Guitarists: How To Maximize Productive Use Of Your Energy Resources

By: Smaro Gregoriadou

Many times guitarists and particularly guitar students do not feel satisfied with their daily performance on the instrument; they attribute their poor technical or artistic achievements to physical tiresome, insufficient practice time, or lack of discipline. According to my experience, all these are external factors, namely symptoms of a deeper cause: wrong use or waste of energy, which includes all forms and kinds of energy possessed by a human being.

I would like to give my ideas and practical advice on how to optimize performance with the least expense of time and energy for guitarists who try to acquire an organic functionality in their relation to music and the instrument, or the adequate knowledge to reach a comprehensive awareness of the interpretative phenomenon in its totality.

I am totally aware of the fact that this vast issue obviously requires the contribution of many a scientific field to be adequately fulfilled, like the comparatively recent sciences of Work Physiology and Exercise Biochemistry. It is my firm belief that musical training could critically embody this kind of scientific knowledge for its own needs.

FACTORS THAT RELATE TO THE GUITARIST’S SUPPLY AND EXPENDITURE OF ENERGY

In normal conditions, every one of us has a sufficient amount of energy to spend during the day. It is only necessary to learn how to save the greater part of this energy for useful work, instead of wasting it unproductively.

Let us examine how energy is silently and unproductively spent.

There are four baseline factors that determine the overall management of our energy, and therefore might relate to an energy block, or an impediment in our productivity during our training period or later. They are (1) the physical factor, (2) the mental factor, (3) the emotional factor and (4) the working conditions. All these factors act as an entirety; they are interconnected and influence one another. The division attempted here is only for the convenience of observing each one independently so as to understand better their influence on our overall performance.

PHYSICAL FACTOR (BODY) or “THE RAW ENERGY”

“Modern technique should attempt to transform the machine into human being, by means of the richness and diversity of its actions. It is absurd and criminal to try to transform the human into machine.”
– Heinrich Neuhaus, L’ art du piano

Here belong the two main functions of the motor apparatus of our nervous system – skills (what can be learned, i.e. learn to play an instrument, learn to play legatos, etc.) and abilities (what is there by nature, i.e. some people are naturally strong, some are fast, some are well coordinated and some have absolute pitch). Education awakens physical abilities, or talents, and transforms them into well-developed skills. One is often impossible without the other; they constitute one process. Abilities remain unexploited without skills and skill training is impossible without a sufficient level of physical abilities.

Properties of the physical factor include hand mechanics, muscular control, exercise routines, training tactics and overall performance. I will refer to two main issues:

A. Principles of musical training and education that can optimize technique and interpretation
B. Main mistakes responsible for the waste of our physical energy in the training process

A. PRINCIPLES OF THE TRAINING PROCESS IN MUSICAL EDUCATION

I would like to set in this discussion some main principles for peak performance and optimum management of the musician’s physical energy. Experience has shown that a scrupulous digestion and application of these principles can create rational training programs for skilled musicians and guitarists in particular.

1. THE PRINCIPLE OF CONSCIOUS INVOLVEMENT

The term conscious involvement relates to two main tasks that both presume a steady theoretical foundation from which to choose the appropriate mechanisms and technical solutions. They are:

• The player’s voluntary mental supervision by means of a constant self-observation while playing, which allows him or her to follow a quite simple line of thought at all times: What do I have to achieve right now? How shall I do it? Why to do it this way? What is at this particular moment the right-thing-at-the-right-time for my musical and technical development? What should be my next step?

• The player’s voluntary application of a pre-decided long-term plan of technical training and tactics so that nothing proceeds randomly, or by whim, guesswork, or eccentricities in the course of his or her training.

This principle helps eliminating a most common erroneous tendency among musicians, which was always present and still exists today, and which can block enormously the performer’s physical resources. That tendency is the concern for an hypertrophic development of the technique by means of endless hours of exhaustive mechanical and unintelligent playing, without any conscious participation from the part of the performer.

Schumann wrote in 1879 in his Advice to Young Musicians:

“Practice frequently the scale and other finger exercises; but this alone is not sufficient. There are many people who think to obtain grand results in this way, and who up to a mature age spend many hours daily in mechanical labor. That is about the same, as if we tried every day to pronounce the alphabet with greater velocity! You can employ your time more usefully.”

In the field of the classical guitar in particular, an instrument that has a comparatively short educational background, every established system, training method or school seems to urge students towards a certain kind of discipline that involves endless hours of practice and exhaustive mechanical repetitions. But only very rarely these training systems refer to the risks of enormous blockings of physical resources that can result from a mere mechanical playing without a conscious participation from the part of the performer. It is beyond dispute that the quantity of training, measured in working hours, is absolutely crucial in order to achieve a real mastery on the instrument. It is the bad quality of training, namely the lack of conscious work that makes this kind of process totally aimless and unproductive.

