Why Taking Your Guitar Playing to the Next Level May Require Starting Over

Pluck the third string. Not like that. Take your hand away from the guitar. Scratch your knee, keeping the fingertip in contact with the surface of your leg the whole time.  That is how your index finger should move. Now, pluck the third string. No, not like that! Take your hand away from the guitar…

The person speaking was renowned guitar professor Adam Holzman. The person who could not seem to move his index finger correctly was me.

I was a freshman in college at the time.  I had played classical guitar since I was 12 years old. I had studied with good guitar teachers during high school and had played in master classes for artists such as David Russell and Pepe Romero. My repertoire included pieces like Asturias and Capricho Árabe. I had won a youth guitar competition.

But in my first semester of university study, my guitar professor made me rebuild my technique from the ground up. I spent weeks working on single finger movements. It was frustrating. Demoralizing. I began to question my choice of music as a major. When I was finally permitted to do simple arpeggios, it felt like an accomplishment. Through my freshman and sophomore years, my professor guided me in retracing steps I had taken previously. It was not until my junior year of university study that I was allowed to play the level of pieces I had played in high school.

It was painful at the time, but I now see the value of the process. Here are three benefits I experienced as a result of starting over:

  1. Creating New Habits – It is hard to change gradually without lapsing into the old way of doing things. The process of rebuilding my technique allowed me to create new patterns of thought and movement. I needed a solid foundation and secure habits instead of the incomplete foundation and inconsistent habits I had built previously.
  1. Understanding Why – By examining every small movement intently, I learned why certain types of muscle and joint movement are more effective than others. I also learned to analyze interpretive decisions with intensity and attention to detail. Developing a rationale for every movement and expressive choice became hugely helpful in my continued musical development. In addition, the habit of making decisions with a clear sense of purpose and intentionality has served me well in many areas of life.
  1. Avoiding Overconfidence – The restart helped me to see how much I still had to learn. John Wooden once said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” I came into college thinking I knew a lot; I graduated from college knowing how much I still needed to learn.

Have you restarted your musical development in order to gain greater mastery? If you are in the middle of doing this right now, be patient. While the process may be uncomfortable, solidifying the foundation is often a precursor to greater heights of achievement.

Question: Have you benefited from reexamining your fundamental skills? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Paul Hoogeveen

    I am primarily a Flamenco player. After a few private lessons with Oscar Herrero, I found that my rasgueados were a bit old-fashioned, my tremolo technique was incomplete (classical only, instead of Flamenco, which is a bit different), and my picado was — well — sloppy. He patiently taught me some excellent exercises for retraining myself, which after three years, I am still using! In some ways, it was indeed “starting over.”

  • Ariel Alba

    I transfered to UTSA less than two years ago to finish my BM under Dr. Mathew Dunne. I remember that I came playing some decent level pieces. Starting overr was a pain in the six, but I wouldn’t mind doing it again. I made the habit of doing solfege for all of my pieces as a memorization technique, among others. Now that summer’s going on, is the perfect time to revisit my technique.

    • Glad to hear that this process was beneficial for you!

  • Brendan Bondurant

    That’s hits close to home. At the beginning of my professional career I met a flamenco teacher who spent our first lesson overhauling my technique, warning about coming injury (he was right, I did develop tendinitis, on the month between our first few lessons and when I got it set up to start taking regular lessons, fortunately he helped me rehabilitate my thumb). I basically started from scratch again. 4 years later, I am very happy with the way it has gone, but I can’t say I wasn’t depressed at first! My technique is more flamenco than classical, but it transfers over quite nicely. Although I do get the occasional comment about playing a classical piece sitting like a flamenco guitarist!

  • Chase Bernard

    This totally hits home for me! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve played the classical guitar for roughly 4-5 years and this whole concept you talked about totally relates to me. My teacher and I have been working on really “pushing” the string into the guitar apposed to just “plucking” the string in our lessons. It’s frustrating to work on playing individual strings slowly but I know it will pay off soon because mastering this technique will help me project a lot better on the guitar with a better tone.

    • I am glad the article was encouraging to you as your teacher encourages you to hone your technique.