How To Change Everything With A Holistic Approach To Guitar Practice

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It Ain’t Just About Your Fingers

A Whole Mind / Body Approach To Guitar

Holistic GuitarThe word Holistic refers to an approach to just about anything – with the “whole” rather than a specific part. Even though we’re used to hearing about it in a medical context. In the medical context, it deals with the fact that many of the things that may be ailing you could possibly have causes that are seemingly unrelated, but if you think about the body as a whole (ie., holism) you can imagine that in an interconnected system like the human body, a chain of events might lead to an eventual surfacing of a problem. That eventual surfacing might not seem to have much to do with where the problem began.

When you think about your musical journey, how can you apply a holistic approach and reap the same benefits?

Why Can’t I Play That?

We’ve all got that riff or even entire song that we just can’t play. We might chalk it up to lack of experience or speed, or dexterity, but are these the real issues holding you back?

Sure the act of playing guitar ultimately ends with your fingers, but there is an entire chain of events, and conditions that need to be present to even get your fingers to twitch – if one of these processes is breaking down, or being blocked, you’re going to have less than ideal success.

How about your posture?

Is your posture holding you back by limiting the angle of your hand on the fretboard? Are you sitting (or standing) in a way that makes your entire body uncomfortable, and thus preventing you from focusing completely on the part you’re trying to play?

I’ve heard countless stories from friends, and folks we’ve talked to for articles on this site, who detail situations where they made one change – sometimes a whole body change, such as how they sit, and other times a smaller more focused change, such as the angle of their left hand on the fretboard – or how high or low they have their guitar strap adjusted. The change allows them to play passages that were previously either very difficult to play consistently, or impossible altogether.

They couldn’t have solved the problem by gaining more experience, or developing more dexterity, or speed. The change was much larger and less connected to the “problem” than you would immediately expect.

The idea is to identify the issue you’d like to solve, and then think outward from it – focus less on the issue itself or the areas closely related to the issue, and don’t stop until you’ve considered your whole body and mind as part of the equation.

Experience the issue from a new point of view. Try playing the part you can’t play – and pay attention to more than just your fingers – think outward, and observe yourself attempting to play the part.

Good guitar teachers do this all the time. They watch you carefully, and they might pick out issues that are very far (from a distance perspective) from your fingers. Your fingers don’t play guitar, you do – yes, your whole body plays guitar. If you cut off your fingers, they’d have an even harder time making any useful noises come out of that guitar. They need, require, and rely on your whole body, and your mind.

Is your elbow jabbing you in the ribs when you try to play the high notes? What if you move the guitar slightly to the left as you play that and similar parts?

Do you hold your breath as you’re trying to play it? Are you starving your brain of oxygen every time you challenge yourself?

You just might find that the issue holding you back didn’t have anything to do with your fingers, your skill, or your dexterity.

Your Attitude Is More Important Than Anything

Have you ever picked up your guitar in a great mood, and suddenly played something amazing? How about new guitar day – when you just brought home that beautiful new guitar and for that whole day – or even that whole week, you seemed to play ten times better – only to have the effect die off once the excitement of the new guitar wore off?

The guitar didn’t wear out – your attitude did.

Consider folks who play something amazing or brilliant (and some with great consistency) while under the influence of various mind altering substances. While it’s a bad example in terms of a solution, its a great example of changing nothing but your mind – and getting a better result.

There is proof enough to sink any doubter’s ship – that your mind controls 99% of how well you can do anything. This obviously includes playing guitar.

So why do you spend hours and hours on scales and metronomes, and zero time on developing a mind and attitude that will allow you to excel?.

Do you secretly doubt that you can ever play the part right? Self confidence is a huge issue that will hold you back from anything you do – and playing guitar is no exception. You might want it bad enough to keep trying – but do you believe you can do it enough to succeed?

There have been countless studies done which have proven the success rate of positive visualization in everything from sports to music to test scores.

Try listening to the part you want to play – and visualizing yourself playing it – every note, perfectly. Spend 15-30 minutes doing this.