In his 1978 book, School of Guitar (Escuela de la Guitarra), Abel Carlevaro relates:

“Consider the following: The accumulation of useless hours of machine-like and unintelligent work; […] the erroneous but fashionable belief that the main factor in the education of the student can be measured by the number of study hours—all these are counterproductive and inevitably lead to general and muscular fatigue. […] Work in which the mind does not participate actively should be considered harmful and noxious for the real development of the technical faculties […] What is lacking is a knowledge of how to arrange every movement intelligently, allowing the superior will of the mind to determine the means of action that can comply with the principle of maximum results through minimum effort.”

Mechanical and unconscious playing blocks enormously the guitarist’s energy. An increased level of conscious action is, in my view, the most secure way towards learning to use efficiently our energy resources, physical, mental or emotional.

2. THE PRINCIPLE OF INDIVIDUALIZATION AND ACCESSIBILITY

Musical education and technical training should take into account the individual student’s abilities, temperament, physical predispositions, and reactivity (sensitivity and intensity of reaction) to stimuli that relate to music. The teacher is responsible for taking into serious account individual variation in response to training methods and planning each particular training schedule accordingly. The training should focus on the abilities that a player has a genetic predisposition for and adjust skills accordingly, so that a full advantage of the natural ability is taken and an optimum development occurs.

Additionally, the exercises and training methods should be accessible, namely within the player’s potential. The accessibility of exercises changes in the course of time with the increasing abilities of the musician; what was impossible at one time becomes possible later. Knowledge should be served in the right portions and in a form digestible to the student.

3. THE PRINCIPLE OF GRADUAL INCREASE OF LOADS

Every time the human body receives an increase of external training loads, it struggles to make all necessary adaptations so as to successfully respond to the new situation. If the external training loads remain the same, namely if the loads do not exceed the limits of the body’s adaptability at a given stage of training, the performance of the player will initially improve, then reach a plateau, and then gradually get worse. The effect of the standard load gradually diminishes as the body adapts and gets used to it. Equally unfavorable is the impact of overloading.

As long as the player needs to improve his or her performance, the volume and the intensity of training has to gradually and carefully increase. This has to be a long-term trend. In certain periods, the loads can be decreased, but only temporarily. This principle also applies to developing skills. The exercises for developing skills, as for instance velocity, flexibility, volume or clarity, have to be changed to more difficult ones as the player progresses.

To adapt to stressing stimuli, the player needs time; time to rest, to rebuild his or her structures and resources, and in the case of learning, to digest the information. The body adapts itself to each new load with a certain delay. The utmost attention should therefore be given from the part of the teacher on which specific method of gradually increasing loads and its corresponding recovery scheme should be used for every individual student at any given time (see below: recovery).

4. THE PRINCIPLE OF ECONOMY OF EFFORT

To maintain or develop any ability or skill, the player should use the least training load necessary to deliver a desired result. This means using the load at the low part of the “training zone.” This tactic decreases chances of injury and overtraining. The training zone is wider and extends lower for beginners than for advanced players. The principle applies also to frequency of practice sessions and volume of work. A player who does fewer workouts to develop or maintain a given ability has more energy and time for developing other abilities and skills.

Another aspect of this principle is the awareness to make only movements that are strictly necessary while playing in order to achieve the desired result. This presumes a thorough knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the motor apparatus, a flexible technique and a clearly determined interpretative intention.

5. THE PRINCIPLE OF CONTINUITY AND SYSTEMATICNESS IN THE TRAINING PROCESS

Continuity and systematicness are the steady foundations of any technical progress. Every interruption causes a regression of the form and a reversibility of the achievements. The training process should be also systematic, namely based on specific pre-planned goals that should be controlled frequently and serve as a back-up for further analysis.

B. MAIN MISTAKES RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WASTE OF THE GUITARIST’S PHYSICAL ENERGY

Apart from the enormous fatigue caused by the ignorance or false application of the previously mentioned principles, three main mistakes are responsible for the waste of our physical energy in the training process. They are (I) the oppression of our physiology, (II) the wrong management of our training objectives and priorities and (III) our neglect of the value of recovery. It is obviously out of the scope of this article to analyze technical issues in scrupulous detail, more than attempting to illuminate the real causes behind common problems.

1. THE OPPRESSION OF PHYSIOLOGY

The oppression of our physiology during playing is either a sign of an inadequate or deficient technique that the student should immediately reexamine, or a body warning that parts of the technique might not be thoroughly understood and need redefinition.

