When I was in my teens, my friends and I joined the local tennis club. It was a small place with no coaching so none of us knew what good tennis technique was. We just battered the balls around with boundless enthusiasm in a way that felt right to us.
A couple of years later, with our abilities having developed steadily from poor to questionable, a tennis coach came to our school offering a crash course in tennis skills. We signed up for it, each of us certain that this was going be the stepping-stone we needed to make it to Wimbledon. The coach had a tough job on his hands but he did his best and, for the first time, we were being told how to hold and swing our racquets properly.
Unfortunately this expert advice made virtually no difference to the way many of us played. The reason was that whilst we understood the instructions, most of us just didn’t like this new way of doing things. It was unfamiliar and it felt wrong. I didn’t see the point and saw no immediate benefit from it – if anything I played worse when I tried to play his way. After a little while I gradually reverted back to what I regarded as my ‘natural’ home-grown techniques, which certainly felt much better.
What most of my buddies and I had failed to understand during this process was that playing tennis, like many other human activities is a totally unnatural skill. Nobody is born with a tennis racquet in their hands after all. Training ourselves to acquire the best technique feels unnatural because it is, but with a sustained effort we start to get used to it, it starts to feel ‘normal’ and then we start to see results.
My experience with failing to embrace good technique was soon to repeat itself when I took up guitar. Like many, I noodled around with my first electric guitar in a way that felt right to me, with no guidance and no mentor. I was progressing but steadily accumulating bad habits. I didn’t notice this because I was playing relatively simple music at only moderate speeds. After a little while though, I would attempt more advanced material and, to my frustration, discover that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reach the speeds I wanted. After months of trying I concluded that the ability to play fast was something that you had to be born with and that there was nothing I could do about it.
Some time later, whilst still of school age, I met a guitarist that had been to study at a high profile guitar school. He was older and more advanced than I was, and happy to talk about what he’d learned. He invited me over one day and I received my first serious guitar lesson for the bargain price of £5 and the promise of a drink. He told me several things, including how I should be holding and using my pick. Did it revolutionise my playing? No. Just like the tennis coaching, I tried the new techniques out for a while, decided it felt better my old way and gradually fell back into my old habits with their accompanying limitations.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I decided to study music formally, that things really started to change. This time, apart from being told how I should be doing things, I also learned the reasons why most guitar-athletes hold and move a pick a certain way. As before, it didn’t feel natural but this time I could see and was convinced enough by the reasons to persist.
Picking apart your home-grown technique and learning a new one is frustrating work that has to be done slowly. The temptation to revert to your old methods can be immense. For these reasons it’s crucial that aspiring guitarists fully understand and accept the reasons in making these changes. Having unshakeable faith in what you are doing and understand the reasons for it, will help keep you motivated as you work through these frustrating times. Although the results are rarely instant, with patience and persistence they will start to show themselves and life as a guitarist will become significantly easier.
Most skills are improved in two stages 1) By getting the fundamentals right, and 2) Through gradual refinement over time. Many of us make the mistake of focusing on the latter of these without having made sure of the first and hence invest large amounts of time trying to refine a fundamentally flawed technique. This is not just poor use of time; it could actually be impossible to ever reach the speeds you strive for. Though there are exceptions out there, very few people achieve a genuinely high level of skill in any field with home-grown technique. Choose your role models carefully, learn from great technicians and take time to understand the reasons behind their methods.
With enough careful repetition, what initially feels wrong eventually feels like the most natural thing in the world. We all have substantial experience of this phenomenon including learning to hold a pencil, learning to use a knife and fork, pronouncing words, driving a car, typing at a keyboard, getting used to a new mobile phone, etc. It’s just that we sometimes forget about the processes we went through. Be patient with new techniques. Give yourself a chance to get used to them and resist the temptation to give up too soon. You’ll be glad you did.
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