The Art Of Craft
Practice is a process of uniting the world of qualities and the world of existences, of blending the world of silence and the world of sound. In this sense, practice is a way of transformation.
Practice is also what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Actually, what we do is inseparable from how and why we do what we do. So, the transformation of sound is inseparable from a transformation of self, a refining of what we are. For example, we attract silence by being silent. The practice of a craft is the way, the practising the means. Practice is also wretched, boring, restricting, and constricting, a nuisance, and to be avoided. Practising means exercises, and exercises are a drag: music is real, so let’s play music. Why practise?
Generally, a practice begins with exercises; and true, exercises aren’t the real thing. An exercise is a simulated situation from real life which prepares us beforehand for the real thing. This gives us a better chance of responding to an opportunity in the moment, or a clearer insight into missing that opportunity. So, exercises deal with preparation and, at least in part, practice does as well.
A reasonable question is, what opportunity? Another reasonable question is, what is practice?
Practising is an ordered activity directed towards the service of an aim. We ask:
1. What are we practising?
2. Why are we practising this?
3. How are we practising?
4. What is our present condition from which we begin our practising?
Practise is a way of transforming the quality of our functioning. We move from making unnecessary efforts—the exertions of force—to making necessary efforts, the direction of effortlessness. In this the prime maxim is: honour necessity. We do what we must do, but no more. What we need to do is often less than what we want to do. Doing what we want to do takes up a lot of time and energy. So, we should be careful in defining our aim. When we give up playing our licks in order to practise, we exchange a whole range of lesser freedoms for a larger freedom. When we are younger, these lesser freedoms have a considerable hold upon us; but as we grow older, we find that these freedoms are not so much liberation as forms of restraint.
When we consider our functioning as a musician—what we do in order to be a musician—we find we are considering more than just the operation of our hands. The musician has three instruments of operation: the hands, the head, and the heart, and each has its own discipline. So, the musician has three disciplines: of the hands, the head, and the heart. Ultimately, these are one discipline: discipline.
Another reasonable question: what is discipline? Discipline, primarily, is our capacity to make a commitment in time. If we are able to make a commitment in time—to guarantee that we will honour this commitment regardless of convenience, comfort, situation, and inclination of the moment—we are on the way to becoming effectual: a trained, responsive, and reliable instrument at the service of music. An attentive audience in the presence of a musician of this caliber will be unable to hear whether the musician is playing the music, or the music is playing the musician.
So, practice addresses:
1. The nature of our functioning: that is, of our hands, head, and heart.
2. The co-ordination of our functioning: that is, our hands with head, our hands with heart, our heart with head; and in a perfect world, all three together in a rare, unlikely, but possible harmony.
3. The quality of our functioning. For example, when we are unable to tell whether the disciplined musician is playing or being played by music, then this musician is functioning creatively. When the musician is goofing off with a load of riffs, then the musician is functioning as a dozy lump, and not quite a musician. The musician, riffing by the necessity of the situation but in contact with that necessity, is alert. The musician, in contact with the necessity of the situation but able to move outside the riffing, capable of responding musically despite the constraints, already has a measure of discipline.
The musician, as dozy lump, is a bore. Probably, they bore themselves.
The craft-level musician is alert.
The master musician is disciplined.
The creative musician is inseparable from music.
The apprentice practises the craft of craft.
The craftsman practises the art of craft.
The master practises the craft of art.
The genius is artless.
Although in the normal course of our lives we find ourselves in situations where different kinds of functioning are called upon, the clear implication of practice is that we are multiplying these situations by generating them for ourselves. Our function is governed by the quality of our attention, and there are three kinds of attention:
1. No attention.
2. Engaged, or attracted attention.
3. Directed, volitional, voluntary attention.
When I have no attention, I am nothing, nowhere. When my attention is engaged, I begin to notice. Then, recognising that I am noticing, I recognise that my attention is engaged. The practising guitarist may notice that the little finger of their left hand waves about to an alarming degree, even points to the heavens, in the discharging of a simple manoeuvre. This mighty and accomplished being, the guitarist, has no control over a small digit. This is bad news. But the good news is, I have noticed. When I become aware of my hands, I begin to be a human being. After all, this is the animal I inhabit. But shortly, even very shortly, I will forget that I have hands and my little finger will continue to describe celestial motions. But, sooner or later, I shall notice again.
When this next noticing occurs, I have an opportunity. If I bring my attention, as an intentional act, to my hands, I make contact with my body. And I become aware of the condition of my body. The discipline of the hands becomes, by extension, the discipline of the whole of the body. Perhaps I notice that my hands are sluggish today, and recall that last night this body had a large amount of alcohol poured into it, or that it was kept up very late watching the latest hit videos on MTV. Perhaps my hands are gently shaking, a result of the nine cappuccini and French confectionery which I have just pumped into this swelling body. If I take the condition of my hands seriously, perhaps I shall also take seriously—but not solemnly—the condition of my body. I will learn what my body requires to be a reliable, functioning instrument. Perhaps I notice that it rises slowly from eating huge amounts of food, and rises with alacrity from sufficiency. Seeing my body as an instrument of function, I see my mind as an instrument of function also, but with a different field of operation.
The mind is the seat of thinking. What do I notice in the area of my thinking? Within this grey organ, three pounds in weight, driven by glucose and with an output of 25 watts, what is happening? Maybe, a maddening noise of contrary voices. If my little finger was recalcitrant in accepting direction, what hope is there for clarity in the middle of this din? From time to time I notice one of these voices. This is good news. The bad news is, it won’t shut up. Perhaps, I can listen to it. If I can listen to it by directing my attention towards it, perhaps by directing my attention away from it I will cease to hear it. The voice continues, but without an audience. I learn, by noticing and listening over a period of years, that the voices never cease: if not shouting, they will be murmuring. They will never be silent. My freedom lies in this: I do not have to listen to them. This is good news. However, my freedom is governed by the quality of my attention. That is bad news.
Assuming the virtue, that I have some power of direction over my mind, what is the function of the mind to the musician? How does the musician practise the discipline of the mind? The mind is the seat of the imagination. This is, as the word suggests, the visual imagination: the production of images. Probably, the mind can also reproduce other sensory information besides the visual and auditory. It can also move us in space—from place to place—and in time, from moment to moment. A prime concern for us is the mind’s ability to hold patterns. We train the mind to hold in front of us a pattern which has relevance to our needs. For example, this may be a measure of bars, say four bars of five. Then, whichever note we are playing with this space of twenty beats, whichever part of this section we are playing, we have a form of contact with all the other parts within this section of twenty beats. Before, our attention was limited to the one note which we were playing. Now, our attention is stretched in time to, possibly, twenty beats. The quality of this contact will improve with practise. The pattern may change from being merely a pattern held in the mind’s eye, to being a moment within which I am present and engaged, a moment expanded beyond the duration which is customary for me.
How does the musician train the mind to be an efficient, responsive instrument? The answer is simple: by practice. The actuality is also simple, just very hard. It may be too hard. This provides us with a measure of our commitment to our aim. Maybe the aim is set too high; maybe we do not wish for it sufficiently; maybe we do not have the resources at our disposal to realise our aim; maybe our condition is so far from the aim that it is wildly unrealistic. Then, we persist. Maybe our condition is not so far from our aim. Then, we persist. Either way, we persist. We begin again. And every time that we notice that we haven’t been noticing, we begin again…again.
If the little finger is uncontrollable, the mind evasive, untrustworthy, ungovernable, and noisy, can we regard the heart as an instrument of function? What might we say of the operation of the heart? It may seem reasonable, even generally acceptable, to suggest that the highest quality of the heart’s function is to love. But can we love someone we dislike? A real creep, perhaps a member of my group, created especially to come into the world and irritate me? I have the right to avoid them. But, how can I avoid someone in the same band? Can I find a way of working with them despite my dislike of them? It may be that this fellow musician is a person I will never like. Maybe they don’t like themselves.
I may have no freedom in my liking and disliking, but I do not have to act with hostility, and neither do I have to think hostile thoughts. Loathing them as I do it, I may act charitably towards a person, even send them good thoughts. Bringing my attention to the region of my breast, I may wish them well. This is where my freedom lies. In time, I may find that how I regard them changes surprisingly. And then I will have lost an opportunity: every time the creep irritated me, I had been reminded of my aim. How could I not remember my aim, when playing music in the same room as Creepo Face? They were a better friend to me than I knew. I may discover that the friends I like are every bit as restricting as the friends I dislike: I am locked in expectations and the demands of friendship. Fortunately I do not have to look far for someone else to irritate me: they are only a reflection of the irritation I hold, unnecessarily, for myself.
It is absurd to think practising our instrument is separate from the rest of our life. If we change our practice, we change our lives. Practice is not just what we do with our hands, nor just how we do what we do with our hands. Practice is how we are. How we hold our pick is how we organise our life. If we accept the implications of this, we will develop a healthy respect for our practice. At this point, we will become aware of our ignorance, and seek help. This may be an established institution, a personal teacher, or a school of practice.