Oppression of our physiology mainly involves wrong holding posture of the instrument, wrong breathing attitudes, failure to use the full muscular potential of hands and arms, failure to set momentary relaxation points and wrong fingerings.

a) Wrong holding posture of the instrument.

Although the guitar technique has been impressively improved in the last decades, we still see players that have bizarre ways to hold the guitar. Signs of a wrong holding posture are the unnatural placement of the hands with over-stretched wrists either forward or inward, the excessively twisted waist towards right or left, the bowed head and tensed neck, the drooped or lifted shoulders, the bending back, etc.

b) Neglect of normal and adequate breathing while playing,

c) Failure to consciously activate of bigger and stronger muscular mechanisms like arm, forearm or wrist of both hands during playing that can help, support or temporarily substitute the smaller and more delicate mechanisms of the fingers of both hands, whenever is required. Just because arm, forearm and wrist do not touch the strings, this does not of course mean that they do not participate in the sound production. To understand that crucial point better, imagine that all muscular mechanisms act as well-instructed soldiers. Fingers struggle on the front lines. The wrist, forearm, arm, shoulders and back are the defense; they should be activated so as to protect the delicate mechanisms of the front line whenever necessary.

A fine example is Study in A major by Fernando Sor. The right arm should be awakened and activated so as to provide the fast thirds as fluidly and freely as possible, since the fingers and wrist of the right hand alone cannot efficiently fulfill this task. Concerning the left arm, this should be also activated and participate to the movement in order to achieve the fast longitudinal changes of position without compromises in clarity, precision and tempo.

Another example is the 3rd variation, Allegro moderato, from the magnificent Thème varié et finale by Manuel Ponce. Here the i and m fingers that play the repeated chords coordinated with the right thumb that executes the bass line should really act as an “empty glove,” allowing the stronger muscles of the right arm, forearm and wrist to lead them. The left arm actively effects all changes of position, and only after it has completed every shift of position are the left hand fingers to begin their own activity.

d) Lack of momentary relaxation points for both hands set in specific pre-decided locations into the piece. Relaxation points should exist in any given piece and even marked onto the score. This connects to the point just mentioned in c) in that it also presumes a specific theoretical knowledge on which muscular system should be used and which one(s) should be released for every determined purpose. Unnecessary continuous and unconscious tension of the various muscular systems of the body, such as face, back, waist, arm, forearm, wrist, left and right hand fingers dramatically weakens our physical resources.

e) Wrong fingerings. Sometimes an energy block is due to the wrong selection of fingerings. It is very important to understand the rationale behind every fingering, transcription or arrangement and be able to adjust every little movement according to personal structures and potential, without distorting the essence and style of the pieces.

2. THE WRONG MANAGEMENT OF TRAINING OBJECTIVES AND PRIORITIES

The precondition for a satisfactory technical improvement is our ability to know at all times what kind of difficulty we are struggling against. To achieve that, I propose to performers and students a specific energetic classification or grading of the various pieces, or extracts of the pieces, according to their predominant technical requirements and energy demands. Our daily practice should contain the right proportions of these technical disciplines, according to our overall level of musical and technical maturity and the objective requirements and priorities of the pieces. Otherwise, practice is a waste of time and energy and brings no impressive results.

The main requirements, or disciplines of a piece, are:

(a) Strength, including volume and sonority
(b) Speed
(c) Endurance
(d) Flexibility – elasticity, including stretching work
(e) Clarity – precision
(f) Voice distinction
(g) Rhythmical coordination

It goes without saying that these objectives are always a whole, and their separation just helps us to take the right decisions in our daily workouts. Usually part of these objectives constitute a base or background in order for some others to come fore into the same piece. So the arpeggio from Villa-Lobos Etude nr 11 not only demands speed from the right hand, but mainly (a) endurance and (b) flexibility from the left hand. Otherwise, the high tension and demanding stretching work that the piece imposes to the left hand makes it unplayable, no matter how fast and clear the right hand can execute the arpeggio. Endurance and flexibility are then the two prior requirements for this particular piece and stand as a background or base for speed.

