Striking the balance between continuous improvement and good to go

As guitarists and musicians we must always be working, driving forwards and striving for improvement. Ever tweaking, ever growing, ever changing, ever developing.

Banksia marginata seedling near mature plants,...
Get growing, but don’t be afraid to show your wonderful foliage to the world! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Playing guitar is one of those things, I think, where we’re not really ever static as such. You’re either developing and moving forwards or you’re going in the opposite direction.

This is one of the key reasons why it’s so important to keep on undertaking even the simplest of technical exercises on a frequent basis – scales, Giuliani right hand studies, scales in thirds and sixths, slur exercises and other more specific and tailored exercises depending on the repertoire you’re playing and so on. Doing this keeps you right on top of your game, even for the most advanced of guitarists – it’s like the kung fu master continuing to practice his simple drills daily; it’s all part of the continual improvement process. It’s like one needs to just touch the foundation stone again, ensure it’s there and solid, put a little extra strength into it in order to build the structure a little higher.

And not only that, these exercises add a little something more each time you do them – provided you do them in the right way of course! Really listening very carefully whilst carrying out these kind of exercises is where we get those incremental, barely discernable, improvements in tone quality with the right hand and fluidity of movement with both left and right hands.

These changes do seem almost imperceptible day-to-day when you’re learning. It’s like watching a child grow as a parent – you don’t notice them growing and changing as you’re with them every day, but if you’re away from them for a week or even a few days you can notice the difference, things have changed. And so you may not feel like you’ve made much of a change or an improvement week to week between your lessons, but if you’ve been putting your work in (again in the right way) I can pretty much guarantee you that your teacher does (or they should do!).

Similarly if you feel like you’ve not quite got your fingers around that tricky little element as you’d hoped or gotten your piece sounding as smooth as you’d quite like yet and you don’t feel you’ve improved much, if you’ve been working your teacher will be able to tell the difference, will notice the improvements week to week (well, I can with my students anyway!). Know that doing the work, undertaken with a positive mindset, applied in the right way and as directed by a good teacher will see improvements in your playing and your technique and your musical expression.

At the same time, whilst we’re striving for this continual improvement, on the flip side we must also recognise when a piece is “good enough”. Yes, a piece will continue to change and develop and grow (my own repertoire pieces can change significantly from one month to another!), but it’s also extremely healthy, both physically and mentally, to say “yup, this piece is pretty good right now. I like how it’s sounding. It’s ready for performance/ examination/ recording/ whatever you want to do with it”. Let go of the idea that a piece will ever be “perfect” – there’s no such thing and in fact indicates that you don’t know what standard you want for the piece of music. Hmmm, think about that one!

And just because you’ve performed or recorded a piece in a particular way doesn’t mean that interpretation is set in stone forever more. It’s just a snap shot in time of how you’re feeling musically and how you’re able to technically express that at that point in time. As we grow and learn and develop as musicians and people we may come back to reflect differently on our work (check out Glenn Gould and his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for example – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bach:_The_Goldberg_Variations_(Glenn_Gould_recording)#Reappraisal). Or we may not! Who can tell? That’s part of the fun of being a musician!

So, yes, continually strive for improvement, but also recognise when your work is good to go (or more than that – the excellence that is!) and get out there and share your hard work with your adoring public – or at least the dog, the goldfish and your friends and family 😉

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