Concentration balance - advice sought

Classical Guitar technique: studies, scales, arpeggios, theory
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Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by m0rt » Tue Nov 14, 2017 2:02 pm


Quick summary, playing guitar since a teenager, now in forties. Never really learned a repetoire, just endlessly fingerpicking and improvisation. Decided to learn properly, in January this year, and found a teacher who agreed to help me overcome bad habits that I invariably would have started out with. He was classically based, (I had no intention of learning classical), but agreed nontheless. I drifted through this a bit, re-learning musical notation that I learned as a child on piano, then I had an epiphany. I realised that actually I wanted to learn Classical guitar and the halfway house of classical learning on a steel accoustic was a barrier that I then tore down. The more I learned, the more I realised that I was getting hooked.

Then it became more than a sideline. It had started to become more of an obsession. CG gained. So in the last couple of months I practice regularly, anything from a minimum of 1 hours to 2-3 overall. Fingering is improving, accuracy etc. The hardest, is keeping consistent tone. But it is getting better. Still working on finding the ideal nail shape, but generally going in the right direction.

However, I am becoming frustrated with myself.

I can learn a piece, or a phrase, and the more I concentrate on a piece, the more I find it harder. I can practise over and over again, and when I get into my lesson, I seem to try more (I mean who doesn't want to show progress to the teacher?) and as a result, struggle more. My teacher recognises this and has patience, but it still frustrates me.

When playing in my 'old style' I stop thinking about left hand position. in fact, I can't - if I try I start to make mistakes. But I can't see how I can progress to a desired level on classical without being able to ensure a consistent tone and accuracy, without being able to be deliberate. So I suspect that the problem isn't just down to so much repetition but what happens to my mental state which starts to block progress, seemingly.

I can learn a piece, then when I learn the piece if I slow it down, trying to get optimum tone and so on, I start to make mistakes. New mistakes. I can't seem to keep a slow, deliberate action as well as keep the accuracy and not lose concentration. If I don't think about it, the accuracy and playing is better.

I do technique exercises, too. I daresay that if I didn't change my approach then things would eventually improve to a good state. I but I think that I would enjoy and progress more evenly if I could adopt the right mental state.

Searching on this topic turned up the Alexander Technique which i need to look into more thoroughly, but I was wondering if anyone has any advice they could impart that may help me not trip over my own feet concentration wise...?

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by Rognvald » Tue Nov 14, 2017 5:31 pm

Welcome to the world of serious Music, Mort. You have described the process of learning very well. Playing again . . . Rognvald
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by lagartija » Tue Nov 14, 2017 5:57 pm

M0rt, you are describing the usual learning process. There really is no magic bullet, so patience with yourself will go a long way to easing some of the frustration. You are not alone!
One of the things I used to do was try to take too big a bite of a section to work on in a piece. My teachers kept telling me to take smaller bites, but it took a number of years before I had the discipline to comply! :oops:

You say that as you work on a piece, it gets harder. You will notice more flaws in your playing the closer you look. It is harder to remember where you are when you play slowly, partially because you cannot depend on motor cortex training (so called muscle memory). As you get better, the bar you set for yourself gets higher.
Try recording yourself once per week. You will probably see that you have made greater progress than you think.
We all go through this, so welcome to the club!
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by Rick Beauregard » Tue Nov 14, 2017 7:18 pm

As they said above, M0rt, this is the normal learning process for a--and I use the term with humility--serious instrument. But try this. Work on one thing for about 5-10 minutes only. Then move onto another thing. Then another. Take a 10 minute break. Repeat. Your concentration issue will not be there when you break your practice into such short sections. These things might be several phrases or sections of one piece, several different pieces you are working on, or pieces interleaved with multiple exercises. Apparently studies show this interleaved approach also helps with memory retention and recovery. Learn more from Noa Kagyyama .

Oh and don't go over your time limit of 5 or 10 minutes. Use a timer. You will think its not enough time, but move on to the next thing. You'll know you've licked the concentration issue when you want to keep on a thing for more than the prescribed time.

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by skipintro » Tue Nov 14, 2017 7:29 pm

I''m relearning how to learn. The main thing for me is to be able to play something, anything, well. This means that it has to be simple. I spend a lot of time playing simple things which I can do without hiccups; i.e. I can play them fairly well.
Also regularly going back to the beginning of the learning process - the first books etc. It's made a huge difference to my development and is much more enjoyable. Always pushing at something slightly too difficult can be a joyless and unproductive experience. Same with all craft processes.

