How Slow Do You Go?

date: 01/13/2007 category: features
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Since my earliest years playing the guitar, I have followed certain intuitions about what learning to play the guitar was really about. It seemed to me that whatever it was really about was not something most players knew about, and not something most players talk about. It just seemed that some people were awfully good at playing the guitar, some people were just awful, and everybody else was somewhere in between! Of course, I was very interested in exactly how one moved in the direction of the really, really good players, and yes, it sure seemed like it was a matter of something some people just have, and everybody else just wants. My question was can I get it!. Now, I am talking about real virtuoso ability, the ability to play like the best players of various styles play. Basically, how does somebody play that fast, and sound that good? My intuitions always told me that it must involve something very fundamental about the physical part of playing, about what the body actually does. And since the mind controls the body, and since how the body learns things is going to depend on how the mind directs the learning process, I knew it had to do with not only what great players are doing with their body, but also with their mind. Following all these intuitions led me, after 30 years of playing, practicing, and teaching, to formulate all of my conclusions and discoveries into The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar, and subsequent works.

"Not THAT Slow!"

Long before I had formulated the Principles, I was training my students according to my intuitions, and in accordance with my own practice approaches. Years ago I had a very talented student who became completely enamored with the classical guitar, and decided to become professional. After a few years study with me, he went on to college, and along the way, took a master class with Christopher Parkening. He later told me that Parkening had talked about the need for slow practice, at which point my student demonstrated for him how slowly I had him practice. He said that Parkenings' response was, oh, not that slow!. Well, of course, Parkening is a great player, but he is just plain wrong about this. That student, and plenty of other people, really do need to practice that slow. In fact, sometimes they need to practice so slowly that they are not even moving! (something we call posing). It may sound rather bold of me to say that such a great player is wrong, but I am just stating an obvious truth. I know it is true for a very simple reason: I have gotten many, many players (including me) past deeply embedded problems and limitations by having them do what Parkening said is not necessary. For them, and for me, it is certainly necessary. What Parkening is really saying is that for him, it is not necessary. This speaks to a very important, in fact, vital understanding that students must have, and it is this: a great many of the teachers of guitar, and a great number of all instructional materials out there, are only useful if you already know certain things, or already have overcome or bypassed certain obstacles. Otherwise, these teachers and instructional materials are actually harmful, they will increase your problems, and, if followed over time, will engrain those problems more completely into your technique. Great players (and most teachers are first and foremost good or great players) simply do not know all the intermediate steps that lead from no ability to ability. Most good players have never experienced, in their own body and mind, the obstacles that exist in the great majority of students, and if they have, they did not consciously observe the process of their resolution. After all, they are the talented ones, and talent is the tendency to do the right thing. They are the ones who just picked up a guitar and started to play Well, guess what-the great majority of students are not like that. They don't have the tendency to do the right thing, they can't just pick up the guitar and play it. Most people are worlds away from a great player like Parkening, who started very young, had tremendous natural talent, and had world class teachers from the beginning-a situation you might call the Holy Grail of artistic development. The inescapable reality is that for most students the only way to develop beyond their present limitations is to include a great amount of the super slow practice we at GuitarPrinciples call no-tempo practice, coupled with the technique of motionless awareness called Posing.