If any school of practice is to have any weight, credence, or usefulness, it will provide a body of techniques, ideas, and a way to simply experience what it is.
A practice of any value will be three things:
1. A way of developing a relationship with the instrument.
2. A way of developing a relationship with music.
3. A way of developing a relationship with ourselves.
So, a bona fide practice is one thing: a way. This way, of developing a relationship, is applied to the instrument, music, and ourselves. There is no separation between these approaches, only an apparent separation. Playing a musical instrument is a skill, and can become a craft. The way of the performing musician is a way of craft. There is craft to craft, and there is the art of craft. There is also the craft of art. Perhaps, the art of art is artlessness. The techniques of our craft should answer these questions:
1. What am I to do?
2. How should I do this?
3. Why should I do this?
These techniques are in three fields: of playing the instrument, of music, and of being a person. I cannot play guitar without having a relationship with myself or with music. I cannot, as a guitarist, play music without having a relationship with myself and my guitar. And, by applying myself to the guitar and to music, I discover myself within the application. Techniques of value are efficient.
The ideas of the craft are ideas about playing the instrument, music, and what it means to be a human being. The ideas should be reasonable and coherent.
If this is a true way, it will confer a taste of what it means to be a player, a musician, and a human being: even to be all three at once. If this way is real, useful, and growing, it becomes a tradition of practice. The presence of this tradition becomes available to support those who approach it. This is a good test of the validity of any way: does it nourish me?
There are techniques and nourishment of varying quality, which we learn to recognize. A technique simulates what it represents, and prepares a space for the technique to become what it represents. For example, the manner in which I live my life is my way of practising to be alive. There is no distance between how I live my life and how I practice being alive. Then, the technique becomes what it prepares us to be, is the idea it represents, and conveys the quality which it is preparing us to recognize.
Ideas are of varying quality. Some ideas are arbitrary: in Guitar Craft we call these bright ideas. They are born in fragmentation and are misleading. Some ideas come from a creative insight, and may be presented descriptively, metaphorically, allegorically, or in analogy. Any idea has a pattern. If we can discover the pattern, we come closer to knowing the quality of the idea. If the idea is true, it brings us to life.
A craft technique will instruct us in execution, present us with information, and convey a quality of energy which will facilitate our execution. The technique will:
1. Instruct us in what to do, and how and why to do it.
i) The pattern of elements from which the information is constructed: this is vocabulary and its constituents.
ii) How these elements are put together: this is syntax.
iii) Why these elements are put together in this way: this is form.
3. The quality will be present and recognizable. We may ask:
i) What is this quality?
ii) How is this quality present?
iii) Why is this quality present?
Once a quality is within our experience, we have access to it and may allow its action to take place upon us. But how and why it is present, is rather harder to describe. If this quality is present with us, description becomes easier: we describe the world in which we live. If we live in the way of craft, the craft lives in us; as we describe this way, the craft reveals itself through us. Any true way will be able to describe itself through its craftsmen.
Any way of craft has exercises and ideas specific to that way, and an essential quality which is easily recognizable. The explanation of how and why a craft is what it is requires a presentation of the complete pattern: that is, the presentation of its unity. Metaphysics attempts to explain who and why we are. In the way of describing who, what, why, and how music is, we need a metamusics. In the way of describing what, how, and why guitar playing is, perhaps we will settle for the exercises.
The quality we bring to one small part of our life is the quality we bring to all the small parts of our life. All the small parts of our life is our life. If we are able to make one small act of quality, it will spread throughout the larger act of living. This is in the nature of a quality. A quality is ungovernable by the rules of quantity: a quality is not ruled by number. So, one small act of quality is as big as one big act of quality. An act of quality carries intention, commitment, and presence, and is never accidental. Once we have an experience of making an effort of this kind, we can apply this quality of effort in the other areas of our life. The rule is: better to be present with a bad note than absent from a good note. We practice presence by extending the care we apply to the playing of our instrument to the day-to-day affairs of ordinary life, like cleaning bathrooms, washing windows, and working in the kitchen.
If we don’t know where we’re going, we’ll probably get there. Intention must be quite clear, and capable of being simply expressed. This applies equally to small and large aims, whether a larger goal of the musician or a simple exercise. What is my aim? Which exercise will further this? How will I practice this exercise, and for how long? What is this exercise directed towards achieving? An exercise is part of our total practice, and by asking its direction we question its relevance to our larger practice. This cultivates discrimination. We move gradually towards the necessary by discarding first, the unnecessary, secondly the optional, and thirdly the useful parts—of our practice. An uncertain aim and a hesitant commitment will achieve hesitant uncertainty and certain hesitancy. My life is too short for this to be acceptable. If I am content to drift, better to have an easier life and not bother at all. But if I can define my aim, I am closer to achieving it.
How we practice is how we live our lives. If we approach our instrument in a state of anxiety and tension, the sound will suffer. So, we relax, constantly and intentionally. Relaxation is necessary tension. Unnecessary tension and we become tight, less than necessary tension and we fall over. If I am to practise, on this chair, for an hour, will my posture be able to bear me for this period of time? If not, my practising will fail.
If I am sitting, alert and relaxed, can I bring my attention to my hands? If I close my eyes, will my hands still be there? If so, how do I know? Do I have any awareness of the flow of blood in the fingers, the gentle throb of my pulse, a sense of the contact between the tips of my fingers and the strings? Is there a sufficient amount of pressure between my thumb and first finger to hold the pick? Am I able to play without looking in a mirror, or watching my hands? What happens when someone takes my mirror or the lights go off?
Practice will become stale unless our exercising is playful, spontaneous, and fun. Invention is as necessary in our practice as in real life. When practising ceases to be fun, we will intentionally or unintentionally turn away from it, and lose the possibility of acquiring discipline. And discipline is a vehicle for joy. The difference between play, spontaneous and joyful activity, and the creative efforts of the mature artist, is in intention. Play is in the moment, without demands or the expectation of results. The work of the mature artist is also play in the moment, but harnessed to a disciplined and alert mechanism of trained response to the promptings of the creative moment. This is intentional play in the service of an aim: the artist plays, with the intention of generating creative repercussions.
It is difficult to exaggerate the power of habit. Nearly all our activity is habitual. We are an amalgam of automatic responses and series of reactions, each habit reinforcing each other. A particular posture gives rise to an emotional impulse connected to that posture, a remembered image triggers an associated posture, or my mood is reflected in my thinking and bodily movement. Habit is historical. There is good habit, and bad habit. Bad habits damage the organism. Good habits serve the efficient functioning of our organism, and when linked with attention become skill. If all I am is habit, even good habit, I am a machine. I may be mechanically useful, and mechanically helpful, but I am mechanical.
Habit is inevitable and also necessary. The development of skill is the training of efficient habits directed in service of the creative impulse. I must have contact with my automatism: awareness of my body and how it moves, the organic sensation of the presence of life within me; noticing thoughts flowing continuously and associatively; my attraction to what I like and avoidance of what I dislike. Noticing is the outcome of an alert and engaged attention. When I am in this state, I am in contact with myself, and also my surroundings. Automatism is rigidity; contact with my automatism confers flexibility. But contact with skill is not authority over it. Authority will speak to my training with a single voice, hold a unified overview of what is involved, and possess the capacity for judgment. If I can find this authority, perspective, and judgment, I am close to having discipline.
One day, while the musician is in a moment of intentional play, music flies by. The disciplined artist, alert and in contact with the moment, flies with the music. The musician places a trained, tuned, and responsive instrument—themselves—at the service of music, to be played directly by the creative impulse. If the music is good, the music is playing the musician. If the music is not so good, the musician is playing the music. If the music is bad, the musician is playing the musician.
The master musician is a musician with discipline. They are their own person, and speak for themselves with their own voice. The genius goes beyond their own person, and speaks to all of us in our own voice. One musician of genius is all musicians, united within the creative act of music.
The keys to a successful practice are regularity and repetition. Many of the necessities of becoming a musician can be practised away from the instrument: relaxation, attention, an alert sensitivity, and intentional activity. The practice of becoming a musician is almost the same practice as becoming a human being. Regular and constant repetition of the essentials becomes essentially who we are: we move towards an integrity. This sounds fine, clever words easily used, but how long will this take? Well, if it took forever, what else am I doing with my life? And with good fortune, some resolve, appropriate instruction, and the application of intelligence, after fourteen years I may have something which has become my own. And after twenty-one years, this may have become established in me.
When we are beginning to establish our practice, we learn by observation how we do things. The principle of practising function is this: each part does the work of that part, and no other. To discover our habits the rule is: change the tempo of our operation. Whether faster or slower, we will be easily revealed. It is helpful to establish benchmarks in execution; for example, competence at different speeds. Then, we may monitor our development. Choosing one small part of our playing, we execute this small part superbly. This may be mastering a particular exercise, refusing to accept an inadequacy in our technique, developing co-ordination, or dividing attention. But whatever we choose, however small, we execute superbly. This brings quality to our playing, even if only a very small piece of quality. Then, with quality present, all the rules change.
