Thinking About Practice, Part Three

Dagobah and East Coker

When I first saw Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon1 years ago, I was surprised to see a page that contained nothing but a quotation from Yoda:2

Do or do not; there is no try.

This struck me as odd. I’ll admit that I don’t know the Star Wars mythos very well and my first thought wasn’t about Yoda (b. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away); my thoughts went to T. S. Eliot (1888–1965, St. Louis, MO) and what he wrote in “East Coker” (1940) from his Four Quartets:

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Before I explore the implications and application to guitar practice of the seemingly disparate world-views represented by these quotations, I have to acknowledge that they’re both out of context. I wonder about the wisdom of including something—no matter how popular—in a book that might be used for generations.3 Carl Flesch, in Book One of his The Art of Violin Playing,4 while discussing the unsuitability of using musical passages for technical practice, recommends using only those passages that are never intended for public performance because musical meaning will be lost along the way of excessive repetition.5 All this appears under the charmingly named sub-heading: “Unserviceable Manners of Practice.” He acknowledges, however, that there may be artists on lofty artistic and technical planes who may out of necessity (i.e., lack of time) substitute “the practice of difficult repertoire-passages for daily exercises of a general technical nature.”6 But he cautions in Latin: Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.7

Great… maybe everyone in 1924 knew what this meant—Flesch left the phrase untranslated—but today I doubt many would know.

When I contrasted the Yoda and Eliot quotations in my guitar pedagogy class, one of my students filled me in on the context of Yoda’s statement. But what will happen when one can no longer bring context to the quote, and the quote ends up serving as a model for practice for everyone in every situation?

As it stand by itself, Yoda’s advice brings to mind what F. M. Alexander calls “end-gaining,” which is focusing exclusively on a result at the expense of understanding how one is to get there. Moshe Feldenkrais agrees and writes in Awareness Through Movement: “In most cases where an action is linked to a strong desire, the efficiency of the action may be improved by separating the aim from the means of achieving it.”8

The T. S. Eliot quotation calls for a way of thinking that releases striving too hard for a specific result. Perhaps I’m projecting something onto Eliot’s words, but once we’re doing the right things in the right way, body and mind know how to develop. It’s often our faulty ideas about how to work that get in the way. There is wisdom in this: The more one tries too hard and “powers through” their practice, the more stressful and tension-filled practice becomes. It takes humility to realize that some things are beyond our control; it takes wisdom to create the conditions whereby that which is beyond our control can do what it needs to do. Eliot also writes in “East Coker”:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Eat Your Vegetables

Things that are beyond our control are forever immune to our striving or trying harder. No matter what we do, we cannot speed these processes up. What we can do, though, is create the conditions in our practice that will allow things to blossom. The trick here is to know the difference between creating the most beneficial conditions for something to improve, and trying to improve something over which our actions have no real influence, even if we think they do. A preoccupation with the latter will usually interfere with development.

Take a prosaic example: eating your vegetables. No amount of trying too hard or an increase of willpower will help speed up the process of digestion and help the body send nutrients to where they’re needed. It’s useless even to think about it. What we are responsible for is eating good, healthy food. Our bodies know what to do with it. But if we have a diet of junk food, our functioning will become compromised at some point.

I doubt I need to belabor this analogy, but there are ways in which our muscles, central nervous systems, and minds work best. Progress can proceed rapidly if we first spend the time to develop the conditions for the best use of the “instrument we use to play our instrument.” This is what I referred to in my previous post as the “the wisdom of the body” and is what musicians mean when they talk about “playing naturally” or “effortlessly.” The problem is that teachers rarely talk about how to create the conditions for achieving this natural or effortless state; what are mentioned a lot are descriptions of the results fashioned as directives (“Play relaxed!”). But knowing principles related to the use of the body and mind are what can help us create these conditions.

Symptom or Problem? Cause or Effect?

I think the increased interest guitarists have in The Alexander Technique, The Feldenkrais Method, and Body Mapping has occurred because guitarists often can’t get this information from guitar teachers and realize they can only get so far trying to solve a symptom.

There’s a simple mental technique that can help determine what the real problems are that get in our way: the next time you identify a general problem, e.g., “I have trouble in the B section,” or, “The scale passage is giving me trouble,” re-label the problem as a symptom. Once that is done, it becomes easier to excavate deeper: it’s not every note in the B section that’s problematic, and there are likely specific spots in the scale passage that derail it.

One may then discover another problem, which itself could be a symptom of something else, and so on. Eventually, one can arrive at an understanding of what the actual problem is: string crossing, left/right-hand timing, left-hand tension, left-hand position, et cetera, and review which principles govern the real problem and set about the task of designing a solution.

Yoda is right, if his advice is proffered only to highly trained practicers. T. S. Eliot is also right, if the trying he envisions is the setting in motion and commitment to well-designed work that is aligned with where a student is.

Next time we’ll look at well-designed practice. If our practice is designed to help us solve problems and improve, as opposed to executing a mindless routine that merely takes up our time and provides the illusion of progress, we should simply do it; but if it’s not, we need to learn how to structure our practice, in thought and in deed, so we can trust that if we do the right things in the right ways, progress can be rapid and seemingly effortless.

Thinking About Practice Part One: Practice is About Thinking

Thinking About Practice Part Two: Principles or Directives?

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. Scott Tennant and Nathaniel Gunod, Pumping Nylon: The Classical Guitarist’s Technique Handbook, (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1995).

  2. Ibid., 55.

  3. This is not a criticism of Pumping Nylon at all. It’s a fine book. My understanding is that it originated in workshops that Scott Tennant presented at the National Guitar Summer Workshop. It seems natural that one would use less formal and vernacular terms and reference popular culture in a classroom setting.

  4. Carl Flesch, The Art Of Violin Playing, Book One, (New York: Carl Fischer, Inc. 1924), Revised Edition 1939, 167.

  5. Ibid., 166.

  6. Ibid., 167.

  7. “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for an ox.” Or, “What the gods are able to do, mortals are not.”

  8. Quoted in Christopher Berg, Mastering Guitar Technique: Process & Essence, (Mel Bay Publications, 1997), 20.