Thinking About Practice, Part Two

Principles or Directives?

A principle is a truth or proposition that shapes our reasoning and behavior. We want to have good reasons for what we do and sound principles can be those reasons. Directives, however, are instructions, and are stated in the imperative, a grammatical mood in which commands or requests are formed. If they are to rise above the anecdotal or opinion, they’ll be based upon principles. Sometimes a principle can be stated as an instruction, but only when sound reasons have been given previously. Not all principles can be reduced to a pithy statement.

The distinction I make between a principle and a directive in “The Re-Imagination of Guitar Pedagogy” in the Spring 2000 issue of Soundboard1 is still useful today:

A directive is a simple statement such as “Keep your wrist straight.” A principle is the soil out of which these directives grow: “Muscles work best when aligned with their joints.” Directives are necessary and can help a student apply principles, but they are often presented in an inflexible or even capricious way. A deep knowledge of underlying principles will liberate students by helping them understand the why of your teaching, as well as provide them with a clear idea of what to return to on the many occasions when it is necessary to deviate from these principles.

Directives need to be fluid and may change from student to student. Principles are fixed. If you mistake a directive for a principle you may end up offering a student something that is inappropriate for them and you will not have given them the means to discover why.

Let’s have a look at a few things that are presented as principles in the guitar’s pedagogical literature and see if they actually are principles. This is not to determine the validity or usefulness of the information or instruction, only how it is presented, which may affect a student’s ability to question it or apply what is taught.

Frederick Noad, in Solo Guitar Playing, which was first published in 1968, writes: “In changing from one chord to another with the left hand, always take the shortest path for the fingers. This is the minimum movement principle. It is a basic part of left hand technique.”2 Here he has named something a principle, but he hasn’t defined it, except in a circular way: the instructions derived from the principle define the principle.

In the 1980 edition of Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing, there is a section titled “Principles Of Movement (II): The Role of Anticipation”3 in which he lists the following:

  • Never entirely relax the fingers between formations.
  • Play softly and use no more finger pressure at any time than absolutely necessary.
  • Anticipate each new formation by whatever physical means available; when no physical anticipation is possible, anticipate mentally.

Although I wouldn’t argue with the above statements as directives applicable to many situations, they are not principles. Had he written something like, “The left hand can function effortlessly and smoothly if the fingers and mind can anticipate the next shape when moving from chord to chord,” and presented information to support the statement, he would have had a principle with broad application. The use of minimal pressure would best be left formulated as a separate principle inclusive of many other areas of left-hand technique.

Pepe Romero, in his Guitar Style and Technique from 1982, states: “Another very important principle to remember is to not make sudden movements with your left hand, but to take all the time you have available between notes; all your movements must be graceful.”4 This is excellent advice, but it’s not a principle, it’s an instruction.

In the Forward to Volume One of the revised edition (1998) of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Parkening writes:

…for the most part I learned the guitar by playing pieces I loved and trying to perfect them. This method seems to me by far the best; it is the method I’ve used since I began to teach, and it is the principle I’ve applied to this book.5

We will return later in this series to examine this not-uncommon practice, but that’s what it is, a practice (in the sense of a way of doing things or a custom), not a principle.

Why is it even important to look at these pedagogical statements?

What’s the Big Deal?

“But I know what these guitarists mean. You’re just splitting hairs!” I don’t think so. A principle has an air of immutability about it and is unlikely to be questioned or challenged, especially when it issues from a respected artist or teacher. The mistaking of a directive for a principle—by teacher or student—is often the cause of a student becoming stuck and reaching a point beyond which he or she can’t progress. In good teaching, instructions change depending on a student’s increasing physical, intellectual, and artistic awareness and sensitivity.