3. THE VALUE OF RECOVERY

In the science of sports training and work physiology, a crucial priority is always given to the issue of recovery; that is, the ability to manage fatigue with rest in the right proportions. Today it is inconceivable for any professional trainer to provide an athlete with a training schedule without its corresponding recovery scheme. This point is unfortunately not well understood by musicians who, while making very intense daily muscular efforts, they usually overlook the impact of fatigue on their conditioning. This can obviously bring frustrating results, like constant pains or even serious malfunctions.

a) How fatigue and recovery mechanisms affect our organism

Daily practice, and particularly intensive practice that lasts many hours, represents a bigger or smaller stress or shock to our primary working muscles; the more difficult the task, the bigger the stress, the more urgent the need to recover. What our body really needs is to start its next training session totally and thoroughly recovered, so as to perform its new tasks with the maximum strength and efficiency. If a sufficient recovery is not provided to the body, then physical tiresome gradually accumulates and urges us to stop what we are doing through exhaustion, and/or pain. If too much rest is given to our body, then our development is very slow or remains static, diminishing what we are trying to accomplish in the long run. That’s why it is of the utmost importance to structure our training sessions with the correct ratio work:rest. Developing the right recovery scheme for any given purpose determines our ability to strengthen our hands’ tolerance to pain and increasing loads, thus gradually improving our overall technique.

Recovery depends on several basic factors, the most important of which are the intensity of the daily effort, the duration of the daily effort, and the duration of the intervals in between the exercises or sets of exercises.

b) My general advice concerning recovery

Allow the right duration for recovery either physical or mental, and the right type of recovery depending on your individual needs and musical duties. Try to listen more carefully to your muscles involved in playing. Devote one day of the week for survey and renewal of aims, without playing at all, or with little playing that could just preserve your shape. Be aware that, just like practicing procedure differs according to the case, recovery procedure is quite different when we get prepared for a concert or a competition than when we are giving a diploma degree, or just playing to keep form. And it’s totally different still if we are making a recording.
Avoid playing during illness, lack of proper sleep, muscular tiresome, or emotional bewilderment. You loose valuable energy that your organism needs for recovering, and you don’t really offer much to your shape.

Introduce intervals in your daily practice sessions. Get up from the stool often for a short rest. Organize your practice so as to avoid putting all the hard stuff together (scales, fast arpeggios, difficult passages, etc). Alternate heavy workouts with mild ones or not at all.
Start everyday from zero (warm-up, awakening exercises like slow scales, or whatever is appropriate for you). Your nervous system needs this kind of “intonation” as much as your instrument needs tuning. And end up with zero, (cool-down, evaluation) no matter how intensive your training session has been!

CONCLUSIONS FOR PART ONE

A basic misunderstanding has been gradually raised among guitarists, having to do with the imposing of many hours of mechanical versus conscious work. It has become a kind of established principle that “endless hours of mechanical repetitions are needed to keep shape” and also that “well evaluated playing is a fast-and-loud playing.” This is a part of the truth, but not always helpful for our musical and even technical development. The first condition for acquiring the desired sound is the complete freedom of the motor complex. Now, freedom means certainty, but technical certainty is a function of the artistic certainty. Accordingly, the true leaders of
the musical praxis are the musical sense, the ear, the imagination, the intelligence, the stylistic knowledge and the brain qualities. I will negotiate with all these exciting human properties in the second part of this article.

Artistic certainty deals with the art of teaching, and history has indicated many great artist pedagogues, like Bach, Bartok and Orff. A real teaching method should, in my opinion, constitute of a reconciliation of the technically useful with the musically perfect, trying to eliminate the antagonism that exists between the dry exercise and the musical oeuvre. I am convinced that Bach, as all great maestros were, giving to their students all necessary technical advice (position of the fingers and hands, intensity, tempo, etc.), but without degrading the art of music and the art of instrument practice to the level of a simple métier.

In this article I tried to explain in a theoretical basis some basics of the art of practicing, obviously without having the convenience to discuss in detail and give solutions for every single technical difficulty found in the classical guitar’s repertory. Part Two of this article will negotiate with the following issues.

i. Mental factor, or the “Refined Energy”: definition of goals, mental toughness, concentration-attention-focusing, memory, brain qualities, “musicality,” mechanical and preconceived ways of thinking music, etc.
ii. Emotional factor or the “Central Heater”: facing unnecessary emotions, developing inner sensing than inner hunger, and
iii. Conditions of Working: improving our place of work.

RECOMMENDED READING FOR PART ONE

Abel Carlevaro, School of Guitar (Escuela de la Guitarra), DASICA S.A, USA 1984, ISMN M-060-10870-9

Robert Schumann, Advice to Young Musicians, copy from an antique edition of 1859, restored by Rowy on behalf of RowyNet, 2005, www.rowy.net

Emanuel Feuermann, Notes on Interpretation, edited by Seymour Itzkoff, 1995, Internet version
produced by www.cello.org/heaven/feuer/index.htm

Thomas Kurz, Science of sports training, Stadion, USA 2001, 2nd edition, ISBN 0-940149-10-9

Vassilis Kleissouras, Ergophysiology, Paschalides editions, 2001, 10th edition, ISBN 960-399-228-3

Smaro Gregoriadou
Guitar soloist, composer
www.smarogregoriadou.com
youtube/sgregoriadou

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