Making Your Brain Melt – Focus and Classical Guitar Practice

Let’s face it, most of us have not got the luxury of spending hours and hours and hours of time to practice every day (as much as we’d like to). And even for those that do have that time available to them, there is one thing that everyone of us can benefit from – focus!

What do I mean by focus?

In a nutshell it’s that period of supreme concentration with no external distractions (no phones beeping an incoming text, no checking Facebook) and no internal distractions (no invading, obtrusive or otherwise unhelpful thoughts). It’s that period where time can seem to flow faster than normal and you feel like you’re achieving something.

So how do I get focus?!

Well, some days you’re going to be more in a focussed headspace than other day, but there are a number of things that can help you get into the zone and ready for some good quality practice:

  • Think about what it is you really want to get out of your practice session before you start it and think about the things you might need to do to achieve that.
  • Break your practice session up into bite-sized pieces, as there’s only so long you can maintain quality focus for. I often set a timer for 25-30mins, giving myself a little brain break of 5 minutes before diving in again for another 25-30mins.
  • Avoid the temptation to check any incoming messages, emails or calls and set you phone to silent, flight mode or turn it off.
  • Focus on the task at hand. Don’t concern yourself with what’s coming up in the rest of your day. Lay aside for a time any concerns, worries, day-to-day kind of stuff and just be present, right in the moment for your practice. Give it all of your attention and energy for that period you’ve set aside. And enjoy it!
  • Make sure you’re well hydrated, just with plain simple water, prior to your practice session and perhaps have a glass of water handy in your practice room. Make sure you’re well fed too – I know that I absolutely cannot focus in any way, shape or form when I’m hungry.
  • Avoid thinking about what others are doing, that video you saw on YouTube of that four year old kid playing your favourite piece or what you think that others may be think of your playing – this when things can go awry. Why? It’s simple really, if we can only really focus on one thing at a time, if you’re thinking about a myriad of other things, you’re taking your mind and your focus, off of what it is that you’re doing. You’re not present for the music you’re making.
  • If you’re struggling to focus and you feel like it’s really not happening for you today or at this moment, don’t struggle on with it – put your guitar away for a while, do something else and come back to it later.

When you come out of the other side of your supremely focussed practice session you probably will feel like your brain is going to melt or fall out of your head or some other similar sensation. Which is not surprising given that you’re using a whole load of brain power and building new neural pathways. Along with that sensation, I can guarantee that you will have achieved something – nailing that tricky chord change, working out a fingering, checking out a new piece for the first time. So, try a little focus and see what happens!



How To Get Really Good At Classical Guitar

English: Image based on this one, so I credite...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



So you want to be a classical guitar hero? Or at least play as half as good as one?


Simple. Get born with, like, really, really, stupidly good musical or guitar-playing genes, right?




OK then. Find a bottle, potentially with a genie in it. Rub said bottle and hope genie pops out. If genie does pop out request as one of your three wishes granted to be able to play classical guitar with the technique, proficiency and panache of your dreams?




Clone some brain cells from Julian Bream or Karin Schaupp and have them implanted into your own brain?




There’s a much easier solution. Easier, much more enjoyable, and one that will also exercise your patience muscle and appreciation for the journey – technical work!!


Your scales, arpeggios, exercises and studies are THE fundamental building block to excellent playing. They are not the be all and end all, and should always be studied, played and applied relevant to the repertoire you’re learning or playing at any given time.


And I should know.


I went for years, ages, aeons without really partaking in any technical studies, scales or exercises. I was motoring along, learning new repertoire pieces in quick succession, flying through graded material and more. My playing was going really well; really, really well. I managed to become a fairly reasonable player this way. And I thought I was a pretty good player too.


After a number of years, however, I began to hit a wall – and nothing that I was doing could help me break through. Doing the same things in the same way (without any really considered, methodical and applied development of my technique) was no longer taking me forwards. At this point I received instruction from a new teacher who opened up my eyes to the massive value and benefit of some good, solid, yet musical, technical study.


And, boy oh boy, did I have some work to do. Firstly, undoing some bad, old habits. Secondly, instilling new, good habits. Thirdly, getting my technical proficiency up to a level where I needed it to be – to the music I was hearing in my head that was just dying to bust loose, but couldn’t due to the relatively poor conduit it had.


So you can get so far without intentionally focussing on the technical aspects of playing – and yes, musicality is very, very important. In fact, technical work and musicality are in no way mutually exclusive – they are two sides of the same coin. They very much need to occur together in order for you to realise your full potential – musicality can be given its must full and generous expression being facilitated by a good, reliable technique.


Exercises that train specific aspects of playing or movements such as slurs, barres, rasgueado technique, tremolo, free stroke and rest stroke, playing in different positions on the fretboard, percussive techniques, or various combinations thereof can definitely be introduced through your repertoire pieces.


There comes a point though where the technique required to execute certain elements as well as you’d probably like needs a bit of looking at in isolation to really get to grip with it. And we’re all different in that, some are stronger in one technique than others, so I can’t really advise what it is that you should looking at here.


So you work on particular aspects in isolation – you study it from various angles with exercises and studies (they call them this for a reason…) and then apply it. You reveal the relevancy of the energy exerted, the movements carried out and effort you’ve just made, by applying it in a piece.


Then when you bring that reviewed and refreshed technique back to the piece you’re playing, chances are it will fit right in it, and make the piece easier to play and articulate and infinitely more musical.


How much of it should I do and when?


Well, the answer to that question really depends on what it is you’re trying to achieve at this particular point in your learning or playing. The short answer, however, is something (with whatever may be appropriate for you at the time) and often, or at least as often as you’re able to pick up your guitar – aiming for at least five days out of seven is probably a good target.


It’s like a daily walk, or physical exercise – as we do daily physical exercise to keep us fit and healthy (or we’re supposed to!), so we do the same with our guitar-based technical exercises. It’s the minimum we need for a fit, healthy and balanced approach to our playing lifestyle.


Whatever technical studies or exercises that you’re looking at, it should always be a means to an end however, for whatever you’re working on or working towards at a particular moment in time.


And if you’re not sure what technical exercises to start with, it really doesn’t hurt to go past a scale or three. One of my favourite quotes from Andres Segovia (which I’m sure I’ve quoted numerous times before on this blog) sums up the point of scales very nicely:


“The student who wishes to acquire a firm technique on the guitar should not neglect the patient study of scales…..he will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers and prepare the joints for later speed studies. Thanks to the independence and elasticity which the fingers develop through the study of scales, the student will acquire a quality which is difficult to gain later: physical beauty of sound…”.