It turns out that different things are “true” at different levels of development. If you don’t like the idea of “truth” being so slippery or migratory, then simply substitute the word “relevant.” Ideally, it is good practice to satisfy as many of the criteria as possible of the advanced version of a thing when learning the easy version of a thing, but that is an ideal and is contingent on a student’s (and teacher’s) awareness.6 (I touched upon both of these ideas in Part Two of my post on Giuliani Revisited.) Method books present what is most useful and relevant to those starting out, but they fail to point out that what is relevant and useful must change as one develops. Consider what Douglas Hofstadter writes in Godel, Escher, Bach:

There must be “just plain” rules. There must be “metarules” to modify the “just plain” rules; then “metametarules” to modify the metarules, and so on. The flexibility of intelligence comes from the enormous number of different rules, and levels of rules. The reason so many rules on so many different levels must exist is that in life, a creature is faced with millions of situations of completely different types.7

Although Hofstadter is not writing about guitar playing (he’s writing about artificial intelligence), what he points out about the need to modify “rules” applies to the numerous directives students must entertain in their work. Some of the directives we apply to our work will need to be modified, or change completely, as we develop.

One example of a directive that will eventually need modification is the one often given to beginning students to keep their left-hand fingers on the strings until needed elsewhere. This helps counteract the tendency of those starting out to lift their fingers too soon, which creates choppy playing. There are many examples of this idea in guitar books, but here’s one presented by Emilio Pujol as a principle:

As a general principle, once a string has been stopped, the finger should not be lifted until the very end of the duration of the note in question has been reached.8

A necessary modification of the keep-your-fingers-on-the-strings “rule” is in virtuosic music during a change of position: if one thinks of moving to the new note at “the very end of the duration” of the previous note, it will be too late and engender movements and shifts that are too fast and tense. One element of virtuoso technique is that the message sent from brain to finger to move from a note must often be given at the instant that note is played (e.g., the note preceding a shift in a rapid scale).

As technique reaches higher levels and the music one plays increases in complexity, calculating when to leave a note is not the simple matter of waiting for the full value of its duration: in music requiring a high level of finger independence, such as contrapuntal music, fingers often need to be trained to leave their notes at strategically important moments so they can be poised to play other notes, effectively redefining what “until needed elsewhere” means.

Intelligent and successful practice must first know the principles, if any, that will guide it, not temporary directives. Broadly speaking, a knowledge of principles will help us create the conditions to take advantage of the wisdom of the body. Once these conditions are established, we then must consider how best to work. Next time we’ll see if words from Dagobah and East Coker can offer insight.


Thinking About Practice, Part One: Practice is about Thinking

Thinking About Practice, Part Three: Dagobah and East Coker

Thinking About Practice, Part Four: Practice By Design or Waste Your Time

Thinking About Practice: Part Five: Reducing Music to Technique: Intelligent Bunglers and Brainless Acrobats


  1. Christopher Berg, “The Re-Imagination of Guitar Pedagogy,” The Soundboard, Journal of the Guitar Foundation of America, Winter/Spring 2000, Vol.XXVI, Nos. 3/4, pages 43–52. This article is also available on my website, and as a download from LeanPub and Gumroad where it is titled “The Virtuoso Teacher.”

  2. Frederick Noad, Solo Guitar Playing, Amsco Publications, 67–68.

  3. Charles Duncan, The Art of Classical Guitar Playing, Summy Burchard Music, (Princeton, NJ, 1980) 32.

  4. Pepe Romero, Guitar Style and Technique, 1982, 36.

  5. Christopher Parkening, The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Hal Leonard Corporation, (Milwaukee, 1998), 7.

  6. This is one of many compelling reasons why teaching oneself has limitations: it takes experience to know and to be able to articulate what criteria need to be satisfied and how to bring that awareness to a less experienced student.

  7. Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1999) 27. Many thanks to my graduate student, Daniel Olszewski, who happened upon this paragraph shortly after we had discussed this idea in pedagogy class.

  8. Emilio Pujol, Guitar School: A Theoretical-Practical Method for the Guitar : Based on the Principles of Francisco Tárrega, Books One & Two. Translated by Brian Jeffery; edited by Matanya Ophee. (Boston: Editions Orphée, 1983), 60.