The next step is in eliminating your negative language when you talk – to yourself and around others. When you first listen to the difficult part you are eventually going to have to learn, don’t say “I cant play that.” Even if at the moment – you can’t. Instead, say “I will learn to play that.”

Your subconscious is very powerful but it isn’t really great at parsing exact meanings out of what you say and think – but it does believe everything you tell it. If you tell it you can’t play something – it is not capable of adding the proper assumption on the end – which is “I can’t play that YET.”

Even if you say “I can’t play that yet” your subconscious – being pretty much firmly rooted in the present moment, won’t understand what to do with the “yet” part, which refers to the future – and you’ll be in an eternal state of not being able to play that – “Yet”.

So that’s exactly what you’ll get. You can’t play that. So start changing your internal and external dialogue to more positive statements, with no strings attached. In fact, why not say “I can play that.” You know you can. With this attitude, someday you will.

Don’t allow frustration to wreck your fun

One other factor that can be limiting is being too hard on yourself when you’re struggling to play a part. Don’t get mad – try not to get frustrated. Take a few seconds, close your eyes, and just concentrate on your breathing for a moment, or even go back to your visualization exercise. Eliminate negativity, especially your own, its only holding you back.

What Other Factors Are holding you back?

Here is a list of things to check next time you are practicing.

Are you hungry?

Are you sitting on one leg – cutting the circulation off?

Are you hearing your neighbors radio barfing out the Black Eyed Peas non stop?

Are you still angry with the guy who pissed you off at work today?

Are you straining your back?

Are you having any doubts about your abilities?

Are you nervous?

Are you dreading the next thing you have to do, like laundry, or homework?

Are you hot? Cold?

Is something about your tone annoying you?

Are your shoes too tight?

An exercise to identify obstacles

Strap on your guitar and plug it in, turn on your amp, and play a few chords. Now, stop.

Leave your hand on your guitar, right where it was and just feel it. Is it ok? Is it straining? Move your hand up the fret board in various positions you’re used to. How is it now? Pick or strum. How is your right hand?

Now move your attention from your hands, to your arms as you keep this up, and keep expanding your bodily focus outward, paying attention to everything from your back, to your neck, jaw, legs, toes, stomach, everything.

You’re looking for areas of tension or discomfort anywhere in your body. If you find one, address it, and move on.

Next, take a check of your environment, paying attention to temperature, outside sounds that might be distracting, stuffiness in the air, old gym socks overwhelming your nose, or even a complete mess in your room that’s constantly distracting you.

Now dive into your mind. What’s in there besides guitar stuff? Is something from earlier in the day bothering you? Can you deal with it in a positive way so it doesn’t effect your guitar time?

Is something in the near future concerning you? Can you channel these past, or future concerns into your playing if you can’t resolve them?

Do this every time you practice. It’s not as important or possible to have everything taken care of before a gig – so just make sure this is done before practice time. If you make your practice time more successful, it will show in your gigs.

It may take awhile to go through this process the first few times, and you should be careful and do it completely. After the first few times, it will take less and less time, until eventually you can complete the process in a matter of seconds.

Some of the issues you find during this process might not be immediately adjustable, but you can acknowledge them, give them a sort of mental nod, and move on past them. Sometimes this is all it takes to prevent them from interfering with your practice time. Acknowledge, nod, move on.

Remember, this guitar playing thing isn’t limited to your fingers. Its a whole mind / body issue, and a holistic approach is a requirement. Once addressed this way, the freedom and comfort you feel with your guitar will allow you to reach new levels – faster than you ever thought possible.


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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

4 thoughts on “How To Change Everything With A Holistic Approach To Guitar Practice

  • September 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM
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    While this may not seem terribly sublime or esoteric, the above is some of the very most valuable advise a guitarist might ever get.

    Reply
  • June 27, 2013 at 7:59 AM
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    I never really took to heart all the artsy, fartsy, self-help info going around but this actually made a lot of sense. Am applying this as of now!

    Reply

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