Among the challenges we face as developing guitar players, retention of knowledge and technique is certainly high on the list of obstacles. As with any long term complex undertaking, we can take shorter or longer paths to the same end. While common sense dictates that we take the shorter path, there a number of ways to step off the shortest path without realizing it. For maximum results in the shortest possible time we need to be aware of these potential pitfalls and make every effort to avoid them.
A prevalent obstacle to maximum progress among developing guitarists is lack of deliberate focus during lessons and practice. Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to recall and technique, but repetition without deliberate focus can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. Contrarily, repetition combined with deliberate focus will enable your mind and hands to progress at their maximum rates.
It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to let the attention wander around to different things, and thus sustained focus on one thing requires some conscious effort. Additionally there may be no feeling of increased progress while making the extra effort to stay focused, and so there may be no immediate sense of gratification in exchange for the extra effort. However, both science and common sense reveal that all types of memory, including muscle memory, achieve their peak power in response to sustained focused attention.
So let’s look at some specific applications of deliberate focus in overcoming common pitfalls. It is not practical to attempt to cover every conceivable situation in which lack of focus will hinder your progress, but looking at a few examples will paint a clear picture of how this works. You will then need to use good judgment in applying the general idea toward finding specific tasks where lack of focus is holding you back.
1. Paying attention to instructions – it is very easy to allow the mind to wander off in the middle of an explanation, then practice something wrong all week. In some cases I have seen students so excited about learning something new that in the middle of my demonstration they take off trying to figure out what I am playing by ear rather than concentrating on the demo, which of course defeats the purpose of the demo. While I commend the passion about learning new things, this is an obvious example of not paying attention to the instructions, and the results are predictable – we have to go over it again. Whether your instruction method be a book, video, or personal one-on-one lessons, be assured that you will get better results by controlling the impulse to take off playing as soon as you have the first hint of where to put your fingers, and instead getting your mind around the full explanation before attempting to apply it.
2. Following the instructions – assuming you have paid attention to the instructions and thus have a sufficient understanding of what to do, the next step is to apply the instructions. Certain details of optimum physical technique are often at conflict with our natural inclination toward doing what feels physically easiest for us at the moment. While few would argue whether or not following the instructions is important, some aspects of our motor skills operate at a subconscious level. While attempting scale exercises for instance, we must manage a number of things simultaneously such as note location, timing, and coordination of the picking and fretting hands. It is very easy in this kind of multi-tasking situation to allow the fingers to revert to auto-pilot while we monitor other details, and then we slip into repeating poor physical technique and allow it to become a self-defeating habit. It is very hard to break ingrained poor physical technique habits. Do not allow this to happen. Follow the instructions!
3. Frustration – nothing will derail your focus faster than allowing the feeling of frustration to take over your consciousness. This is a certain path to lagging progress, which leads to more frustration, and so it becomes a cycle of self-sabotage. Don’t let it happen. Assuming you are following a good program of instruction and are actually following the instructions accurately, indulging frustration is a waste of your time and effort. Do not allow frustration to become your measuring line of how well you are doing. Frustration is a typical human response to any complex endeavor and it does not necessarily mean you are doing things wrong. If you know you are working on what you are supposed to be working on to reach your goals then when you feel frustrated you should put it aside and stay focused on what you are working on instead.
4. Timing – while learning to apply new scales or develop efficient chord changes, it is common to focus on simply getting the finger motions done to neglect of the critical timing details that make these things sound clear and smooth so that you acheive a good sense of musical flow. Pay attention that each note of a solo gets a clear pick stroke and “air time”. Stay focused on matching your notes up to the underlying beat. Make sure that you are continually pushing yourself for faster chord changing so that each pick stroke of your chords is clear, rather than chopping off the last pick stroke of a chord just before the chord change. That is a lot to manage simultaneously, but it will get easier with time and repetition until you can do it automatically. In the interim, stay focused on timing!
5. Speed/overplaying – beginner to intermediate level guitar players often show a tendency during solos toward filling every perception of space with as many notes as possible. While an intelligently executed run of sixteenth note triplets can add a lot of intensity to a solo, this is not the same phenomenon as simply blasting every bit of space of with a battery of memorized scale patterns. While soloing you should be focused on timing, note articulation, and creating a sense of tension and release. Do not allow yourself to fall into mindless ripping of scale patterns. Blasting scale patterns at top speed is practice, not playing. While playing focus on the flow of tension and release so that you are saying something with your music rather than simply showing off your mastery of scale patterns.
Keep in mind … focus is a choice rather than a “talent”. You will never develop a mental habit of deliberate focus without determined effort to make it so. It does get easier with time and repetition so get started today looking for deficiencies in your level of focus. The results will be worth the effort.