Changing Bad Habits

I want to address an issue that seems to keep coming up for people who are familiar with my work, and beginning to use my methods. People are reading my essays, and it seems a new awareness is beginning to dawn for them, which is good, that’s the whole point. But for many people, it is a very disconcerting experience. I have gotten letters from people who have read some things I have written, and become afraid to practice! They are so aware of, and on their guard against, excess muscle tension, and the devastating effects for the developing player, they are afraid to touch a string!

They start to feel like that song by Al Yankovich, Everything You Know Is Wrong. They realize that even though they may have been playing for 25 years, there are certain really fundamental things they have never known, and if they did know them from the beginning, everything would have gone differently for them in their growth as guitarists.

Well, that IS the truth. That is the message I am always trying to get across. I am always trying to convey to people that if you have tried to learn the guitar and failed, it is not you, it is the approach to it all that is at fault. If you are stuck at a certain level of development, it is not you, it is your approach that is keeping you there. Change the approach, and you will create different results. I know this is a fact, because I do it every day, for myself, and for others.

Knowing the fact that the approach you use to learn the guitar is THE key-determining factor in your success or failure to actually learn, these three conclusions follow:

  1. Playing the guitar well is NOT reserved for just some special people. It is available and possible for everyone.
  2. You are never too old to learn to play the guitar well. 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, you are still young in guitar playing years. In fact, as soon as you touch the guitar in the right spirit, you will begin to become younger.
  3. You can undo bad habits you have learned along the way. You can begin the process of undoing bad habits right away, when you begin to acquire the correct understandings, and use the approaches based on them.

So, even though it is a shock to find out that you have had a bad or insufficient approach for years, you must get over that shock right away. In fact, get used to it, it’s only the beginning! Get used to feeling like an idiot, get used to feeling like a beginner. Staying with that feeling positions you in the best possible way for being able to see what YOUR obstacles to growth really are. As soon as you think you are “complete” in some way as a guitarist, you will be unable to see your own weak spots.

Now that we have the proper attitude in focus, let’s talk about how to go about “managing” the process of changing bad playing habits. How do we actually conduct ourselves, and our practicing and playing? As I have said, some people become paralyzed, afraid to play, afraid of undoing work done in practice sessions by what they do when they play. And for those who play professionally, it is of course, absolutely necessary that they continue to play, even if they are doing “remedial” work on their technique.

People ask, “should I stop playing everything I am used to playing, until I get rid of all my bad habits”? Well, if you have a lot more discipline than I have, go ahead and do that! If you can stand not making music for months, go ahead, but I don’t recommend it.

An extreme example of this would be to entirely stop playing any of our usual music, where all the bad habits show themselves, and buckle down to things like the Foundation Exercises in my book, or the ones I have written about in my essays. You could work on those for months and months until you felt you had overcome your bad habits, and then go back to playing music. I’d have to love self-punishment a whole lot more than I do (which is not at all!) to take that route. I need fun and enjoyment in my life on a daily basis, so I can’t go with that one!

Take the Middle Path

I prefer to be wise like the Buddha, and take the Middle Path. This is the one I have chosen, and I will describe it for you.

First, if you are using my book, begin to do all the Foundation Exercises, because they will start to undo the foundation of ALL your bad habits. Do them every day for perhaps ten minutes. If you are not using my book, get all you can from my essays, and apply those approaches, experiment with them, and elaborate upon them, and adapt them to new situations.

Second, after coming to an awareness of the existence of a “bad habit”, develop an understanding of HOW it got there. What WEREN’T you doing that allowed that situation to develop. Of course, it always reduces down to something you weren’t aware of that you should have been paying attention to, been more INTENSE about during your practice.

Third, absolutely spend a good amount of time in practicing REVERSING that habit. Practice in a new way, where you make sure you DO what you weren’t doing before. Analyze the essence of that bad habit, extract it from it’s musical context, and perhaps make up “auxiliary exercises” based on the essence of it. Use all the practice techniques that I teach to effectively begin this process of reversal.

Fourth, make sure the reversal of the habit is actually beginning to take place. This means we make sure that our practice is effective. If it’s not, go back to steps One and Two and Three!

Fifth, take up one of your usual pieces of music where that habit has been showing itself by producing UNWANTED RESULTS, and we begin to practice IT in the same careful way that you did the exercises you were using to change the essence of the bad habit.

As weeks and months go by, your old “bad habit” will begin to weaken, it will change. It will be replaced by the new finger action you are training into the fingers. The important point to realize is that the new habit WILL take over, if you are doing the proper proportion of CORRECT PRACTICE on the bad habit. Merely playing the music where the bad habit displays itself will not disturb the changes you are building into the fingers by your powerful, correct practice. As time goes by, the new habit will begin to show itself IN your playing, and become stronger and stronger.

For instance, the process may go like this:

I notice I have trouble with a fast scale passage in a piece I am playing.

I notice a particular note starts disappearing when I reach a certain speed. The note is being missed.

I notice the finger responsible for playing that note is the third finger. It is not getting to the note because it is going up in the air in reaction to the second finger being used right before it in that particular scale passage. In other words, it is tensing in reaction to the movement of it’s neighboring finger, and I have not been paying attention to it. I realize this is a bad habit that pervades my playing, a third finger that tenses up in reaction to the use of the second finger.

Now I know I have to work on something very fundamental. I have to work on the behavior of my third finger, and change the way it reacts to it’s neighbor being used, the second finger. If I can get down to the matter with that degree of specificity, that degree of clarity and focus, I am in a position to cause major Vertical Growth. If I can change the way that finger is behaving in that situation, I will see many playing problems I am having in other pieces of music begin to “melt”, and eventually disappear.

I must find a way of practicing that movement that DOES NOT ALLOW the bad action to occur. Principled Players know that means using Posing, No Tempo Practice, and the Basic Practice Approach, all done with the proper intense focus.

Here is a simpler scenario for beginning players. Perhaps you suffer from the common complaint of not being able to change chords smoothly so you can sing that old favorite of yours without feeling like a new driver learning to drive a stick shift (go, stall, go, stall, etc.)

Well, that is very simple. You are simply suffering from shoulder tension while making the moves (also, tension in the muscles of the upper back and chest, they all move the arm). Because of this, you must address the fundamental aspects mentioned before. You cannot control your fingers, or even train them, because control is being choked off higher up, in the larger muscles.

Now, the challenge will be to be able to use the practice approaches that CAN actually change something like that. Users of The Principles know that this means Posing, and No Tempo practice, and the use of The Basic Practice Approach. Again, unfortunately, too often I meet readers of my book who are NOT really using these practice approaches. They bought the tool, but they don’t use it! Those that do, see the results.

Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles. Don’t miss the article Changing Bad Habits (Part 2).