Anyone who practises regularly can talk to anyone else who practises regularly: both approach craft, and craft is a universal language. Both are concerned with an economy of effort, with persistence, with contradiction, and in serving an aim. When our practice becomes a way of life, where we’re going is how we get there: we have nowhere to go. So, we might as well be here. Our presence is a measure of our practise.
Practice is also a process of unfolding stages in which the practising connects the practicer with their practise. This apprentice becomes connected to the craft they practise, and begins to acquire craftsmanship. Craftsmanship, in its turn, leads to the mastery of practise. This stage, the completion of craftsmanship and the beginning of mastery, occurs when the craftsman attempts to pass on to others their own practise. The craftsman only has what is theirs to give away: the quality of experience and experiencing within their presence, drawn upon, clarified, and presented in a coherent form accessible to others. The refinement and absorption of experience, and then the giving-it-away, is a necessary final step in the process of practice. If the craftsman is able to transmit the essential quality of their way of craft, the practise of the craft becomes a part of the craftsman, and the craftsman becomes a part of the craft. Then, the craftsman acts as a representative of their craft.
The process of acquiring maturity, whether in craft or in life, is bound necessarily and inevitably by the tempo of that process. We are distracted by the increasing tempo of the changes in our culture and surroundings, and forget that the duration of an organic process is determined by the necessary time inherent in that particular process. However, the length of time spent learning a subject decreases with the number of people working at it. Artists do not grow at the speed of craftsmen: craftsmen do not grow at the speed of labourers. But, the quality of the labourer’s work will help the craftsman, and the quality of the craftsman’s work will support the artist. The quality of the artist’s work will lead the craftsman, and the quality of the craftsman’s work will attract the labourer. In process, the work of one will help the work of all.
The stages of a process may be divided into three: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Each of these three stages has three stages: the beginning, the middle, and the end.
The true beginning, the origination, of a process is invisible. When we are underway and look back to discover our beginning, it eludes us. Our beginning moves farther from us the more we seize upon it. At the middle of the beginning, we make demands upon our surroundings: we feel we are deserving by virtue of our talents, or have rights owed to us by society and this situation in which we find ourselves. We demand a certain kind of attention from our environment, and fail to make a certain kind of demand of ourselves. If society never pays its expected debts to us, we remain at this stage. We remain at the beginning, although without the innocence characteristic of a true beginning. This is immaturity. Our legitimate concerns at this stage are with what we do and the quality of our functioning. The quality of our beginning establishes the momentum of the process and largely determines its character. If we begin well, this carries us to the mid-point of the process. The key to this stage is obedience to our instructor.
There is a tradition that at the beginning of a performance, the leader of a group calls on the Muse. This is a direct appeal to the creative level for help, in the recognition that nothing of value can come from the musician, but something of value can come to the musician. It is the musician’s responsibility to be prepared for this moment, and the leader’s responsibility to establish a good beginning.
The beginning of the middle is where we address our capacity to make personal efforts. We make demands upon ourselves, rather than upon our environment.
The middle of the middle is where enthusiasm runs out and our commitment is tested. This is the Great Divide: we are too far from the beginning to go back, too far from the end to go forward; too tired to do anything, too exposed to do nothing; we have no interest in our aim, if we can recall it. This is an inevitable part of any process and where it is most likely to go off-course or break down. This is the point of maximum hazard. If the process is to remain true to itself, we must make an intentional effort to remain within the process. This is a measure of our commitment to the aim. Inevitably we will lose interest in our practice. This is in the process of practising. The Guitar Craft aphorism is this:
When you’re tired, you’ve had enough, and can’t do anything—do nothing.
And while you’re doing nothing, practise.
To continue is an irrevocable act, regardless of where it may take us. In the process of craft, the commitment to continue is where we undertake apprenticeship. Here we refine our competence within our craft and set ourselves to work from our own initiative, regardless of personal likes and dislikes, in response to necessity. If we complete this refinement, the end of the middle becomes the beginning of the end. The key to this stage is obedience to ourselves.
The final stage in a process is where our concern is with the quality of our endeavour. Work of quality goes farther than the individual, and so we address the demands of the world outside ourselves. What does the world demand of me? What is necessary for me to discharge my obligations? In the process of craft, one presents one’s competence to the world. Where the craft is necessary, and the competence sufficient, the world will recognise us. A characteristic of this stage is recognition by the world, and a measure of success. This stage is the middle of the end. The end of the end may be a finish, an end, or a completion. If we deceive ourselves and believe the acknowledgement given to us by the world is a reflection of personal merit, this is a finish for ourselves and this particular process of our craft. If we abandon the call of personal success and acknowledgement, recognising that the music makes the musician, we achieve the status of craftsman in the process of music. This is an honourable status. Some choose to maintain the world by remaining here. For others, the abandonment is a completion: the abandonment is complete, and without reservation, to the directing of the craft. One enters the service of the craft, wherever it may lead and whatever it may demand of us. This is the beginning of the beginning of mastery of music. The key to this third stage is obedience to necessity.
Suffering is an inevitable part of a process. Some suffering is unnecessary, some necessary. The rule of necessary suffering is: suffer cheerfully. If our suffering is of quality, it will never be apparent to others. The nature of the necessary suffering changes with the stages, and to move through the process of practising we accept this necessary suffering voluntarily. The first stage of suffering is in the recognition of our inept functioning: how badly we play our guitars. The second stage of suffering is in the recognition of how little we can work from our own initiative. The third stage of suffering is in recognition of who we are: unpleasant, selfish, unkind, smiling winningly beneath a veneer of manners, breeding, and politeness. Until we are able to accept this poverty of being without excuse and without criticism, we are unable to forgive ourselves. When we forgive ourselves, without recrimination, we forgive others. When we abandon criticism of ourselves, we abandon the criticism of others. In this clear perception of the helplessness and wretchedness of myself and others—in its acceptance of myself and others—I am able to accept music. But, although forgiven and forgiving, I inherit the repercussion of my errors.
In the first stage we discover that, although the musculature of the hands is not developed, this is not where the problem lies: we have no contact with the fingers of the left hand, no sense of the right wrist, little awareness of what it means to live inside our bodies. Then, we work too hard: an enormous amount of effort goes into facial grimaces, twitching lips, forcing fingers onto strings by extravagant gestures of the arm and even of the legs. In the belief that skill follows effort, we exert ourselves heroically. In the belief that results follow more speedily by speeding, we rush. A little experience, and we slow down, accepting the tempo of the process of which we are now a part. We abandon the force of our endeavour, recognising it brings violence to our activity. We are now at the second stage.
In the second stage we learn enthusiasm is not enough. Necessary efforts are sufficient, perhaps even graceful, but not so exciting and certainly not as interesting as the unnecessary. Without interest we are unable to continue; without being told what to do, what can I do? We discover our limits, how much we can ask of ourselves, the degree of our resolve, whether this practice is real for us or just an imaginary notion, and we practise commitment.
In the third stage we learn that all we have is what we can give away. This may be worldly success, experience, our expectations, and ambitions. Letting go of what we have wanted for ourselves is a remarkable freedom. Strangely, the letting go creates a condition which permits the return of what we had hoped for, but in a different way, and a way we could not have anticipated. This letting go of what we have acquired is the completion of our process, and a completion is a new beginning.
Practice brings an aim within reach. The fundamentals of practice within Guitar Craft reflect the nature and aims of Guitar Craft. Guitar Craft is three things:
1. A way to develop a relationship with the guitar.
2. A way to develop a relationship with music.
3. A way to develop a relationship with oneself.
Music is a benevolent presence constantly and readily available to all, but we are not constantly and readily available to music. Our state can change with a certain intensity of application, and when we are in this state we may find music waiting. So, how to practise application? The direction of attention is fundamental: without attention we are nothing. Relaxation is fundamental: little is possible when we are tense. In a relaxed state with our attention engaged, we begin to be sensitive to the needs of the moment. These are the three fundamentals of practice:
The practice of relaxation and an alert sense of presence is connected to the practice of attention, which in turn is related to the cultivation of a relaxed and sensitive state within our own volition.
The advantages of an efficient practice include:
i) Intrinsic value: there is an economy of effort. Nothing is wasted. Necessity is honoured.
ii) A result of intention applied to our automatism is the generation of a state of alertness. This practising of intentional application to our habitual way of doing things, once established to a degree with our hands and bodies, can be applied in turn to the automatic functioning of our minds and emotional reactions. The importance of this is considerable: it is the beginning of effectuality, discharging commitments made in time, of working from ourselves and our own initiative. This is the beginning of personal freedom and of becoming a human being.
iii) The alertness generated by intention-applied-to-automatism brings us into the moment. In the moment, we are in contact with ourselves and our environment: in the moment, we can see what is necessary and recognise rightness. When we see rightness, we may not have the capacity to respond to the demand it makes of us; but as our power of effectuality increases, so does our response.
iv) Working from intention brings us closer to the creative impulse.
