CGC 049 : How to change your technique

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CGC 049 : How to change your technique

If your learning has been sporadic and spanned several years (or decades) with multiple instructors, chances are that you will have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses in your technique.

I find that prime suspects for technique issues are players that have transferred from other styles of guitar playing, players that have had a substantial pause in their studies, or individuals who have studied alone without any formal guidance. There is one other culprit, which is unfortunately the teacher who allows a student to take on repertoire that was too difficult for their level of playing.

In any case, if you have some serious issues with your technique, a good teacher will point them out very quickly.

When this happens, you have two options.

  1. Nod in agreement and say that this is something that should change, and you will keep it in mind as you play your pieces.
  2. Actually change your technique.

While the two options seem similar, there is a gaping chasm between acknowledging an issue and taking actions to address it.

Before you get upset at the never ending stream of technique advice…

Technique is not something that you can set and forget.

The way your body works is in a constant state of flux and it responds to repetition, be that good or bad repetition. As you probably already know, there are many different facets to keep an eye on, so it is very easy for some aspects of technique to get out of shape. So, if you felt that you had good technique at one point, don’t feel like you are being confronted by the change, think of it as an objective check up.

Working on technique is a process of refinement.

Setting up your hands so that they can reliably execute your musical ideas takes years for most of us mere mortals. There are basic tenets, which you will be taught early on in your studies, but these will need continuous refinement over a long period of time because of the nuanced nature of what we do. So, if you receive suggestion on your technique give them at the very least consideration and experimentation and don’t feel like your technique is “bad” just because a refinement was offered.

Don’t let difficulty get in the way

Trying to change your technique by adapting it in your current repertoire is like trying to fix a broken gasket while traveling down the highway doing 60 miles an hour.

You are trying to stay in the lane, dodge other cars, open the hood and break out the tool box all at the same time.

Your repertoire is demanding attention on rhythm, speed, synchronization, tone, articulation, and dynamics… and you want to change the contact point of your i finger at the same time?!

Good luck!

Turn off the engine, get the hood up and let’s get a good look at what is going on.

(Sorry for the extensive analogy, but I see so many people trying to change technique through old repertoire that I needed to hammer home the point!)

So what does this look like in practice?

Step 1

Let’s say you are trying to adopt a different right hand position. You are raising your wrist a little more and trying to make a simpler more efficient free stroke with a consistent contact point on the string.

First off, let’s take out the left hand completely and work with open strings. Also, let’s take out all but one digit to focus on, so in this hypothetical it will be the “i” finger.

Secondly, let’s slow right down. Slow enough that we can view our movements under a microscope. In my experience the student will rarely slow down enough to make a good observation. If, in our example, we are playing the open 2nd string with our i finger while monitoring our hand position, finger movement, and point of contact. We should be playing a note one every two seconds at most.

This is what I mean about slow. There are three things we are focusing on here so even two second intervals are rushing a bit for my liking.

To achieve our goal we need to first experiment with tiny variations in our movement. If you are going to fast then you might make a nice sound, but not know how you did it.

Once you have latched on to the right movement you need to start replicating it with consistency. Remember that your body responds to repetition. Nerve pathways start getting coated with Myolin, as you reinforce the movement. If you repeat it without consistency, then you can’t expect a consistent technique as a result.

Step 2

Once you have identified, isolated, and remedied the problem you can start to incorporate it into simple exercises. We start adding in complexity gradually, so that we can retain the improvements that have already been hard won.

For instance, the first exercise might be alternating the i finger with m finger on the open second string. Following that, we can cross to other strings, then skip strings, then practice with different speeds and rhythms.

Following this right hand process we can start to add in the left hand. Simple chromatic runs on one string, one octave scales, two octaves, arpeggios, scales incorporating the thumb, etc.

You can see that this process is progressive, and it will likely be catered to the issue at hand. No pun intended…

Step 3

This is where a lot of people lose ground.

The repertoire that you already play, and especially your old warhorses, have your old technique embedded in them.

If you try and implement a fresh habit into a well worn old friend, you will lose out every time. It is like starting a diet while on holiday. Sure, it might work when you are in foreign surroundings, but when you return home… so do your old habits.

The real key at this junction is to work on your new technique with a new piece and furthermore a piece that is very easy for you to play.

A new piece prevents the old habits from creeping back in and the fact that the piece is easy affords you time and energy to focus on your technique rather than overcoming challenges that the music is throwing at you.

A question that you might be thinking at this juncture is: do you mean that I have to throw out all my old pieces?