You Must Practice Slow AND Fast

I recently came across an interesting article in a magazine for guitar teachers in which a teacher was making a point concerning learning to play fast. He said that in order to play fast, a student must practice fast. He said that slow practice alone will never enable you to play fast. This is very true, but, as usual, it is only part of the truth, and half truths are dangerous. The whole truth is this: slow practice, properly done, prepares the foundation which will be strong enough, and secure enough, to withstand the stresses generated in fast playing (even though skilled players learn to minimize those stresses, they are there). Without that foundation, fast playing will always be weak, and will at some point collapse. However, without fast playing built on top of slow playing, the body and reflexes never learn to reconcile and balance the stresses of fast playing during the playing process, because they never experience it! We must play fast as well as slow in order to give the body the chance to adapt. The big caveat here is that if we play fast without the proper foundation being built through correct slow practice, the body will not learn to handle the stress of fast playing, the body will simply be traumatized by it, locking in chronic tension. We must have both slow and fast practice, and they must be done in a certain way, with a certain gradual progression (the most fundamental form is the Basic Practice Approach from The Principles). The logic of this teacher's advice is basically this: if you force yourself to handle fast playing, your body will "catch up" with the demand, it will be shaky at first, and gradually clear up and become solid. This is similar to the Parkening advice: it is true some of the time for some people, it is deadly for others. This process of forcing the body to experience the increased demand of fast playing, and hoping it acclimates itself to that demand is something I call "auto-correct". Yes, it often works, but only if enough of a good foundation already exists to support the increased load, otherwise, you will only collapse. I often recommend students to try this when they encounter a difficulty, but usually a minor difficulty. There are certain passages that present a difficulty that is not easily handled by a student's present level of ability, and must be grown into by hard work, not a quick grab at it. The aforementioned article does state that both kinds of practice must be done, but it needs to be understood that unless proper slow practice is done, with whole body awareness, and proper form and relaxation between efforts, fast practice is useless, and dangerous. In other words, there is simply no point in practicing fast until you have learned how to practice slowly. You will only create the illusion of ability, an illusion which you will be disabused of the first time you attempt to play in public!


Every time we sit down to practice, there is one thing, above all else, that our success in that practice session depends on, and that one thing is awareness. If there is one thing you should wish for, and pray to have with you at all times, it is the quality of true awareness. True awareness has the ability to penetrate the moment, to advance understanding if only by a small degree (and that small degree is enough to build on). It is able to see not only what has been seen before, but also things that have never been seen before. It is like a pair of magic glasses that just need someone to look through them. There is a completely different quality and quantity of experience if we travel down a road in a car, a bike, or on foot. If we walk down a road that we normally only drive down, it will be a completely different experience. It will have a depth and stillness to it that is not normally available. As we walk, the road and our experience of it will be populated by a range of objects, events, and possibilities not usually encountered on our travel down that road, even though they are always there. Of course, the objects, events and possibilities still await our call, we must be willing to give our journey all of our attention. But it is all there with the possibility of being seen, taken in, and invested in with our minds and hearts. Likewise, when we practice with slow motion and inner stillness, we can suddenly see what we could not see before. Awareness is the ultimate foundation of ability on the guitar, and awareness is expanded by the cessation of the motion of the mind and body. Awareness is the achievement of inner stillness in the midst of outer motion, and that is the true goal and function of our deepest levels of practice. Control, and eventual mastery of the outer stresses generated by the motions of fast playing are only attained and maintained from its opposite, from this position of inner stillness called awareness. Paradoxically, this inner stillness is equal to the speed of any moving phenomenon, because it is the ground of all motion, it contains all motion. Consciousness itself is the context in which awareness takes place, and consciousness is also the context in which all motion takes place. If we match the speed of a moving train, riding alongside it at the same speed, we experience only stillness. The awareness generated by perfect inner stillness, induced by the outward practice of no-tempo practice and posing, enables our consciousness to match the speed of any moving phenomenon, meeting it at the point of stillness. Motion is the minds experience of energy in space and time. Motion joins space and time, and when motion is decreased, space and time separate, and we can experience energy before it assumes the cloak of space and time. True awareness is prior to the mind and its working, energy unjoined from space and time; it is the domain of limitless space, and infinite time. In this limitless space, and infinite time, awareness is free to roam. Perfect inner stillness un-joins space and time, and what was before invisible and impenetrable becomes open, free, and accessible to our inner vision, our awareness. How slow do we go? As slow as we must until inner stillness transforms outer motion, and what was invisible can be seen with the gaze of true awareness. Copyright 2006 Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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