Building Zen Habits – Having a Clear Mind
Use your practice time with the guitar to strengthen your Zen muscles. Every time you touch the guitar, you are developing behaviours (habits of thought and movement) that affect the way you will eventually play. It takes at least three correct repetitions of a skill to counterbalance the habit created by making one mistake!
In a very real way, your practice is actually behavioural training. So, it’s important to build in beneficial habits from the beginning of your guitar journey.
‘It takes at least three correct repetitions of a skill to counterbalance the habit created by making one mistake!’
To build good habits, you have to cut through the confusion and mental chatter that comes with learning new skills. The following unlocking techniques will provide you with a framework for practicing new chords/progressions and help you develop awesome Zen guitar habits that will enable you to play well. Using these clarification techniques will help you begin to think clearly on the guitar. They will also provide you with a focus for each practice session.
Powerful Practice and Skill Unlocking Techniques
Aim-Directed Movement – Clarification Technique
‘Aim-directed movement’ simply means being clear about what you are doing before you do it.
A very powerful learning technique is to practice the left hand alone before adding the right hand. Touch, press and release each chord form / passage in sequence. Choose a slow tempo. This will enable you to think ahead before moving to the next chord/note.
‘Choose a slow tempo. This will enable you to think ahead before moving to the next chord/note.’
As you are fingering the chord or scale passage, say the left-hand fingerings out loud. This will help clarify your finger movement and jumpstart your visualization skills.
Concentrate on the position of each left finger within its fret. They should be very close to the fret (just under it) but not on it. This placement will give you the best sound (no buzzing), and also requires the least amount of pressure.
Pressure Release Technique – Master New Chord Forms
This practice technique is extremely effective and extremely simple.
Position your left-hand fingers lightly (don’t press down yet) in the proper place on each string for the chord form (slightly behind the fret). Press down. Feel the weight of your hand (and pectoral muscles) pulling the guitar toward your body. Use minimal force with your thumb.
‘Focus … on … using the least amount of pressure necessary to produce a clean sound with no buzzing.’
Relax and release finger tension (fingers still touching string but not pressing). Now get into ready position – each finger should be hovering over the string/fret about to be positioned.
Repeat 6–10 times. Your focus is on proper placement of left-hand fingers and using the least amount of pressure necessary to produce a clean sound with no buzzing.
This exercise is an extension of the pressure-release drill. It is aim-directed movement to the max!
This time, instead of placing your fingers down simultaneously to fret the chord, place one finger down at a time. Once your fingers are down, strum the chord to make sure every note of the chord is clear and that there is no buzzing. If there is buzzing or strings are not sounding, make sure that your left-hand fingers are sufficiently curved/flexed (firm circles) and that your thumb is positioned properly (on the back of the neck, not below the midpoint).
‘Say the left-hand fingering for each finger combination as you position each finger.’
Repeat each finger combination for the target chord at least six to ten times. Say the left-hand fingering for each finger combination as you position each finger. As an example, the fingering for the open-position C major chord in root position will have six different finger combinations: 123, 132, 231, 213, 321, and 312.
Connecting Chords: Three-Beat Change Strategy
Once you are fluent with each of the techniques discussed so far, it’s time to make some music.
An extremely efficient technique for practicing new progressions (or difficult chord changes) is to play on three beats (in common time) and change/prepare for the new chord on the fourth beat.
In this way, you are not rushed to get to the next chord. You have an entire beat to set up for the new chord. This includes preparing your right hand (pick/thumb) on the lowest string of the chord and making sure that your left-hand fingers and thumb are optimally positioned. You are also playing in rhythm, which is an important musical habit to acquire.
‘If the chords in [a] progression … seem difficult, play on the first beat only, so you have three beats to get to the next chord.’
If you have used the aim-directed movement, pressure release, and choreography drills, the three-beat change strategy should seem easy. If the chords in the progression still seem difficult, play on the first beat only, so you have three beats to get to the next chord.
When you have mastered this, try strumming on only the first two beats – you will have two beats to set up for the next chord. Make sure to use a metronome when using this technique.
‘When you are confident with changing on one beat, go for it. Strum on each beat of the measure and try to wait until the last possible moment to change chords.’
When you are confident with changing on one beat, go for it. Strum on each beat of the measure and try to wait until the last possible moment to change chords. Don’t forget to use a metronome and pick a tempo that is slow enough so you can think ahead clearly.
I love this practice strategy because, while you are focusing on technique, you are building in the most important musical habit of all: playing in rhythm.
Use these strategies to build your Zen guitar habits. Happy practicing!
About the Author
An instructor with FretboardZen and long-time student of the world-renowned classical guitar teacher Aaron Shearer, Thomas Foster is currently completing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.