For the short term, I would advise to sideline your old repertoire if you can. It doesn’t mean that you will never play it again but if you want to secure changes in your technique as quickly and efficiently as possible then the less contact you have with the old habits, the better.

Of course, that is not always practical, in which case I would suggest partitioning your practice with a clear focus on changing your technique in one part and working on your existing repertoire in the other. It will slow down the consolidation of your new technique, but it will come with time and perseverance.

 

Your story?

If you have experience with adapting your technique, please share your story it might be very useful for someone else to hear about your challenges, failures, and successes.

2017-08-06T21:41:53+00:00 19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Adfolfo Seijas August 6, 2017 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    Excellent advice, and I put them into practice, the works of classical music require to have the correct note, that costs me, because I am accustomed to the tricks of the electric guitar. Thanks for the advices

  2. Robert F Gish August 7, 2017 at 12:36 am - Reply

    Dry helpful and pretty much describes my years with the guitar which I love seemingly. More than it loved me.

    • Robert F Gish August 7, 2017 at 12:38 am - Reply

      Very helpful. Describes my years with the guitar. Which I love –seemingly more than it loves me.

  3. Kenneth Gay August 7, 2017 at 12:42 am - Reply

    Simon this is what I need to hear. Thank you so much. I have been focussing on this eminsly since our last two live broadcasts.
    I think that I have corrected old habits in the past but they tend to qupe back in if I am no careful.
    Thank you just what I need to hear.
    Playing seems much easier when I have got this in focus.

  4. John August 7, 2017 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Simon is absolutely right.

    I was very surprised to see that everything I have tried to do so far has been accomplished by patiently doing the correct movement slowly over and over again until I got it.

    I make believe that my whole playing career is doing the movement. Often I have to breakdown the movement to its smallest parts and work on them individually.

    So far, it has worked. And this includes correcting faulty technique.

    So, playing the Chaconne is only a matter of living long enough. Ha.

  5. Mary Chord August 7, 2017 at 3:15 am - Reply

    From the very first day I stumbled on your site I liked the content. It says depth and truth. This is what I started doing earlier this year while learning to play classical 🎶 and it’s paying off… And even useful for the rock 🎶 I’ve been playing for sometime…

    • Mary Chord August 7, 2017 at 3:18 am - Reply

      Thanks Mr. Simon
      Lots of people need to hear this.

  6. Chris August 7, 2017 at 8:45 am - Reply

    Thanks Simon,

    The article was very prescient as I have reach a place in my playing where I need to carefully rebuild everything following a TIA event. I have found Dave’s little exercise very helpful played at the 5th fret and Evita’s stretching exercises to get my hands moving again. So this article came at the right time for me to put a little structure around what I am doing, and above all be a little more patient.

    Chris

  7. Gabriel August 7, 2017 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks Simon!

    I had to force myself to slow down my progress (and tempo) significantly on the level one certificate stage to address technique issues with my left hand which not been square enough and also my right wrist being too flat. Are use one of the worlds pieces which I found quite simple in order to refine my technique I also use David Belchers practice tip to keep my left hand square to the fret board. I think it’s kind of similar to a chromatic scale but I might be incorrect.

    The interesting thing is that I feel a lot more accomplished playing with good technique and I enjoy watching my videos back compared to when I first returned to classical guitar.

    It is also very good advice to not continue with your old repertoire because that certainly makes you go back to your bad habits as it is muscle memory that takes over no matter how much you try to cut it out – so stick to the new pieces!

    Gabriel

  8. Scott Brandenberg August 7, 2017 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    Simon,

    This is great advice! Thanks for sharing this. I’d like to raise an issue that I think is pertinent to the content of this podcast. I’m struggling with a right-hand problem in which I occasionally get a sort of “double-click” sound when I play a-m-i (like in Romanza), but only when I play at or above a certain tempo. I’ve tried figuring out what’s causing the problem, but I can’t identify it when I play at speed and it goes away when I slow down. To borrow your analogy, I know my car is leaking oil when I’m going 60, but when I stop and pop the hood everything looks fine. This raises two questions: (1) how can we identify problems that only arise at or above certain tempi (perhaps video?), and (2) can slow practice solve these problems, even though the problems don’t occur at slow tempi?