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue Nov 14, 2017 9:35 pm

I second all the above, especially not to expect any single magic bullet; but the one thing I often find to be the nearest thing to such is to take the piece apart in chunks and work on them in reverse order, slightly overlapping if appropriate, which it normally is. Always working from the start to the finish can seem to impart a staleness to the concentration which reverse order can help dissipate. After a proper session of that, reward yourself with a a play through and see how it goes. I have one student in particular who will often go through this process with me playing along before venturing to play from the top.
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by Todd Tipton » Tue Nov 14, 2017 11:48 pm

What you are describing seems perfectly normal to me. Keep in mind that it can take a long time to develop new habits. And anytime you are in a performance situation (playing for friends, your lesson, etc.) newer progress is going to fly right out the door. It is part of the process. And to make matters worse, we then become aware of every little detail. That awareness becomes concern in a performance situation.

The key is learning how to divide up two different states of mind. One is what sounds like exactly what you are doing. You are paying attention to everything. You are becoming a scholar of the guitar. You are becoming more and more aware of smaller and smaller details. This is a very good thing. Keep it up.

The second thing that really needs to be worked on in performance practice. Myself, I've worked on it, am working on it, and will continue to work on it. Once you feel you really know a piece, it needs to go to another level of practice. You basically pretend that you are performing the piece and you begin practicing covering up minor mistakes. You practice pretending that mistakes didn't happen even though they did. It is not easy at first. It takes practice.

Sometimes I simply tell myself, "this is a performance." I might turn the chair a different direction. I might play in a different room. I might even play for a video camera, or (heaven forbid) another friend. But I don't play for someone else or a video camera unless I have had a LOT of successful pretend performances already.

Very important, it isn't that a piece usually goes from new to old like I suggested above. The truth is, it might go back and forth several times. But everything in the process helps me to learn. I sincerely think I know the piece. As a result, it goes into my old repertoire and I now do performance practice. Sometimes, I am surprised that the piece wasn't ready and I have unexpected problems! Great! I'm learning more about the piece and what it needs!

I couldn't imagine this happening very successful in a lesson right away. And I could hardly ever imagine it happening with something you have only been working on for a week or two. I gently remind my students to relax and that it is a work in progress.

In summary, it is great that you are becoming aware of so many things. It is natural that it has an impact on your performance. Feel better in the lessons understanding that your results sound natural and predictable. If you have old repertoire, start practice performances so that you can BEGIN learning how to handle mistakes in a performance situation. Lastly, if this interests you, you might want to read an old book called THE INNER GAME OF TENNIS, by Timothy Gallway. There was a follow up book: THE INNER GAME OF MUSIC, but I recommend the TENNIS book.

p.s. : don't be afraid to try easier material, too! :-)
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by m0rt » Wed Nov 15, 2017 8:29 am

What a great set of replies!

Thank you all for responding. I have been out of serious learning for so long that I didn't realise that this is just that, learning.

Reading your comments has eased my frustration, somewhat. It has shown me it is just natural and that I don't have a particular, specific, problem to overcome. I will use what you have all mentione to me, like breaking excersises down into 10 minutes, performance practice, reverse order or pieces. I will try them all. I do have various pieces that I look at - some are far more advanced, but I look to see the different structures and specifically look at the more difficult parts for me just to gain an idea of where I am headed. (Asturias and Curlew being two), as well as working through Noad.

I also have looked into that the Gallway book, and like the sound of the concepts so have ordered that one, too.

Thank you for helping me out!

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by PeteJ » Tue Nov 21, 2017 1:25 pm

The rule seems to be that to go forward you often have to go backwards for a while.

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by tcrist » Wed Nov 22, 2017 3:17 am


I am guessing you have a lot of left over bad habits. Maybe the worst might be the need to learn a piece of music quickly. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) But I bet your practice habits need to be retooled. Some things to think about:

Don't make arbitrary goals. Don't expect to play through a whole piece in a day. Take what life gives you. It might be an entire piece. It might be five notes. Patience is key.
Learn very slowly. Slowly allows nothing more than space between the notes for your mind to think. You need to be very precise in what you are asking of your fingers, hands, arms. Your teacher should be able to help you here. [And I also might add, playing slowly is an art that beforehand requires one to understand the tempo accurately so your fingers arrive "on time" in prepped positions. In other words, your fingers need to move in ways that will support the piece's performance tempo. Usually these are very quick movements.]
Work on short, relatively complete fragments of music that provide difficulty for you. Refine, refine, refine.... Don't just go for correct notes, but listen to tone, rhythm, tempo fluctuations, the weight of your fingers passing through the strings... Keep listening deeper, continually finding more.
Travel around the learning triangle of 1) plan to do something, 2) do it, 3) evaluate and revise the plan.
DO NOT work on one issue for any length of time, but toggle among several technically different ideas. This will not only keep you focused, but will help build the flexibility to play ideas in context.

