentor and teacher. Someone who could help me raise my level of awareness further around my playing. And this is where the fantastic Ben Dix came in – Ben has aided me significantly in really raising my awareness around tone production, awareness of exactly what my right hand is doing, awareness of exactly how my left hand is moving, awareness of what my body is doing as a whole, awareness of what is going on mentally whilst playing.

These days I actually practice far less, in terms of hours put in, than I did a few years ago. This doesn’t mean my own learning and development trajectory has followed suit – quite the opposite in fact. By virtue of being much more aware of what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and why, I’m able to hone in on exactly what it is I need to practice.

And that practice time is a whole lot more enjoyable too, now that I’m playing completely pain free. Those of you who are regular readers of the blog will know and understand the journey I’ve gone through with neck and shoulder pain and tension. You will also know that this is no more, thanks to the Alexander Technique and the awareness that has given me about where, why and how I hold tension in my body. I highly recommend you also give it a go.

And I’m sure there are more things that I will learn – and continue to pass on to my students – about how we play and raising our awareness of what it is we’re doing.

So yes, practice is vitally important.

But so is awareness of what you’re practicing, how you’re practicing and why.

Be mindful of what you’re doing. Be aware. And remember to enjoy the journey! Playing guitar is not about getting to “a point”. It’s about learning, and understanding and appreciating the journey along the way. It’s not just about learning a mere musical instrument either. It’s an activity where you learn so much about yourself and learn to develop yourself in a way like no other.

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