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.
- Nod in agreement and say that this is something that should change, and you will keep it in mind as you play your pieces.
- 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?!
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.