Efficient Guitar Study

Aaron Shearer

Since everyone’s goal in beginning guitar study is to play as well as one’s talent and time for study will permit, it’s essential that the development of technique be carried out efficiently—without wasting time and effort. Such training requires an awareness of certain aspects of how the normal mind and body function best in playing the guitar.

Regarding the Mind

The importance of our natural mental abilities (explained in the Introduction, beginning on p. xiii) in technical development should be clearly recognized. Technical development involves acquiring habits of effective positioning and movement which can occur only through visualized aims. These abilities determine not only the kind of movement habits one acquires but also, depending on the clarity of the aims, the degree of efficiency with which these habits are developed. The importance of these considerations in learning to play needs to become a central aspect of each student’s thinking.

See Introduction, beginning on p. xiii

Regarding the Body

Innate physical abilities, relative to playing the guitar, pertain to the natural response of muscles to the positioning of one’s body. Scientists long ago determined that the muscles throughout the body are highly interactive, that no muscle works alone, and that the activity of one muscle automatically affects the activity of other muscles. Naturally the size of a muscle matters. Degrees of activity in larger muscles spread to smaller muscles throughout the body: The efficient (comfortable) activity of large muscles induces a similar response in smaller active muscles. Conversely, excess tension in larger muscles unavoidably results in certain degrees of excess tension in smaller muscles.

The Back and Spine

Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the large muscles of the back that support the torso and control positioning of the spine. It is widely recognized that when we maintain a position of natural balance and alignment of these powerful muscles, we automatically set the stage for a feeling of freedom and comfort in moving the arms and hands. Conversely, a position of imbalance through misalignment of the spine, whether or not we’re aware of it, results in excess tension that unavoidably spreads throughout the various muscle areas of the body, including the arms and hands.

This makes training of the arms and hands more time consuming and greatly increases the difficulty of learning to play the guitar. Thus, positioning the torso for a well-balanced posture is an extremely important consideration in learning to play and in playing the guitar as the ensuing text under Positioning the Guitar (p. viii) will clearly reveal.

See Positioning the Guitar,  p. xiii

Approaching Performance Anxiety

(Re: the Preface, p. i and the Introduction, p. xiii)

I have met many teachers who play the guitar quite well but candidly admit that they suffer debilitating performance anxiety or stage fright. They often contend that a person either has the natural ability to perform with confidence or not, implying that the presence of performance anxiety is a matter of luck or chance. Further, more than a few teachers maintain that this affliction can be overcome by “performing a lot.” Both of these notions are among the most misguided and harmful of fallacies connected with the performance of music. As revealed below, it is a well-known fact that some of the greatest performing musicians of the past and present have experienced varying levels of severe performance anxiety throughout their entire careers. Although performance anxiety has been the subject of numerous writings and workshops, teachers in general appear to remain perplexed about its cause and remedy. Consequently, their students often develop this affliction, which robs so many amateur and accomplished players alike of the joy of fully sharing their music with an audience. This problem is so pervasive throughout the world of performing that it deserves more than a cursory examination.

See the Preface, p. 1 and Introduction, p. xiii

Clarifying Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety should be clearly distinguished from positive performance excitement. Their main similarity is that both are forms of excitement. Anxiety is oppressive, stressful, and potentially debilitating. On the other hand, positive performance excitement is a naturally inspiring and invigorating state of mind, considered by some of our finest musicians to be essential for achieving the most effective expression in performance.

From having observed and read about performing musicians—students as well as virtuosos—for well over half a century, I long ago became aware that anxiety is a widespread problem among performers of music. Further, performance anxiety also results in stress which is considered a primary cause of Repetitive Strain Injury, a serious problem affecting many performing musicians. (See The Treatment and Prevention of Medical Problems of String Players, in a lecture by Dr. Alice Bronfronbrener, The American String Teacher, 1993 Spring issue, p. 43.)

Contrary to common assumption, anxiety can become a powerful habit that does not automatically disappear as one’s musical ability increases. In the absence of a remedy, performers often resort to everything from outright denial that it exists to deluding themselves that it’s normal and doesn’t really matter. But of course it matters! Performance anxiety matters if for no other reason than it can be extremely painful emotionally, detracting from the enjoyment of sharing one’s music with others—surely one of the main objectives of performing.

