Simplifying focus in guitar study

Learning guitar can be a struggle at times for the aspiring picker. The process of playing guitar involves a kind of multi-tasking.  For the more advanced player this may not be evident, because so many of the tasks have become automatic.  On the other hand, the beginner constantly needs to be aware of many things. What fret am I playing on? Which string do I pick? What fingering am I using? What is the strum and what beat am I on?  If you add to all that reading music and/or keeping one’s place in a chord progression the amount of tasks can be daunting!

The professional player has a simpler job.  Much of the hard work has been done. All that remains is the task of making good music.  In order to get to this point the young guitarist has to work hard to coordinate these tasks. At times, things fall into place. At times, one can feel like one is juggling a bunch of balls. As one of my students succinctly put it, “There are so many things to think about!”

Simplify the focus

How do we keep all these things straight and still make music? As an example, let’s consider the act of reading music on the guitar. There is a tendency for the beginning player to turn this into a three-part process.  First, he looks at the music, then looks at his left hand to find the note.  Finally, he will check the right hand to make sure the pick is on the correct string.  This leads to a very stilted interpretation because of the constant change of focus. Indeed, the shifting focus further complicates what can be a simpler task.

One effective solution is to simplify the focus.  Keep the eye on the music page, and don’t even look at the hands.  At first, the player will make some fret or string mistakes, but eventually muscle memory will kick in.  As long as there are no position shifts, the left hand will make its choice based on the note on the page.  The right hand will eventually start to learn where the arm or wrist needs to be to pick the correct string.  Using the eyes on the instrument can sometimes be an impediment to internalization of the skill.  Just as the beginning bicyclist needs to get rid of the training wheels to learn to balance, the beginning guitarist needs to trust “feel” to develop the necessary muscle memory.

Taking the plunge

For those out there that don’t believe this is possible I can offer a case in point.  At one point I had a student who had a keen love for music.  He knew more classic rock songs than I did and was often introducing me to songs I wasn’t familiar with. He seemed to me to be very musical.  However, he was often struggling to form the chords in time to make the changes.  At first I thought that it was a problem with fine motor skills.  His fingers seemed clumsy and slow-moving, unsure of themselves, and often going to the wrong strings.

Incidentally, when this student started studying with me, he described himself as being AD-HD.  I thought that the intense concentration on his left hand was his way of dealing with that.  Indeed, he seemed focused, but his playing belied that.  He was getting frustrated, and I was puzzled.

Suddenly, I had a hunch.  I said, “Let’s try something different.  Try to focus on the chord chart instead of on your left hand.”  He told me he would never be able to play the chords correctly if he didn’t look at his hand.  I said, “Just try it.  Let’s see what happens.”  He tried it. He focused on the page and after a few stumbles was able to play the chords accurately and in time!

What happened?

So what happened there?  I think that while he was looking at his hands his mind was engaged in placing the fingers on the correct strings and frets.  For someone with attention deficit this can be confusing. It is likely that in his case the mind wasn’t working in an orderly fashion. I could sense that he was thinking too much, and the thoughts were getting confused and in the way.  When he allowed his intuition and muscle memory to kick in, the confusion was gone (or, at least, diminished). His hands were allowed to find their way on their own, without the obstacle of the brain.

I have tried this with many of my students, with similar results. Narrowing the focus can be an effective way of learning those automatic skills that playing an instrument requires.  For those that are having problems playing in time or making the chord changes, try simplifying your focus.  It might just work.


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