Deep Focus

Scales. Love ’em, hate ’em, they’re a fact of life for musicians – and singers too! (Sorry, that’s an old joke). The truth of the matter is that most of us really don’t enjoy doing scale practice and what’s worse, often times we’re not really getting any benefit from the work we do put into them! What I’m getting at here is that a lot of us are going through our scale practice, and other technical exercises, without a focus or specific goal or purpose in mind. If your goal is, “I’m going to play all of the major and minor scales every day”, well, that is most noble of you my friend but you may be spending 10 or 20 minutes or more not accomplishing much. The further point I’m trying to make is that it’s not so much what scale or exercise you’re playing or how long or fast you do it, but what exact purpose you have.

What is the focus?

Let me give an example of goal directed practice. Check out the following:








This is an exercise which I call Left-Hand Alignment. (Note that I have conveniently taken an incredibly simple and ordinary left hand fingering pattern and claimed it as my own exercise – a common disease among people writing guitar columns.) But the point is not what the pattern is, but rather what the goal, or point of focus is while playing the pattern. Normally, when giving this to a new student, I’ll suggest using it for the purpose of establishing and reinforcing aspects of the left hand and arm position, i.e.:

  • Wrist is straight and flat across the back. (A pretty important component in maintaining healthy tendons, and avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome and other nasty things)
  • Fingers are curved symmetrically with 2 and 3 parallel with the frets and 1 and 4 curved somewhat outward (or as my teacher, Celin Romero, said, “like a bunch of bananas!”)
  • Elbow follows the movement of the hand proportionately.

    Now, any one of these aspects can constitute a point of focus while playing the pattern but the important thing is to only focus on one at a time and to focus on it exclusively! So, to be specific, begin the exercise thinking only of the position of your wrist. Watch for good wrist alignment from the start (note that I begin the exercise in a very high position where its most easy to assume a correct and comfy position – you should consider adopting this idea for other left hand exercises such as stretching, ligados and independence, beginning high up where its easy and gradually working your way down where it’s more awkward and stretch intensive ) and as you work your way down, watch closely what happens as the arm extends away from the body and the wrist rotates outward to accommodate the correct position of the fingers in the lower positions, then rotates back as you ascend. You might even consider making a micro exercise (future column alert!) here: rather than play all of the notes in the exercise, simply move the arm/hand – with the fingers lightly resting on the string and aligned over their respective frets – from high to low position and back, slowly and repeatedly (not playing, or plucking, capisce?) so that you can even more closely study the motion without extraneous actions being involved. Okay, so I’m getting carried away here, but I just want to show that this is just the tip of the iceberg in studying any kind of ‘simple’ movement on the guitar.

    Finally, the examples in the list above are pretty elementary concepts and can be learned quickly – but wait there’s more!

    What about:

  • When descending, lift the fingers the minimum distance from the string and keep them poised over the string. Don’t let them stray, especially the 4th which has a tendency to curl towards the palm.
  • When ascending have the fingers positioned over the string at their respective frets so they can just drop down in turn.
  • Work on tension/pressure management i.e. shifting pressure from finger to finger in turn, and not pressing all fingers down when only one finger is actually needed.
  • And so on, the point again being that you should use this particular exercise, or any other exercise, as a vehicle for woking out individual technical issues one at a time and exclusive of any other distraction.

    All this being said, I’ll be the first to admit that this is an idealized version of what we should do every time we sit down to play. I recall hearing David Russell say in a master class, “Remember that every time you pick up the guitar, you have the opportunity to either improve your playing or not”, and to me “not” means stagnation or reinforcement of bad habits, both mental and physical. The trick is to aspire to this kind of focused practice and on those ‘rare occasions’ when you start backsliding or drifting off (“Thai food or Italian tonight?….. if the Dodgers could trade for a shortstop and beef up their middle relief…”) just pull back into awareness and keep trying! Even if you can only keep it up for half the time or less, you’re gradually going to adopt it as your M.O. So, go forth and focus, be a Zen Master in your practice and dig those scales!

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