    -Scott

  9. Etai Tintpulver August 7, 2017 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    These are some hard truths. I’m a piano player thinking of starting up here on CGC because I love the guitar as well but have to say that I’ve heard these exact comments from my teacher. I have also studied brain plasticity and learning theories and the principles described here are universal to any instrument. I played for 35 years on my own and ended up with lots of repertoire that I could play at a mediocre level, at best, because I had no technique (the words of my teacher). Once I started learning in the above mentioned way I found it almost impossible to incorporate the new techniques into the old repertoire. The analogy of fixing car at 60km/h is perfect.

    You really have to check your ego and go back many steps (in my case right to the beginning). Giving up the “playing through” process is the hardest for me because I love being in the moment with my music and playing simple pieces with good technique doesn’t feel natural yet. Remembering that it’s a long process and that in the end it will all pay off is what keeps me going.

    But even after only 6 months, my tone is way better, I’m much more confident, there are more subtleties presenting themselves, and I’m working with the instrument instead of fighting with it. It feels like a new world of playing is opening up.

  10. Joseph Rock August 7, 2017 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    Excellently put as always Simon

    I had a real problem holding tension in my R.H little finger from balancing it on the sound board as a beginner. Took all of my undergraduate to correct it and I still work on it to this day.

    Anyone who is listening to this should really take on-board Simon’s advice, it is sometimes difficult to take that step back but doing that will help you progress in the long run.

  11. shantanu August 8, 2017 at 2:37 am - Reply

    Another Brilliant advice!!

  12. Tony B August 8, 2017 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    This is yet again great advice. I can play fairly complex pieces (for me!) but I know that they don’t sound quite right because I am not concentrating properly on the smaller issues, and also when I play the same pieces I am never 100% certain that they will always sound the same – they seem to change day to day almost – I can now see this is because I haven’t sorted out the seemingly little issues that will make the final sound complete and consistent. Many thanks.

  13. Gino August 8, 2017 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    Thanks Simon! After your recent advice on my level 1 exam, this comes at a good time. I would add that for examining what is going on in my playing and apply corrections, a mirror has helped me a lot!

  14. Jeb Bennett August 14, 2017 at 1:31 am - Reply

    Thanks Simon. Great advice. I fit two of the categories you mentioned in your post: learned guitar without formal instruction and experienced a long layoff thanks to carpal tunnel syndrome. And as you suggest, I just have to give up my old standards. But when I try to play them, techniques I have worked hard to change rear their ugly heads with amazing regularity.

    Your advice gives me new resolve to let the old friends go. There are so many pieces I would love my to add to my repertoire that I am sure I can get along just fine without them.

    Thanks Again,
    Jeb

  15. Bruce August 14, 2017 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    Just finished a hike and had a chance to listen to the podcast. I fit Simon’s description of an older guitarist who is returning to the classical guitar after many years away. Simon is spot on with his suggestions and comments, from my perspective. One thing in the podcast particularly jumped out and reinforced what I have come to believe: you have to enjoy the process for the process. He is right: practicing and working on technique is a lot like meditation. You make a small adjustment here, you make a small adjustment there: you keep on keeping on. In my opinion, he’s also spot on with his advice about stepping away from your old repertoire and working on so-called easier pieces. If you are a returning guitarist like me, you probably have a lot of music that you learned in the past. In my case, I didn’t want to step aside from it entirely — part of my adventure in returning to the instrument is to relearn this old repertoire and get it back to the level I once had it — but that old music does come with old habits. In my case, I needed to work out a strategy to help me identify and work on those old habits. Maybe a follow up podcast could deal with this topic specifically? Once again, great advice! The CGC site is a fantastic resource for learning the classical guitar and for improving your musicianship.

  16. Joannes August 16, 2017 at 11:47 am - Reply

    i believe in your approach and didactical skills,
    From the beginning of my membersship i revised my technique as i was not 100% sure.
    I feel happy about the time i dedicated to optimize my technique.

    As far as I know there are 2 approaches (old and new school) for the position of the right hand.
    what is your opinion in this matter? i see you are using the new school approach.
    but as a teacher what is your approach with all the different members in CGC?

    Thanks.
    with regards,

    Joannes

  17. Steve August 16, 2017 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    @Bruce:
    When introducing old pieces into my current repertoire I treat them as new pieces. Start with the metronome at its lowest setting (or slower) and concentrate on using improved techniques.
    Example: I often used rest strokes when doing scales, but had never been able to integrate them with music. Then I started playing some Sagreras (Bk 1, #48 & 49 are good) and Carcassi (Op 60, #3) exercises, focusing on use of the rest stroke. That was 6 months ago. Now I’m just introducing rest strokes as musical elements into Lagrima and Romanza. I haven’t got them back up to tempo yet, but their musicality has been improved.

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