If the quality of beginning our practice establishes how the process will continue, how do I begin? I may drift towards practising. I may start, or I may begin. To begin, we prepare the beginning. How do we prepare?
Let us assume that:
1. We are sitting in a relaxed fashion on our hard and unyielding chairs, the rigour of which reminds us of…
2. Our reasonable and clearly defined aim, with…
3. Awareness of the sensation of being alive within our hands.
The placing of the guitar on the body is determined by the height needed to support the right arm at the elbow, and allow the left hand to rise naturally from the elbow to the seventh position. The principle is: the guitar comes to the body. Now, we adopt the Position of Readiness. The centre of gravity of the left hand is a point between the third and fourth strings, at the seventh position, with the fingers hovering just above the strings. The centre of gravity of the right hand is a point between the third and fourth strings. The centre of gravity of the spine is erect; that is, it is central. Both hands are available to move to wherever they are needed from a middle position, the closest point to all possibilities.
What next? These are some of the things we may consider in our practising, with one reservation: the detailed information will only be of help if we have some prior experience of working with the exercises, and making an effort to move to the inside of our practising. Otherwise, they will place meaningless information between our hands, our practise, and our direct experiencing of both. Where possible, appeal for help to someone whose experience is greater than ours, and in whose hands the experience of these exercises reside. Then, consult the experience in their hands rather than their opinions of that experience. A good teacher will bring their student with the sphere of their experience, and convey to them some sense of their experience. This may be quite specific, or general. Once the student has access to this experience within their own sphere of experience, but not with their capacity to generate from their own volition, they may hold their teacher’s experience as a template against their own efforts. When the two experiences resonate, the student recognises that they are close to rightness.
I. Left Hand
1. The Position. The hand is brought to the neck of the guitar and the thumb placed in the middle of the neck. The thumb is drawn back, but without force, and gently locked. When playing, there is no movement within the thumb. The hand is arched, the fingers falling from above to touch the strings. The thumb is generally at an angle of about 45 degrees to the neck, and roughly beneath the second finger while in the lower positions. As the hand travels up the neck towards the body, the angle of the thumb moves gradually into line with the neck, and the thumb moves farther from the fingers. Position changing is effected in two ways:
i) For small position changes: by the pressure of the thumb being released, but light contact with the neck being maintained during the shift.
ii) For larger position changes: the thumb is swiftly and lightly removed from contact with the neck, returning to contact as soon as the new position has been established.
The arm is allowed to fall from the hand, the elbow naturally moving in towards the body. Alternatively, the hand is allowed to rise from the elbow, which is gently established at the side of the body. The only point of contact between the left hand and the guitar is the first digit of the thumb and the tips of the fingers. It is recommended that the fingernails are filed to the quick. When not playing, the hand is placed to rest on the leg or knee. The rule is: when the hands are on the guitar, they are working. When they are resting, they are at rest.
i) Bent thumb. This compromises the most effective use of the pressure between the fingers and thumb. Then, the hand will have to squeeze. Often the rationalisation for this position is string bending.
ii) Movement of the elbow.
iii) Excessive bending of the wrist. Often this is because the guitar is too low from our shoulder, or our left arm is resting along the leg.
iv) Thumb away from the middle of the neck: that is, the centre of gravity of the left hand is poorly established. This restricts the fingers even access to all the strings.
v) The hand supports the weight of the guitar.
2. The Fingers. We adopt the posture of readiness, with the four fingers hovering slightly above the relevant position, their centre of gravity a point between the third and fourth strings. Each finger is assigned to a successive fret within the position. While playing, the shape of the hand remains constant, the fingers moving across the fingerboard to the particular strings to be played. The fingers fall from immediately above the strings, stopping the string closely behind the fret with the tip of the finger, applying sufficient pressure for the note to sound cleanly when struck by the pick. The operation of the fingers honour the five principles of succession, completed flow, release, simultaneous release, and constant release.
i) Succession. The principle is: when ascending, leave the fingers down. Any preceding finger in a sequence is left in contact with the string, maintaining the application of pressure, whether the finger combination is of two, three, or four fingers.
ii) Completed Flow. When two or more fingers are stopping any one string in an ascending sequence, to honour the principle of succession, the pressure applied by each of the fingers to the string is maintained until the finger combination is completed. The principle is: complete the motion undertaken. Otherwise, the flow of the sequence is interrupted. This principle is addressed to the practical problem of when to release the leading finger from the combination of fingers to begin the next fingering combination. The leading finger, if involved in an ascending combination, will not move to the next phrase until the ascending sequential combination of which it is a part has been completed.
iii) Release. This is an important principle in approaching an effortless practice. In the traditional approach, stopping the strings with the left hand involves two actions:
a) Placing the finger on the string and applying pressure.
b) Taking the finger off the string.
The second action is unnecessary: all that is required is the release of pressure. This completes the first action without initiating a second: release, not remove. The principle is: letting go.
The regular application of this principle brings us from labour to work. We discover how we avoid the necessary, invest in the unnecessary, and bring force to both. We labour where a little work is sufficient. In the experience of release, dropping the unneeded second action, we experience the lightness which characterises the quality of letting go. This quality of lightness can be applied to the other parts of our lives: as a quality, it will inevitably spread. We discover we can let go of our anxiety about letting go; then, we let go of our anxiety about not letting go. Then we let go.
The Rule of Quality is: Honour necessity.
The Rule of Quantity is: Honour sufficiency.
iv) Simultaneous Release. This is applicable where no finger in an ascending combination leads in the following combination of fingers: that is, simultaneous release will occur—with a two- or three-finger combination where a finger outside the combination leads to the next phrase, and only in a four-finger combination which does lead to a new phrase would be “a little more simultaneous than the others.”
Simultaneous release and completed flow are closely related and address the two concerns of:
a) Completing a motion undertaken.
b) Preparing for, and anticipating, the next motion.
These concerns are particularly noticeable at speed in the ascending combinations of two fingers (1,2; 1,3; 1,4; 2,3; 2,4; 3,4),
ascending combinations of three fingers (1,2,3; 1,2,4; 1,3,4; 2,3,4),
and the only ascending combination of four fingers (1,2,3,4).
An example of each will make this clearer:
a) In a two-finger combination, say 1 and 2, where either 3 or 4 play the next note on another string, 1 and 2 will be released simultaneously, honouring the principles of succession, completed flow, and simultaneous release. Where 1 takes the next note, it will only be released after 2 has been applied to the string, but the release will be slightly ahead of the release of 2.
b) In a three-finger combination, say 1, 2, and 4, where 3 takes the next note, fingers 1, 2, and 4 will be released simultaneously. Where 1 takes the next note, 2 and 4 will be released simultaneously, and 1 will be release slightly ahead of them, but only when 2 and 4 have been applied to the string.
c) In a four-string combination, say 1, 2, 3, and 4, where 1 takes the next note, fingers 2, 3, and 4 will be released simultaneously, and 1 will be released slightly ahead of them, but only when 2, 3, and 4 have been applied to the string.
The exercise of Simultaneous Release incorporates a direct experience of this principle in the hand.
v) Constant Release. This principle is most obvious in descending sequences on the same string, and in sequences of notes of equal duration played across strings. This principle reinforces the principle of release: we are constantly letting go of unneeded effort. This is applied throughout our practice where I observe the duration of notes, and does not contradict succession, the completion of flow, and simultaneous release.
vi) Digital Equality. All the fingers of the left hand are to have equal capacity in strength, release, and stamina. This is of primary importance. Most guitarists have a weakness in the little finger, which can often be rapidly rectified by specific exercises.
vii) Equality of Combination. Assuming equal strength among the fingers, some finger combinations (of any two, three, or all four fingers) are more reliable than others. Combinations of ascending and descending fingerings are particularly difficult.
viii) Stretch. We go as far as we can, and then a little further. How much further is moderated by the application of intelligence and the demands of the situation. The principle is: establish the possible, then move towards the impossible, gradually. For example, we may begin a stretch exercise in a higher position and move towards a lower.
i) Weakness of the little finger.
ii) Combinations involving the little finger.
iii) Combinations involving both ascending and descending fingerings.
iv) Stretch between the second and third fingers.
v) Removing fingers from the strings, rather than releasing them. This often involves considerable movement away from the strings, particularly of the little finger.
II. Right Hand
1. The operation of the hand and arm.
The right arm is supported at the elbow by the guitar. The elbow brings the hand to where the wrist will work. The wrist works by releasing the hand downwards and allowing it to return. There is no movement in the hand, the movement coming from the wrist. We establish the motion and apply the motion to the string, with no concern for the string: our concern is the quality of motion.
The only point of contact between the right hand, the forearm, and the guitar is at the elbow. This suspended position is dependent upon a sense of balance within the hand and the arm. This can be rapidly acquired by practice and the direction of attention.
