One Of The Most Important Skills In Developing Your Classical Guitar Playing

There is one skill in learning classical guitar and any other instrument for that matter which, if you don’t cultivate it, will seriously stymie your development.

What is that one skill?

Focus.

I’ve spoken about focus and its power and importance to learning and playing the guitar previously on the blog. I strongly believe (and have evidence from my own development) that short, focussed, regular and consistent practice sessions are waaaaaaay more beneficial for your learning and progress than longer, meandering sessions. For what reasons hopefully this will become apparent.

I’ve just finished reading a book this week called Focus The Hidden Driver of Excellence by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman. Not a bad book, goes off on a few interesting tangents and drifts away a little at the end (not focussed?!), but has some pretty cool and potentially useful insights as well as some good reminders about focus and its importance. I highly recommend you check it out.

One of the topics discussed by Goleman is that of the “top down”, thinking brain system and the “bottom up”, automatic brain system. The former requires a lot of energy, your brain draws down quite a considerable amount of power when asked to perform “top down”, puzzling it out tasks, or address something new and novel. The latter, the automatic brain system, requires much much less energy; it’s the brain on auto-pilot doing something its done thousands of times before, pre-programmed movements.

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This is why when learning a new piece, or puzzling out which fingers go where, is seemingly so tricky. You’re asking your brain to do something new, and that something new requires a lot of energy. It’s a natural human thing to want to conserve energy, and flip back into the automatic “bottom up” system, so this is probably why it seems so tempting, just so darn easy to just slip back into playing what you already know.

But it’s really worth persevering with the new, mentally hard stuff, I promise you. Slipping back into playing what you already know is not really helping you learn and develop (that is unless you’re drilling something you’ve already nutted out, is more or less sorted already and are committing it to memory). Aiming to do some stuff in each practice session that stretches you mentally is how you make progress.

Think about it – when you’re first starting out learning to play you have no choice but to go through that brain-melting “top down focussed state. Then you start to get to grips with things a little more, a little more, and you can play some tunes. And then comes a choice – (a) carry on down the path of always relatively easy, non-challenging, but not really developing as well as you might or (b) stretch yourself again and again, treating a part of each practice session and each lesson as if it were the very first, and watching and hearing yourself really develop.

Classical Guitar

My top tips for attaining focus and tuning into your “top down”, learning state:

Well, some days you’re going to be more in a focussed kind of headspace than other days, but there are a number of things that can help you get into the zone and ready for some good quality, focussed 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. Don’t just go into it mindlessly.
  • Chunk down your work on a piece or a technical exercise into small bite-size chunks. Focus on one thing at a time. Focus on getting that one thing right. Focus on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and the sound you’re making. Focus on consistency in your playing and approach to whatever it is you’re working on. This is when you can start sending things down into the “bottom up” automatic system in the manner that you can build upon without tripping yourself up each time you come to play it.
  • Always aim for quality in a practice session over quantity. Don’t worry about time, other than breaking things down into small chunks. Work in whatever time periods feel right for you. If you’re not used to quality, mental concentration then the first periods of time will be quite small. That’s OK.
  • Avoid the temptation to check any incoming messages or calls on your phone, tablet or computer, emails or calls. Set you phone to silent, flight mode, turn it off or leave it outside the practice room.
  • 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!
  • And don’t chastise yourself, or force yourself if it’s not happening for you. Don’t struggle on with it – put your guitar away for a while, do something else and come back to it later. It takes practice to get focussed too – rather like the classical guitar the more you try it, the easier and more automatic it becomes 😉

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!