Think About It

The most effective practice tool we have is what we carry between our ears.

When teaching beginners, I often say “Use your mind to figure things out, use your hands and the guitar to play them.”  Our mind, or imagination, is capable of grasping things that seem beyond our ability to execute.

Playing music begins with an idea. The idea is some imagined sound-image that I attempt to realize in playing. Where does this sound-image come from?  How clear is it in my mind?  Am I paying attention to it as I play?

Sometimes I think that I’m practicing backwards. In other words, I sometimes feel as though I sit down with my guitar and a piece of music and as I start to “poke away” at the mechanical/technical aspects of reading and executing, I start to form a mental sound-image of how I want the piece to sound.

What if I turn that around?  What if I focus on the idea, concentrate on it, and allow that idea to direct my playing?  If I don’t really know what I want to sound like, my playing develops almost randomly, which is an invitation to confusion, frustration, and anxiety. What I’m talking about here is more in depth that the process of hearing a recording of a piece and knowing “how it sounds.”  It entails imagining, in precise detail, my playing of a piece, perfectly executed. Whereas listening to a recording is a passive (yet very necessary) process, listening in my mind involves the active participation of my whole being. I hear the sound, I can see my fingers or the stage or the people in the audience or myself on stage; I actually feel the physical sensations associated with the emotional context of a piece of music.

Some things to try:

1) Close your eyes and try to imagine yourself playing a piece of music that you have memorized. Make the mental image as clear as you possibly can, invoking all five senses and even emotional feelings. Hear every note, perfectly executed with perfect tone. See yourself clearly: What are you wearing?  Where are you playing?  What is the lighting like?  Is there an audience?  Can you feel the strings under both hands?  Can you feel the instrument in your lap?  What is the temperature in the room like?  What do you smell?

2) With a piece that you are working on, spend some time at every practice session looking through the score without the guitar in your hands. As you follow the notes on the page, try to hear yourself playing the music. Can you imagine it so clearly that it seems loud to you?

3) When you are working on a “trouble spot,” try imagining yourself playing it comfortably and perfectly. Do not attempt to play the passage until your mental image is crystal clear.

4) For the truly adventurous, try learning a piece of music without actually playing it, just by reading through the score and imagining how you would play it. Hint: start with something very simple. The ability to do this is a major component of good sight-reading ability.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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