The Secret to Virtuosity

It has been said that we become the average of the top five people we spend time with. I cannot say for certain if this is true, but I do believe that the right peer group can have a powerful positive effect on our lives. One of the great things about working in a specialist music school is the cross- pollination between staff. I am lucky enough to work in a department of excellent professional instrumentalists and remarkably talented pupils. A stimulating environment that provides me with daily inspiration.

In this blog I am going to share an important principle given to one of my pupils by our Head of Strings Matthew Souter. One that, when applied, will greatly help anybody’s playing.

The Secret to Virtuosity

Matthew was doing a technical assessment with one of my specialist classical guitar pupils when he told us the following story about the secret to virtuosity. Many years ago he was on tour in Japan and was about to go on stage to play the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante a Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra with his friend, a highly accomplished violinist. His friend was warming up backstage, running through endless virtuosic scales, runs, arpeggios, and fiendishly difficult musical passages. As Matthew looked on he started to formulate a powerful question:

“Is there a secret to virtuosity? Is there one thing, one principle that makes a great difference?”

“Yes” said his friend and with the beauty and simplicity of a Zen koan stated: “Don’t do Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary.”

How beautiful and simple!

Don’t do Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary

As simple as this sounds, this is fantastic advice for instrumentalists. Can you see how applying this to your playing could help every aspect of your playing? I will offer a sample of the possibilities, but I invite you to find your own too, to be creative and to enjoy the process! Let’s explore some ways to apply this principle by exploring three aspects of guitar playing:

Technique

Mindset

Posture

Technique When applying the principle “Don’t do Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary” to your technique, aim to eliminate all unnecessary movements and all energy wastage. For example, in the left (fretting) hand aim to keep the fingers close to the fretboard so that they do not need to travel far to reach the notes. Developing an optimum playing position and mechanism where the fingers can create the best results with the least effort.

This is particularly important for fingers 3 and 4 as, for most players, they tend to stray further out from the fretboard. The further they stray the more you have to make large movements and waste time and energy to hit the notes. The good news is that with a little attention and training you can develop much more efficient technique and your playing will become easier and more enjoyable!

Remember to focus on: Economy and Freedom of Movement.

When practising, aim to create smaller economical movements whilst cultivating a sense of freedom and flow involving the larger muscle groups in the arms. Seek a feeling of relaxation and flow while you play almost like Tai Chi for the hands, which leads me to a little story:

The Tai Chi Guitarist…

I once heard a master classical guitarist say to his student:

Master Guitarist: “Do you do Tai Chi?”

Student: “Erm…No…?”

Master Guitarist: “Me neither……But I think about it all of the time……”

You only have to watch the hands of a great guitarist to observe the sense of flow and economy. Watching a great player’s hands is like watching a dancer or great sports person. The great guitarist Manuel Barrueco is a fine example, here is a Youtube video link to illustrate my point.

Top Tip – Mirror Work

Practice in front of a mirror. It will help you develop greater economy and freedom of movement in the hands and to become aware of and eliminate any extraneous movements.

Mindset

How does “Don’t do Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary” apply to our mental focus? There are many ways, for example in a passage of music it can mean finding several crucial points to focus on rather than mentally processing every single note. Or you could take your interpretation back to basics, focusing on the basic pulse, meter and shape of the music rather than processing every detail.

In performance we rarely want to focus on every individual note. The details should instead have been dealt with in the practice room. For example in tremolo technique the last thing we should be doing is focusing on every single demi-semi quaver. Our awareness needs to be on the larger musical phrases and form. Another example is fast scales runs where we can find focal points to concentrate on rather than thinking of every single note.

Mindset is absolutely crucial, it has been said that your success in any activity is:

80% Psychology and only 20% Mechanics

The Power of Focus

Aim to focus your thoughts into a state of relaxed concentration away from unnecessary distractions. Avoiding the unnecessary includes not wasting mental energy on unhelpful thoughts or worries but refocusing it in positive ways. In performance we must find ways to focus on the music and ignore outside concerns. The deeper you get into the music the easier it is to concentrate and enjoy your performance.

Self Talk

Practise becoming conscious of your self talk. Is it serving you? If not change it. For example you can replace thoughts of worry with appreciation or encouragement, or inwardly appreciate an audience for coming to the concert rather than worrying about what they might think and inwardly appreciating yourself for all that you have played well rather than the odd wrong note.

What is your Outcome?

Our conscious minds can only process a small amount of information at a time so we can take charge of our mental focus by concentrating on our desired outcome. Questions are very useful to hook the mind and direct it. What is my Outcome? What do I want to express? How can I serve these people? etc.

Top Tips

This is a huge subject and there are some great books out there on this subject. I would invite you to explore the following as you find your own methods:

The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters

Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins

Unlimited Power by Anthony Robbins

Posture

When applying the principle of “Don’t do Anything That Isn’t Absolutely Necessary” to your posture, you can begin by noticing and releasing any unnecessary tension from the body. As you play where are your shoulders? Are they rising up towards your ears? Do you display the neck posture common in many guitarists called The Turtle where the neck and head unnecessarily protrude forwards. How is your breathing? Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Are your feet firmly planted on the floor? Do you feel grounded or are you unbalanced?

Let’s try an experiment: Play through a familiar passage of music and as you play become more aware of your body. Allow the shoulders to drop, the breathing to deepen, the hands to relax. Feel your contact with the earth, the power of gravity holding you to the ground and the Earth supporting you. Often it only takes a little awareness to release unnecessary tension. We simply give a body part our attention and it relaxes. As my yoga teacher mother likes to say:

“Energy flows where the attention goes”

Micro Relaxations – Tennis anyone?

You can use the technique of Micro Relaxation to release tension in small ways as you move through the music. It is a little like Tennis, as a tennis player moves to hit the ball her body might move off centre, she reaches outwards away from her centre of gravity, muscles tense or contract and she makes the shot. Although this may take her off centre momentarily she immediately comes back to centre with a sense of balance and poise ready for her next move. Our hands work the same way as the tennis player! We need to find ways to release tension as we play and to bring ourselves back to a sense of balance, relaxation and poise.

Practical ways to do this include lifting the LH thumb off the back of the neck at opportune moments to relax the muscles and training the hand to release tension when position shifting. I often encourage students to write micro relaxations into their scores and practise them consciously and slowly even saying out loud the words “relax” as they make them to aid deeper learning.

Over to You!

We have explored this principle and some of its uses on the guitar. Whether it is technique, posture or mind set this is only the beginning, I invite you to experiment with this and to find your own ways to apply it. If you want to find out more about studying classical guitar at Wells Cathedral School, please contact our admissions team at [email protected] or 01749 834441.