You are getting worse at things because you are "burning in" improper movements which come from imprecise mental directions.

Hope this helps.


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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by m0rt » Tue Feb 06, 2018 3:15 pm

So I thought I would just update this thread as a counterpoint to my first post.

A few months later, this is what has happened.

I relaxed. I changed my approach a little. I am improving.

I still make the same frustrating mistakes, and from day to day it sometimes seems like I have went backwards, but i know this isn't true and in accepting that this fact, I am more relaxed. Even I can hear and feel the difference. In fact it is very satisfying to see that areas where I pay special attention to then see a marked improvement. So for anyone who read my OP and feel that they are in the same boat, it doesn't stay the same as long as you continue to practice not just by rote, but by understanding what and why you are practising at any given time.

Case in point. I had a marked problem not causing string noise on adjacent strings due to my left fingering getting to close to the note. My teacher paid special attention to this, noticed I was slightly bending the strings moving my finders close to the adjacent string- I was basically pressing down too hard. Years of steel acoustic resulted in a press that was harder than it needed to be. So I practiced the same exercises, but this this time paying attention to the amount of pressure. Within a few weeks there is a considerable improvement and an end result of less inadvertant string damping, and an improvement in accuracy. The only thing that was different in tackling this aspect was my mental approach: I thought 'I will improve how I apply pressure' and had this in mind whilst I practised, as opposed to 'I must practice to improve my pressure'.

So with deliberate, careful attention, specifics are improved. With this in mind, I know that any mistakes that I do make, I can work on and lessen, whilst still progressing. It is satisfying to see these small gains because it means that over time, lost of small gains lead to a larger gain and so on.

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by rpavich » Tue Feb 06, 2018 3:29 pm

that's great to hear, your story sounds like mine :)

One step forward, two back, three forward.

I find that my concentration is something I have to pay attention to. It's easy to fall into the trap of "mindless practice" that doesn't help anything, and deliberate practice is tough, it's hard work to go slow, pay attention, and spend time on things that you don't do well.
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by Rognvald » Wed Feb 07, 2018 6:04 pm

Two additional pointers: 1.) there is no optimum time for a practice session. It depends on personal things like focus, energy levels, level of advancement, etc. Therefore, when you hit a wall, stop. You're done. Try again later or the next day. 2.) "Play around" with your guitar doing improvisations, tone colors, chord changes, etc. on a regular basis related to your skill level to develop greater familiarity with your instrument unrelated to the pieces on which you are currently working. Some things in life just can't be rushed. There's no magic pill to competence or artistry. I hope this helps. Playing again . . .Rognvald
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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by chuck » Thu Feb 08, 2018 9:06 pm

Learning to play the classical guitar is not something you ever finish, but I can share two things that I think have helped me a lot. My teacher kept after me to play slower, but I resisted. I wanted to play what I like listening to. And I kept trying to play at the speed I hear it played. Then I found the slim volume "The Art of Practicing" by Alice Artz. It says you have to play mind-numbingly simple things at stupifyingly slow pace to learn how to be accurate. And she is right. I started playing more accurately. And my teacher was right, too. I started learning the Bach Prelude from BWV 998, very slowly. Crawling. Taking forever to play through it. I couldn't manage to keep going without a metronome. But I plugged along, very depressed at times over the seeming lack of progress. But slowly things started to fall into place and I could play the piece all the way through, almost perfectly. Very slowly, but with good accuracy. Then, on a lark, I increased my metronome setting, and was shocked to find that my accuracy was almost exactly the same even at double the speed of my practice.

The point of this overly-long anecdote is that practicing very slowly, and with absolute perfection, yields results if you can be patient. It may take longer than you would like. I could play through the Prelude in about two weeks. But three months later it is beginning to sound like music. So to repeat what my teacher said, "Grasshopper, you are too impatient."

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Re: Concentration balance - advice sought

Post by ronjazz » Sat Feb 10, 2018 3:14 am

That's the spirit, chuck, well done. You now need to break it down into sections and perfect it section by section, it's much easier than slogging through the whole thing, save that are the end of practice, you'll be warmed up and already improved in every session. Mindful, slow practicing should be done in smaller chunks, to achieve control and consistency that becomes the foundation for more speed and endurance. You'll have a significant piece of the repertoire down, cool.
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