The centre of gravity of the hand may be visually determined by a straight line through two planes:
i) Looking at the arm from in front, from the elbow through the second finger.
ii) Looking at the arm from above, from the elbow through the thumb.
In this position there is no unnecessary tension in the musculature of the wrist. Visual determination should be abandoned as soon as the position of the hand and arm has begun to be established. The experience of the hand’s position from within the hand itself is our most reliable template in finding the position for ourselves. Once the arm knows this in itself, the assumption of the position is automatic.
The Position of Readiness for the right hand is where the centre of gravity of the right hand is in the middle of the strings; that is, the elbow brings the pick to a point between the third and fourth strings.
The pick is held between the first digit of the thumb, and the side of the first digit of the first finger. There are three parts of the thumb which concern us: the ball of the thumb, the thumb itself, and the joint at the base of the thumb.
i) The ball of the thumb is erect.
ii) The thumb is gently locked backwards.
iii) The first digit of the thumb moves towards the side of the first digit of the first finger from the joint at the base of the thumb.
The first finger moves towards the thumb, and the other fingers follow beneath the first in support. All four fingers are held gently together, pointing back towards the elbow along the line of the arm.
The release of the hand, and the pick, downwards is called a down stroke. The return of the hand, and the pick, upwards is called an up stroke. The motion of release and return is in the same plane as the strings: i.e., there is no rocking in the forearm. The disadvantage of referring to the motion or release-and-return as down and up picking is that a kind of effort is implied which is not actually made.
In alternate picking, the pick is vertical to the string and strikes the string straight on. The angle of the pick is established by the thumb. Slight variations in the shape and pressure of the thumb have considerable influence over the application of the pick, and directing the angle and strength with which it hits the string. The ball of the thumb may pivot gently on the lower strings or the bridge for additional support in picking at high speeds, and for damping. This is referred to as pivotal picking.
Where a series of down strokes are best suited to the music—for example, strong, even tone at higher volume—the pick strikes the string at 45 degrees, the completed stroke bringing the plectrum to rest on the string below.
The principle in all of this is: each part does the work of that part, and no other.
i) The function of the elbow is to establish the centre of gravity of the hand: that is, to bring the wrist to where the wrist applies the motion to the string.
ii) The functions of the wrist are:
a) To establish the motion to be applied to the string. The wrist does this by releasing the hand downwards and allowing it to return. The release and return are called down and up strokes, although this implies a kind of effort which is not actually made.
b) To work with the thumb in the production of volume. Additional pressure is applied by the joint at the base of the thumb, so the thumb applies more pressure to hold the pick on the side of the first digit of the first finger. Then, the wrist applies a momentary vigour to the release, and perhaps return, of the hand.
iii) The function of the thumb and first finger is to hold the pick.
iv) The function of the pick is to strike the string.
v) The function of the second, third, and fourth fingers is to provide support to the first finger in holding the pick.
vi) The function of the thumb is to produce volume and tone. It does this by:
a) Holding the pick on the side of the first digit of the first finger.
b) Calibrating the angle at which the pick strikes the string.
c) Applying pressure to the pick.
Common faults occur where the principle that each part does the work of that part, and no other, is violated.
i) The wrist locks, and the forearm moves from the elbow (the elbow does the work of the wrist).
ii) The thumb bends in the middle, and the wrist twists upwards to compensate for the changed angle of the pick (the wrist does the work of the thumb).
iii) The ball of the thumb collapses, and the pick is held on the first finger by the joint in the middle of the thumb (the thumb does the work of the ball of the thumb).
iv) The pick is moved by rapid motion of the joint in the middle of the thumb (the thumb does the work of the wrist).
v) The hand is anchored by fingers resting on the soundboard (the fingers do the work of the sense of balance along the arm, undermine the sense of balance, deprive the first finger and pick of their support, and restrict the rapid shifting of the centre of gravity).
vi) The hand is anchored by the ball of the thumb resting on the bridge or lower strings (the ball of the thumb does the work of the sense of balance, undermines the sense of balance, and restricts movement of the centre of gravity).
vii) The forearm rests on the front of the guitar (the forearm does the work of the elbow, and restricts movement of the centre of gravity).
viii) The forearm rests on the edge of the guitar (as above, but squeezes the muscles and restricts the supply of blood in the forearm).
ix) Excessive movement up and down in the wrist (the wrist does the work of the elbow, rather than allowing the elbow to shift the centre of gravity).
x) Reliance upon visual contact (the eyes do the work of the hands).
xi) The thumb holds the pick on the joint, or second digit of the first finger (the joint or second digit does the work of the first digit).
xii) Hand pulled upwards prior to picking (the centre of gravity is too low). This resembles the startle reflex.
xiii) Hand fallen downwards prior to picking (the centre of gravity is too high). This is sometimes referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll wrist.”
i) Alternate picking. This is the system of picking in which a down stroke is followed by an up stroke, and an up stroke is followed by a down stroke, in a series of consecutive notes of equal duration. A down stroke is assigned to the down beat, and an up stroke is assigned to the up beat. The beginning stroke, whether down or up, is therefore determined by whether the first note is a strong or weak beat.
This method establishes a coherent and reliable approach to picking, which can be modified in response to the demands of the music.
ii) The two main modifications:
a) Accented picking, where prime accents are given down strokes. But, within the accented picking, alternate picking continues as normal.
b) Consecutive down strokes. At a slow tempo, consecutive down strokes are generally preferable to alternate picking.
iii) Free hand, or suspended, picking. This is where the right arm is only in contact with the guitar at the elbow. The support for the hand is our sense of equipoise and internal balance.
iv) Pivoted hand. This is where the right hand pivots lightly from the ball of the thumb, usually on the bridge or lower strings. This is useful when picking at high speeds in a restricted compass.
v) The motion. There is no such thing as a down stroke: rather, it is the release of the hand holding the pick. The motion established by the release of the hand allows the pick to make contact with the string. Similarly, there is no such thing as an up stroke: rather, the return of the hand holding the pick from its position following the release. The return of the hand allows the pick to make contact with the string. The hand returns to the same position as prior to the release. We establish the motion and apply the motion to the string, without compromising the motion.
a) Release. In establishing the picking, we allow the action to occur. This is a principle of working: we release unnecessary effort. This is the way of effortless effort: it is the way of the artist.
b) Return. The inevitable and necessary response to release: having gone nowhere, we return to where we were.
vi) The electric guitar is power driven, and electricity does much of the right hand’s work. Sounding notes may be given to the left hand, for example by hammer-ons and pull-offs. Technology does most of the work of tone and volume production. But, the quality of our sound on acoustic guitar reveals the degree of our skill. But this approach makes possible a clarity of execution on electric guitar which would otherwise be unlikely.
III. The Seven Primaries
1. The First Primary, for the left hand, to:
i) Adopt an efficient configuration of the hand.
ii) Incorporate the principles of succession, the completion of flow, release and simultaneous release within the operation of the fingers.
2. The Second Primary, for the right hand, to:
i) Develop a sense of equipoise along the right hand from the elbow to the fingers.
ii) Establish the hand’s centre of gravity.
iii) Acquire familiarity with suspended arm picking.
iv) Acquire familiarity with pivotal picking.
v) Establish the method of alternate picking.
3. The Third Primary, for the left hand, to:
i) Develop lateral fingering.
ii) Acquire familiarity with the vocabulary of the fingerboard throughout the positions, and bring this knowledge within the hand.
iii) Extend the principles of the first primary towards music.
4) The Fourth Primary (cross picking), for the right hand, to: extend the field of alternate picking across the strings.
5) The Fifth Primary, for the left hand, to:
i) Develop vertical fingering.
ii) Acquire familiarity with the vocabulary of the fingerboard along the length of the neck, and bring this knowledge within the hand.
iii) Extend the principles of the first primary towards music.
6) The Sixth Primary (the Anchor), where one or two fingers of the left hand are gently applied to a string which the remaining fingers execute a combination, to:
i) Cultivate release by restraining removal.
ii) Develop the independence, strength, and efficiency of the fingers.
7) The Seventh Primary (the Finger Pivot), where one finger of the left hand is placed between two adjacent strings, vertically form above the fingerboard, and pivoting slightly either side of this placement to stop notes on these adjacent strings, for:
i) The economy of motion between adjacent strings.
ii) The cultivation of accuracy.
IV. The Secondary Exercises
1. The First Secondary: of combined ascending and descending fingerings.
2. The Second Secondary: of graduated extension for the right hand.
3. The Third Secondary: of extended lateral fingering.
4. The Fourth Secondary: the tremolo.
5. The Fifth Secondary: of extended vertical fingering.
6. The Sixth Secondary: of varied duration, where notes held by the left hand are of different values.
7. The Seventh Secondary: of combination.
V. General Practice
Act from principle.
Assume the virtue.
Begin where you are.
Define your aim simply, clearly, briefly, positively.