The fact that highly active concert artists experience performance anxiety proves that it does not necessarily lessen through experience. Some of our greatest virtuosos have spoken candidly about their problems with performance anxiety, while others bear this burden in silence, apparently believing that it’s part of the price one pays for being a performer. It’s an often unrecognized fact that neither genius nor experience assures freedom from this troublesome condition.

Virtuosos and Performance Anxiety

Imagine my surprise and dismay as I sat backstage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia with Andres Segovia on his 50th anniversary of concertizing, and observed that he was visibly shaken during his warm-up before performing. Some of his close acquaintances later confirmed that the maestro did indeed suffer severe performance anxiety throughout his career. He was not alone. The problem was rampant among guitar performers, teachers and students everywhere I went. Regrettably, the situation has improved little if at all.

It’s of little consolation to know that guitarists have no monopoly on this difficulty.  Anyone who doubts that other recognized instrumentalists habitually experience severe performance anxiety should read the article, “Going to the Core” by David Blum in the June 29, 1992 issue of the New Yorker Magazine (pp. 39-62). It vividly recounts experiences of the brilliant concert pianist, Richard Goode, and often refers to his career-long struggle to accommodate performance anxiety. He makes clear that his teacher,

Rudolph Serkin, shared this difficulty. It’s a widely known fact that countless other instrumentalists, famous and less famous alike, experience such distress.

The question arises: How can anyone become a virtuoso while habitually experiencing severe performance anxiety? One answer is that genius appears sometimes to prevail whatever the price in emotional distress. Thus, certain highly gifted musicians manage to perform well in spite of the problem, not because it doesn’t exist. However, many performers certainly would find life more satisfying and would consistently achieve a higher level of expression if they always felt secure and confident about performing. Is the extensive presence of performance anxiety an acceptable situation?  Is it necessary?  I contend that it is neither. Something fundamental has been lacking in the traditional approach to training musicians.

The True Source of Performance Anxiety

For many years I mistakenly ascribed performance anxiety to what has been the subject of numerous writings, to the ominous-sounding state of mind termed “stage-fright.” Being “on stage” should prompt varying levels of positive excitement, thought by some performers to be essential for the most expressive rendition of the music—quite the opposite of fright or anxiety which are negative reactions stemming from a lack of confidence in one’s ability. Thus performance anxiety is the result of underlying problems—the symptom rather than the fundamental cause.

Performance anxiety should be perceived as the result of misdirected training, especially in the early stages of development—of having acquired habits of confusion, error, hesitation and a flawed ability to concentrate sufficiently which unavoidably led to habits of insecurity.

Teachers should not dwell on student’s avoiding mistakes but rather explain how to practice in order to play accurately. This requires a gradual approach that avoids confusion and error. Learning to play music should never seem unreasonably difficult. Problems of confusion arise when clear aims are lacking. The subject of aims is discussed in the Introduction beginning p. xiii.

See the Introduction, p. xiii

Obviously the matter of performance anxiety is an extremely serious problem which grows undetected when the conditions exist for its development; it grows without the student realizing what is happening. The problem does not center on developing adequate technique or the ability to read and memorize music. I have known many guitarists who possessed those abilities but could not demonstrate them satisfactorily in performance. Instead each performance reinforced the lack of ability to focus concentration with habits of confusion in more or less complete control leaving the performer in various states of frustration and defeat.

Although after many years of experiencing deeply ingrained habits of performance anxiety, one may not be able entirely to relearn one’s approach to performing, but through well-directed effort, everyone can improve. In any event, there simply is no longer a valid reason for teachers failing to train students to perform with confidence. While a competent teacher should be able to play a modest repertoire expressively, the lack of ability to concertize should not be an impediment to training students to play with security and confidence. A guitarist with only limited ability to perform for an audience can, with sufficient understanding and knowledge of music and playing the guitar, become a highly proficient performance teacher. Of greater importance is the ability to clearly articulate essential information with quiet authority and with enthusiasm for the process of learning our beautiful instrument. Further, to be most rewarding for teacher and student alike, it’s necessary to create a relationship of mutual respect and appreciation, along with a spirit of growth and discovery, for the privilege of sharing in the process of learning to play music and the guitar.

……..Aaron Shearer