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Why is my technique not improving? It's not just lack of practice.

I've spent a LOT of hours (years ago) improving my guitar technique: from following method books and videos to enrolling in private lessons and expensive workshops. All of them were good, until they stopped working for me.

There is no fine line between guitar "levels" contrary to what teachers or educators may say. There are certainly many opportunities to encourage people to develop their musical skills through exams, competitions, and ensembles. These are great tools when combined with other aspects of self development.

Good technique is more than habit creation and consistency, but involves multiple life events that affect one's relationship with practice. When you get past a certain exercise, you will come up with new challenges because that's just the way life is - you'll always be working on something. Some people are also more patient than others and measure their improvements differently. It also depends who your teacher is, what school of thought you follow, and your attitude towards your own practice and several, several things.

Drilling hours of technique may get you up to speed, but that could be counterproductive to your health or other goals. For example, playing musically or singing your pieces with poor technique may not turn out to your satisfaction. On the other hand, focusing too much on the technicality of exercises, limits your musical freedom. Whether you've gone one way or the other, you may have noticed moments of plateau.There are a combination of things that comes into playing that involves not just the instrument - but also the self. After revisiting my practice the past few months, I desired a more personal approach to my practice - one that is more simple and accessible and that allowed me to have a healthier relationship with progress.

Consciousness and Focus are two different things.

How does consciousness exist? - this is a question that cognitive scientists struggle with even though there is some evidence that consciousness extends beyond neural activity and into the real world. Where does it stem from and why do people have subjective experiences? (Overgaard, 2017). People's consciousness are developed through associations they make from previous experiences. Similar with practice, consciousness is based on an understanding of the self.

In practice it helps to differentiate consciousness from focus. Consciousness is the ability to distinguish parts of the self and why the self acts a certain way, while focus is zooming into one's current activity. In reality, a lot of people practice focus, but they do not practice consciousness.

For example, I've focused on a scale section for a particular exercise and every time, I slip on one part. When playing scales, I tend to look towards my left side. I dropped my fingers and scanned my body and identified that the reason why I was missing parts of the scale was not my physical movement, but a phenomenon called "Bokeh Effect" - I was simply focused towards a blurred zone in the background, rather than visually on the fretboard even though I am looking in the direction of my guitar - this makes me miss frets or rely largely on tactile movement. Consciousness and focus are both important, but consciousness helps people navigate their problems.

What happens to me when I practice guitar sometimes is I see something in the background - in this case, the lights and cars (noise), but not the rails (guitar) in which I need to focus onto.

Quality supersedes Repetition

I like practicing small repeated parts of a passage but I didn't know how small was small, until I was corrected by my teacher on it. Sometimes we break down passages based on measures, but we forget that measures can be further divided into beats, which helps isolate problem parts better. Having different start and end points in practice also helps train the mind to learn to expect the unexpected. What I mean by this is not just to practice from one measure to the other, but to also create alternative roadmaps like practicing from one measure to the middle of the next - something that is not easily predictable. Muscle memory is very powerful and the quality of our practice improves, if we can learn to train other parts of our brain that intentionally produces reliable outcomes.

When trying to go through different phases of an exercise or piece (from basic to more advanced), focus on quality and not just repetition. When the quality of your practice is subpar and you move on to the next phase, you are more likely to commit errors and spend much more time and effort than you actually need. Smart practice is mastery not quantity. Don't get trapped by the shiny things.

Self-checks are important in the process of hardship

When things are not working out for me in practice, I used to get easily frustrated or double my work by pushing hard.

Scenario: Have you ever had a desire to play a difficult piece in your life? Maybe you think it is way beyond your level so you then find something slightly easier, still within your reach, so you give it a couple of days or weeks of practice. You find out that you are always going to mess up one part, after you've spent so much time already practicing the whole thing. Thoughts?

Most people don't want to admit that they are playing difficult pieces poorly. Now, no one's stopping anyone from playing what they want, but if the concern is about improving technique, preparation is needed. In the process of deciding what you should do next, do some self-checks and abandon difficult pieces for the time being. Make deliberate choices in selecting your technique exercises, even your repertoire.

Create more time for yourself by mastering small things.

The digital world gives us infinite access to resources. Several courses are offered online and customized according to client needs and goals. We have websites such as Patreon, Tonebase, and Youtube that provide people opportunities to learn from renowned musicians and go through a sequence of courses for a price. While a lot of online courses offer trials, packages, and additional incentives such as free guitars or masterclasses, these courses are not designed to move a player from zero to hero over the course of its completion.

A solid and reliable technique is built through careful planning. Some students like following a method or plan for them because it helps to avoid cognitive overload on tasks. Plans are good, but they need to be small to be effective. Imagine if you had to think of which exercises are suitable for your level, how much time you spend on each, and arranging a daily schedule for yourself while hitting all of your technique goals, you can burn out or easily feel discouraged. Even though these resources offer a sequential path for success, take them with a grain of salt. Chunk your time wisely and focus on practice sessions that maximize mastery over grandeur.

There are several ways to make technical practice interesting:

  1. Using the metronome and challenging yourself to hit certain tempos (start at a tempo you are 100% hitting everything, then increase it gradually for challenge)

  2. Play different rhythmic patterns .

  3. Play scales in different positions (1st-5th-7th)

  4. Exploring right hand movement patterns (Using small exercises to practice tone production, finger combinations, and/or evenness of arpeggios; add chords to make it more interesting!)

  5. Conscious planting (taking ~2 measures of your piece and preparing fingers on all strings; you play the first note and immediately plant the next finger on the next string and continue as many times)

  6. Speed bursts (taking 1-2-3-4 LH patterns and switching order and number of repetitions)

  7. Using exercises to practice dynamics (e.g. crescendos and decrescendos on arpeggios)

Food for Thought

Author and sports analyst, Emmanuel Acho shared with the world an interesting view point on why people should stop setting goals. Similarly with music, goal setting in itself could be limiting and purely motivational. In improving your technique, don't get caught up on achieving goals. Instead use your technique practice sessions as an opportunity to revisit progress using what you've already achieved.

Remember that technique is not just about unlocking skills and keeping them in shape. Technique development should allow you to enjoy your musical journey - not dread it.

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