Establish the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.
Offer no violence.
Let us take our work seriously, but not solemnly.
With commitment, all the rules change.
How to approach the many weaknesses and imbalances in our playing? A recommendation is to choose one small part of our playing, and to set ourselves to discharge this one small part superbly. Although one may accept compromises in areas other than the one we have chosen, in this one small area no compromise is to be accepted at all. Once we have chosen this one small aspect, we monitor it continually and frequently. Where we are failing in our task we stop, correct ourselves, and begin again. The principle is: accept nothing less than what is right. Perhaps we set ourselves this task for one week. Then, having established this to an honourable degree, we choose one more small part of our playing and continue in the same fashion. Soon, we will acquire a sense of the principles involved and can begin the practice proper.
We devise a personal exercise, or exercise, for ourself before we have understood the fundamental principles. Our practising in this way is not only a waste of time, but its effects will take time to repair. This is not to deny the intelligent and playful application of the principles to our personal needs.
1. Vocabulary. If I wish to speak with my own voice, and to improvise, I must have the vocabulary at my disposal. The vocabulary of the modern musician is far more sophisticated than a generation ago, although the content of the expression is not inevitably more subtle. In performance we do not have the time to consider the vocabulary and grammar, perhaps even the syntax, of music: our concerns are semantic. The constituents of the musical language will be within the hands, freeing the attention for other concerns within the performance. A basic vocabulary will include frequently used scales, chords, and rhythms. We will instinctively be drawn more towards some than others: this is an instinct to be trusted.
2. Repertoire. This is a coherent and established vocabulary, grounded in music. Ideally, this will be widely based, variable, flexible, and adaptable, a foundation for further growth. A quality repertoire is often measured by how much good material has been dropped from it.
3. Speed. There are three speeds: fast, slow, and medium. Each has its own recognizable flavour, and each speed has its own three speeds. So, we have slow slow, medium slow, and fast slow; slow medium, medium medium, and fast medium; slow fast, regular fast, and extremely fast indeed. Each of these has its own distinctive quality. Once we have the appropriate speed, and the capacity to execute a passage accurately, our speed is mainly constrained by knowing what we are doing and where we are going.
My playing will move through time: what is the right speed for this playing? My personal speed relates to the tempo of the playing, so what is the right tempo? This will vary with different times of day, and within my practice period. Sometimes, when the tempo of the exercise and my personal tempo come together, I get a hint of what it means to live my life at the right speed. Rather than imposing a false and forced pace of life upon myself, with all the consequent disruptions to my equilibrium, I become a creature in time with myself. These moments are precious, even though it may take years to come to them. On the other hand, they are available immediately if we care to drop our demands on time. For my playing, it may mean that I drop my fast licks. But, sometimes I am in a hurry: so, can I play presto?
We begin by establishing a benchmark tempo with the metronome, choosing a tempo reliably within our competence. Then, we extend the parameters of our competence by moving the metronome forward—that is, playing faster, and backward, playing slower. Benchmarks address our manual capacity for speed; vocabulary addresses knowing what we are doing; developing the duration of our present moment addresses the knowing of where we come from, where we are going, and the overview of what we are playing.
Metronomic time is not good time, but the metronome is an impartial arbiter of our accuracy at any particular speed. It makes a demand upon us, from outside ourself, to which we must respond.
4. Time. “Good time” is being in step with ourselves. Good time includes and combines these elements:
i) The pattern of the music unfolding in time. This is held by the mind, and is the integral and overall horizontal organisation of the music expressed in terms of musical time elements: the time signature, the number of bars of the piece, durations, and tempos. The trained mind can see the complete unfolding of a piece, and can hold the complete sequence at any moment.
ii) Timing is the stressing of significances in the moment, of emphasizing continuities and discontinuities within the sequential unfolding of the music. This is primarily an emotional response to the needs and demands of the moment.
iii) Tempo is the rate of pulse of the music.
iv) Playing in time is the synchronisation of the pulse of the music and the pulse of the musician. We consult the body to play “in time” to lock our playing into an effective tempo. Pulse is the time in the body. Playing in time is not necessarily metronomic time, or strict tempo, although this is a capacity within the craft of the musician. Our personal sense of time changes during performance, in response to the changing heart-beat and pulse of the body. This is also true of the audience, and any audience has its own personal tempo. A satisfying performance will synchronise the pulse of music, musician, and audience. The tempo of performance will reflect this, and be idiosyncratic to that performance.
A musician with poor time is always suspect: they are out of touch with something fundamental within themselves, and so out of touch with others.
i) Poor time is often an indication of a fundamental egotism: we are unable to move outside ourselves, whether from nervousness, fear, or perhaps from conceit. Poor time reflects a lack of personal connection to, or concern for, the pulse of music. This becomes obvious when playing with others: we may not wish to be part of a group, and so refuse to hear them, or to accept group time. Instead, we impose our own sense of time upon the group.
ii) Often, musical training is unbalanced, with an exaggerated development of the cerebral side of musicianship, and a resulting lack of connection with the body and ones personal pulse. Orchestral players are trained to inhibit the movement of the body, and accept the time of the conductor. Within the Guitar Craft performance circle, there is no denial of the natural and joyous response of the body to music. But there is one condition: if the musician taps their foot, or moves the body, it must be in time, and in group time.
iii) The clumsy musician will surrender to excitement, and allow their personal tempo to race. Exhilaration is qualitatively different.
5. Accuracy. The aim is to hit the right note at the right time, in tune and in tone. This requires that we be competent, in the moment, have an overview of what is being played, and a clear aim. The key to accuracy is to discover the tempo of our accuracy, establish this as a benchmark, and then extend its parameters.
i) Playing too fast.
ii) Lack of familiarity with the material being played.
6. Facility. If I am out of practice, it will take three days of consistent practising before I become limber. Otherwise, I will struggle and force my playing. Less than one hour a day and I cease to be a guitarist.
7. Economy. This is the discovery of effortlessness, or necessary effort, in my practising. Efficiency is a measure of the relationship between the quantity of my labour and the quality of my work. With an inefficient practice I will run out of energy, the fine edge of my performance will be blunted, and my capacity restricted. In time this leads me to examine the quality and quantity of energy available to me, and how I waste, conserve, generate, and invest this energy. This is a subtle study.
Economy is not—less is more; rather—the right amount is enough. This acknowledges the Rule of Quantity: honour sufficiency.
8. Relaxation is the presence of necessary tension; tension is the presence of unnecessary tension; collapse is the absence of necessary tension.
If I ask my body to sit quietly for half an hour and do nothing, and it is unable to respond, there is little chance I can ask it to sit quietly for an hour while I practise.
Am I able to relax while practising? Can I maintain my posture for an extended period? Is my breathing free, forced, or constrained?
Relaxation is never accidental: it always carries intention. Release is an important principle in relaxation. We discover experiences, emotional and psychological, carried in our postures. When releasing muscular patterns, experiences associated with them sometimes reappear. In relaxing the body, letting go of unnecessary tension, we also let go of unnecessary attitudes and feelings.
9. Tone. Does my note sound good? Does it have resonance? Superficially, the right hand is responsible for tone production, but the quality of sound involves more than this. Am I present with this note? Is this note floating about on the outside of who I am, or does it come from inside me, as a necessity? Is this note arbitrary, professionally adequate, or singing with rightness? How may I discriminate between sufficiency and adequacy?
10. Presence. Will I accept what is sufficient, or what is adequate? Tone is a measure of my presence with the note. Perhaps, it is an indication of the presence of music with the musician. If music is a benevolent presence constantly and readily available to all, how can we be constantly and readily available to music?
If we are present to music, this implies that we are present to ourselves. So, how? If we disagree with the proposition that music is a benevolent presence, we must be present to disagree. So, the question remains: how can we be present? This leads to the question: who is present? Perhaps the best I can say is…what is present is my attention. Where my attention is, is where I am; and as far as I can tell, it is who I am. So, if my quality of attention varies, I become a qualitatively different person; perhaps, a different person completely. So, my practice will involve noticing my attention, and I will notice:
i) Where my attention goes.
ii) My noticing of where my attention goes.
Have I become two people? The quick answer is: as far as I can tell, yes. The long answer is: yes, and sometimes no one at all. I will notice that often more than two people play upon the stage of my life: many relatives in a large family of disparate characters appear and perform. These characters are related by one common factor: my noticing of them. The characters in the forefront of action change as the drama of living unfolds, but my noticing remains the same: it is noticing.
If my life is comfortable, I will forget to notice, other than noticing discomfort. Neither will I bother to exert myself to notice. If this is enough, life is settled. But when music flies by, and the sound emerging from our instrument comes to life, our state changes. This experience can be very powerful, and unsettling. When the current turns on, we know our life will never be quite the same again. This moment is always the same, although always different. Our question is: where did that come from?
If this moment of amplified presence, of substantiality, has found a resonance in me, I have a choice: comfort or substantiality. If I wish to be present, to notice, to take note, to be part of the world around me, I trade in my comfort for an opportunity to be present when music flies by. I have noticed that comfort makes me dull, and that I only have the opportunity to change when I am uncomfortable. So, I learn a technique: points of discontinuity alert me to my state. There are opportunities in my surroundings which, if I apply my intelligence, can be useful to me. Sudden sounds which might irritate me, or people I dislike, can remind me of my aim to be present. But soon I become accustomed to these no longer surprising sounds; soon I grow to like those I formerly disliked. Neither can I rely on my surroundings to provide me with discontinuities, so I provide them for myself. I present myself with small challenges, small points of discontinuity, which make a demand upon me. These points will inevitably become blunted by usage, and so I find others.
Presence is being where I am. Absence is when I am not. A present moment is the measure of my presence in time, a moment in which my attention is engaged. It is the “when” and the “how long” of who I am. The music we play is a true reflection of who we are, and our musical instrument shows us where we are. The response is direct: there is no argument, justification, or explanation for a bad note. We were not present. This is always forgivable, rarely excusable, and never acceptable.
11. Persistence. Persistence is a measure of our wish. When we begin to practise persistence, we find that wanting is not a sufficiently strong force to take us past the Great Divide. The Great Divide is the stage in any process when we are too far from the beginning to go back, and too far from the end to go forward. We have run out of enthusiasm and interest, and have nothing to keep us moving. Wish is stronger than want, but even wish is not enough to guarantee our effectuality, and carry us towards our aim. For this, commitment is necessary to hold us within the process until the end is close enough to reach back and pull us towards it. But, to make a commitment implies that we can act from a point of unity within our diversity.
12. Stamina. Stamina is what we can bring to bear to support our persistence.
13. Endurance. Endurance is a measure of our capacity to persist. This is where effortlessness becomes apparent and is critical.
14. Commitment. Commitment is a measure of our unity, our personal integrity. A commitment is honoured by all that we are, and binds all that we are to a unity. A commitment broken violates this integrity, and is exceptionally difficult to repair.
15. Attention. We have seen above that there are three kinds of attention:
i) Directed, or volitional, attention. This attention is always intentional, and is close to freedom. This can be practised simply, in many small ways. Paying attention to something which holds no interest for me, or which I dislike, is very helpful.
ii) Attracted attention. This is where my attention is engaged by discontinuity, or some form of interest, perhaps of liking, or even disliking. Professional listening, for the musician, is within this category. At least we are present, but we are present whether we wish to be or not.
iii) No attention at all. This is automatic attention. We only realise we have been here when we have left.
16. Divided attention. This is an aspect of directed attention, and can be practised in specific exercises. Am I able to divide my attention between what I am doing and what I am thinking? This addresses the coordinated functioning of the mind and the hands. Can I think and play guitar at the same time? Can I hold the pattern of what I am playing in my mind’s eye while playing?
17. Memory. A memory is an experience to which we have access. Memory is a reflection of the quality of our attention. As there are different qualities of attention, so there are different qualities of memory. A memory is only available to us when we are in a qualitatively equivalent state.
A guitarist has memory in the hands, and hands can remember very quickly, but this memory is sequential. My mind can remember the pattern of the piece in a way that my hands will never accomplish. It is a mistake to ask the mind to do the work of the hands, as it is a mistake to ask the hands to do the work of the mind. But there is a close relationship: the mind prepares the way for the hands, and the hands work faster and more reliably than the mind.
The feel of the music is a different kind of experience again. If we access and hold our experience of the characteristic feel of a particular piece, we can compare the feel of the current performance and bring it towards a consonant spirit.
VI. Special Exercises
Some exercises present themselves unexpectedly when needed, seemingly as a gift from themselves. These probably would not have been devised purely by the application of intelligence, but some exercises are devised by the application of intelligence when appropriate. These are in the gift of those who have devised them, those who have been given authority to show them, and those who have made them their own.
1. The Division Of Attention Exercise. This is an introduction to the practice of co-ordinated functioning.
2. The Extended Present Moment: to extend the duration of the moment in which our attention is engaged. There are several forms of this, but the essence is to train the mind to hold a pattern. That is, we train the mind to see integrally. Once established, this enables us to be in contact with all the notes in any piece of music whichever particular note we are playing. With practice, this can go further.
3. Bodily Presence. Are we alive inside our left hand? If so, how do we know? This is not thinking about being inside our left hand, but being aware of the life within the hand. Is this a distinct experience? If so, what is the nature of this distinct experience? Then, can we maintain a sense of our bodily presence while in motion? If not, why not? How can we move with no sense of ourselves? Do we have a body in motion? If so, how so? In Guitar Craft we practice the cultivation of organic sensation; that is, a direct experience of what it means to be alive inside our left and right hands, and, in time, the whole of the body. In time, we invest this in our overall sense of ourselves.
4. The Assumption Of Virtue. To bring within the phenomenal world the presence of a quality, by assuming a form compatible with the expression of that quality. For example, we may not listen to the musicians we play with, but if we behave as if we were listening to them, perhaps in time we will hear them. Eventually, we may actually listen to them. We may not like the musicians we play with or want to be with them. If we act towards them in a loving way, as if we love them, perhaps in time the loving act will become an act of love.
5. The Transmission Of Qualities. Any person of experience has that experience within the field of their being. If we approach this person, we approach their being and come closer to their experience. Experience is qualitative and can be shared. A teacher can give their pupil a sense of this qualitative experience, introducing the pupil to a place where the experience lives. Once this introduction has been made, the pupil has access to this place from their own initiative, and on their own acquaintance. Even breathing the air around a bona fide teacher brings the energy of their experience within our reach.
An instructor can give instructions, but cannot make the introduction. Neither can the introduction be made by post. This is why more sophisticated and subtle techniques can only properly be introduced in person.
6. Contact At A Distance. Physical distance need be no impairment to a group’s functioning. The conditions necessary to override geography are:
i) A common aim.
ii) Commitment to that aim.
iii) The will to work together with others in service of that aim.
Where these conditions are honoured, it is possible for this group to become one person, with one will, in many bodies and places simultaneously. Each is part of the whole, has access to the experience of the whole, and in a sense, is the whole. Any one individual has their particular speciality and personal talents. Some excel in function, some in knowledge, and some in the quality of their presence. A group is one person with all these talents. In this way it is possible for one poor individual to know exceptional states through their participation in the group. Participation within a group does not undermine the integrity of an individual. But, a real group is not accidental.
An exercise is a simulation from real life to prepare us for an opportunity which may present itself in the moment. This opportunity may take the form of being in a particular place, at a particular time, that gives us a break in our career; agents, or record producers are in the house, or musicians we wish to work with. But the real opportunity is this: to respond to the spirit of music as it flies by
If music is a quality organised in sound, for music to be musical in the full sense of the word, all three elements must be present. Much music that we hear is musical only in a limited sense: we may hear sound organised along musical lines, played on musical instruments, even perhaps well-established pieces from the repertoire of any particular genre that we may know well, but something is missing. And we may hear a piece, badly conceived and poorly played, which comes alive, buzzing and vibrant. Which is really musical?
If, in developing the craft of musician, we learn the rules of transforming sound into music, or attracting music into sound, we may discover what it takes to upgrade the human animal to the human being. Or, bring the being to the human. Perhaps the craft of being a musician and the craft of being a person are the same: a craft.
The rules of one craft are the rules of all crafts. If this is so, we may apply analogy.
In tuning a note, we are tuning ourselves. In establishing a harmony, we are bringing all the disparate and fragmented parts of who we are into a simultaneous relationship. In developing a melody, we are developing our one note through time. In establishing the right tempo, we are relating our personal sense of time to society in which we are present. In the inflexion of timing, we bend fixity to make sense of the moment: our living acquires nuance. There is a right time to go sharp, and flat, and be on top of the beat. Rhythm can be based in stability, in even metre, or organic and vital: we will know the measure of the time, and the tempo, and the timing. Perhaps our life is an improvisation. Or it may be developing from a given theme, with variations proceding according to the rules. We may go solo, or learn to play with others. Perhaps we will be composed and leave it at that.
When we are tuning a string, what are we tuning? If we have difficulty with tuning the string, where is the problem? In the string? Well, occasionally perhaps; but in tuning the string, we are tuning ourselves. Does the tone of the string sound good? If not, why not? Is it the fault of the instrument? Sometimes, perhaps. How is our tempo of playing? Does it match the moment? How is our timing?
We establish our centre of gravity for both hands on the instrument; when we take our hands from the instrument, what changes? Do we have a centre of gravity which remains with us?
If we aspire to craftsmanship, we will seek a craftsman to introduce us to their craft. In their presence we will be in the presence of the craft. If we are fortunate enough to find a craftsman who will undertake our instruction, we continue a process which leads to apprenticeship. When the apprenticeship has been served, the centre of gravity of the former apprentice’s life is at the level of craftsman. In time, a craftsman is generally called upon to teach. The wise craftsman will say no. Often they will have given some informal instruction to occasional individuals, and if this has served any end, it is in showing the craftsman the tenuous nature of their responsibility. Those wishing for a comfortable life, or in their right mind will say no; but the acceptance of teaching, of giving instruction, is not a rational decision. Those that have the folly, presumption, or recognise the necessity begin an apprenticeship to mastery.
The craftsman teaches by what they do.
The master teaches by who they are.
The first thing a teacher learns is the impossibility of teaching. So, the teacher is immediately a student, their own apprentice. Except, in learning a craft, they have learnt the laws of learning, and these they can apply to themselves in the craft of teaching a craft. The craftsman knows that, in a sense, they are their craft: they are the embodiment of the particular forces and qualities which make the craft recognizable. A craft brings together two incompatible worlds; the life of the craftsman reconciles the impossibility. If they move themselves out of the way of the craft, perhaps the craft can speak directly to the apprentice. So, the role of the teacher is one of acceptance. The aspiring apprentice embodies the quality of affirmation: I seek music, help me. The craft itself is the agent of reconciliation. The teacher is mother to the craft, and its emergence in the world; the apprentice, perhaps strangely, is father. Each play a role so that a pattern may unfold, and this unfolding pattern is part of a creative act; teacher and student are parents to their craft. The child is a craftsmanship which gives body to the craft itself. The craftsman learns that this is a child which has chosen its parents.
In the craft of guitar playing, the guitar is not about playing the guitar—it is about playing the guitarist. But, who is playing the guitarist? Making music is not about making music—it is about making the musician; when a musician is made, so also is music. Nevertheless, music is never absent.
At this point, the teacher will be dealing with the erroneous notions of the apprentice. The apprentice musician, for example, has many bright ideas about the life of the musician; perhaps, even, how to make the world a better place with music.
The teacher will give clear instructions to the student, so that the pattern within the craft is clearly presented in a practical, coherent, and satisfying manner. Then, the teacher will confuse the student. The mind holds the pattern in front of us, guides us from where we are towards where we are going, and shows us our place in the pattern at any moment. This is valuable, and if we intend to fully participate within a process, even necessary. But part of the mind will identify the craft with a set of rules, as if the craft itself is merely a method. The keen, dedicated apprentice will display their knowledge and broadcast their adherence to their craft, proclaiming the details of their instructions: clear, intelligible, and coherent. Swelling with their rich insights gained in the presence of authority, they misrepresent their craft. The apprentice believes they have understood, that an idea has come to live in them. They have forgotten that the teacher is also an apprentice, and making the same mistakes on behalf of the craft as they. Hopefully, the quality of the mistakes is higher; even, that no mistakes are being made. And they may not understand that their teacher has been tricking them. Part of this trickery is in presenting the craft as a rational, coherent, and intelligible method. Then, having granted the apprentice the security of allowing their mind to fix upon this true pattern, the mind is disturbed. The mind may never become an honest or trusted servant, but if it is robbed of its seeming intelligibility, its pretensions are easier to dispute.
The craft can be known, and reduced to a series of formulations, or descriptions. It has a pattern which can be learnt, held, and absorbed, and then described. But this is not understanding. When one attempts to penetrate a craft by knowing, it eludes us. This is where we approach the mystery within a craft: it is closer to us than we are to ourselves, but what can we do about it? So, the teacher disturbs the mind of the apprentice, that its hold upon them weakens. In the moment of release, the apprentice has an experience of what it means to be a master: a state of letting go, constantly; a state of application, constantly; and innocence within the contradiction of acting and not acting. This is artistry: acting with the assumption of innocence within the field of experience. Knowing this in the moment of abandoning reliance upon the infallibility of the mind, the student knows within their own experience the quality of abandonment. This quality can now always be consulted, and drawn upon. The apprentice has had an insight into the world of the master. Then, they fall to earth.
The teacher will recognise the bruises; they have many of their own in the same places, as well as elsewhere. Whether they offer the apprentice a salve or a hard seat will depend upon the nature of the student and the situation governing them both. Until now the teacher has been tricking the apprentice until the point of falling to earth. Now, the apprentice has seen what is necessary for them to continue, and can choose to continue or not. Before, there was mostly imagination. The teacher’s trickery has been flattery, reassuring that part of the student which is genuinely in search of the craft. Part of the trickery is free gifts; perhaps introducing the student to live performances, or touring, even making records. The performance of music is a privilege, and the price for acquiring this privilege is high. For the apprentice to be granted easy access is a gift, a free gift, the cost of which is shared by the teacher and the craft. Some students will return for flatter, for the nourishment of their imagination. The teacher will judge the situation nicely, perhaps continuing to flatter that which is less in them, in hope. Perhaps not. Some students will return for free gifts, or even ask that they be notified when free gifts are to be distributed. And some students will recognise the teacher’s bruises as their own, and offer salve.
The teacher has the protection of the role of teacher. The craftsman in this role will probably confuse themselves with the teaching, and acquire fresh bruises. But, sitting squarely on the hard seat with bruises smarting, will keenly remember their presumption and not entertain this conceit again. And this is their safety: in letting go of the idea, the reality occurs, and the craft speaks through the craftsman. The craftsman remembers this moment, and is their own apprentice at the same stage as their other apprentices. Within the role, the teacher has nothing to teach, but responds to the promptings of necessity, guided by the craft. The apprentice creates the teacher, by demanding entrance to the craft. This brings about the appearance of the teacher to enable this entrance to take place.
The student discovers that the answers they receive are generally not the answers they need. Then, they discover that the quality of the answers is governed by the quality of their questions. Sometimes, as a gift, they are given an answer to the question they should have asked. Sometimes, they are given the gift of no answer at all. Sometimes, they get silly answers.
The student discovers the value of analogy in the learning of the musical craft. What is melody, this sequential unfolding of the properties of one note? What is harmony? If melody unfolds horizontally, is harmony a vertical and simultaneous presence of this one note? What then is the harmonic series? One note generating a hierarchy of increasingly within relationships? Rhythm? Timbre? Time, tempo, and timing? Counterpoint? Tone? Tonality? Modulation? Tuning? Do I tune my instrument? The string is fine, the instrument is fine. What am I tuning? Concert Pitch? Which concert? Every concert? Or, some concerts? Why those concerts and not others? What standard is this? Who determines the standard? It is helpful to combine analogy with the notion of correspondence. The act of music is a creative act, and music is created according to certain principles. The musician is created according to the same principles. In discovering music, the musician is discovering themselves, which is as we should anticipate.
The apprentice, at first, sees the teacher as an Ideal Being, probably perfect. Certainly, almost perfect: this acknowledges the unlikelihood of perfection, and the presence of small imperfections which are not, however, discovered. Then, there comes this point of letting go of unnecessary efforts, whether muscular, or passionate, or in attitude. And the Ideal Being is released from their pedestal. In their place is the Imperfect Being, a hypocrite mouthing profound notions, making bold claims and failing in their life, thought, and feelings to match many of them. The teacher is released from the humiliation of perfection to the humiliation of imperfection. The alert student, seeing his teacher as an apprentice-teacher, sees an apprentice, the same as them, with the same struggle, and then a deeper relationship is possible.
The teacher’s power to help is exceptionally limited. It is a mistake for the teacher to believe that they can help the student. Nevertheless, although help does not come from the teacher, it can come through the teacher, providing the teacher is not in the way of that help. The erroneous notion that the teacher teaches is one way of blocking the help available from the craft.
The teacher has the protection of their role, the free admission of their ignorance, and their experience. The role provides the connection with the craft; the admission of ignorance is unarguable; and experience is undeniable. If in doubt, consult the hands: what do they do? What is the quality of sensation within them as the fingers move in a delicate coordination? What do I feel at this moment? What pattern is in the mind? What am I thinking about?
The craft is this distinctive quality, or recognisable force, within a tradition; all of the craftsmen within this craft that have ever been and will ever be; and all their acts of craft. The act of crafting is the craft. At this point, there is no distinction between traditions: all crafts are the same crafting, in the creative act of artistry.
If music is quality organised in sound, the musician has three approaches towards it: through sound, through organisation, or through quality. The apprentice will approach the sound; the craftsman will approach the organisation of sound. The master musician approaches music through its quality: that is, they work from silence, organise the silence, and place sound in-between the silences.
The master musician will also be able to organise sound, and produce it.
In Guitar Craft we assume the virtue of the master musician—with whom we may equal in aspiration, even in commitment—and approach music from silence. We approach music from silence by being silent. We only discover the quality in music if we discover the quality in ourself. Luckily, music knows itself better than we do and sometimes whispers in our ear.
While cultivating silence, we approach sound. Are we in tune? Are we in time? Are we in tone? When our note is true, we are surprised to find that it sounds very much like silence, only a little louder.
Guitar Craft Monograph Two
Friday, 16th. September 1988;
Red Lion House, Cranborne, Dorset.
(revised February 2011)