Thinking: What a concept!

I was very fortunate when I was growing up, because my father worked for one of the greatest companies a person could work for, especially at that time (1950’s, 60’s). He worked for IBM. IBM was founded by a very great and visionary individual named Thomas Watson. Mr. Watson didn’t just start a company, he created and controlled an entire culture, an entire philosophy of life, which he carefully taught to all his employees.

The cornerstone of his philosophy was embodied in one word. This word was hanging on every wall in the IBM office, and, along with boxes of punchcards, this word was in my house all the time, because it was the title of the official IBM magazine that came to our house.

The word is THINK. Thomas Watson realized that “most of the trouble people get into begins with the phrase “I didn’t think before I acted”. It is a major step forward in our growth when we realize this truth. The next major step is when we become aware of how little thinking we actually do, especially at the times we need it most, which is when we have “problems”, a word which Principled Players immediately translate into “challenges”.

I got a real insight into this one time when I couldn’t find my wallet, (an almost daily occurrence, because I’m usually “thinking” about something else!). I caught myself mindlessly roaming around the room, looking in all the same places I had already looked, over and over as if it were going to magically materialize! It gave me the feeling of “doing something”, and allowed me to avoid the hard work of sitting down and thinking where I might have left it. But it didn’t give me my wallet! In the same way, guitar players will mindlessly repeat the same ineffective actions over and over again, as if the notes are going to somehow magically appear! We will do anything but put that guitar down a second and really think about what we are doing, and why it isn’t working, and what we can do about it.

I have experienced, literally, struggling with some passage of music for years, and one day solving it because I put the guitar down, started thinking about everything I was doing (fingerings, arm./hand/finger positions, etc), and began to “think of”, or “create”, new possibilities to experiment with. And because of doing that “thinking process”, I would often “solve” those problems on the spot, or get pointed in the right direction.

If we are really honest and insightful, we may realize that, in fact, we NEVER think! We just mindlessly adopt the ideas and attitudes of what is around us, and we never actually examine, inspect, juggle, calculate these ideas and attitudes with our minds, or, just as important, “feel” these ideas and attitudes with our emotions (intuition), If we are equally honest, observant and insightful about ourselves as guitar players, we will likewise see that when confronted with problems, with things we are having trouble doing on the guitar, we don’t actually THINK. Instead we mindlessly DO what we have already been doing, even though it is producing no result. We keep doing the same fingering or picking, we keep approaching it with the same hand position. We don’t stop, re-examine, observe, draw conclusions, plan a new approach, and then observe and draw conclusions again.

To be a guitar player who considers continual growth to be the cornerstone of their day to day activities, practicing and playing, is to be a person who is going to be constantly confronted by one thing: PROBLEMS! Practicing is nothing but the confrontation of problems, one after another. If you are one of the gazillions of players who are NOT experiencing improvement in your playing, then please realize that you do not know how to solve problems. Don’t be depressed! Be like me. I love finding out what a jerk I am, because then I can start getting better!

When it comes to my growth as a player, I have always been more interested in how a great player practices, than in how they play. When I watch them play, I am seeing the result of their practice. But I want to know how they GOT that result. So I want to know how they PRACTICE.

And when I want to understand how they practice, I look for one thing: how do they THINK about what they are doing? How do they think about this thing called “playing the guitar”? Whenever I discover something about how a great player THINKS, I immediately start experimenting with thinking that way, and understanding where that way of thinking is coming from. I recommend it to all of you.

I can remember various times when I would hear or read a comment from a great player, and that comment would give me great insight into how that person THINKS, the ATTITUDES that he or she uses to look at the world through. I would then follow that thought process, I would adopt that “view point”, and look at things in the same way. That would lead to new discoveries. I would “see” things they had seen, because I was using the same thought process, looking out from the same “point of view”.

Some examples: I read of Pepe Romero advising a student who was having trouble with shifts to “focus mentally on the muscles that make the shift”. Now, this said worlds about how a great player, known for his great technique, thinks about the technical aspect of playing the guitar. I immediately began to study anatomy, and think along the same lines. The results were incredible.

I read of Carlos Santana talking about how when he plays, it’s only good if it makes him cry. This said so much about the state of emotional intensity and involvement that a great player experiences internally while playing. It means there is no room for mediocrity in the emotional content of our music, and our relationship. It means that WE must be moved by our own playing, or composing, or no one else will!

Julian Bream has talked about getting the correct “flow” and “feeling” into his arpeggios. This told me that this great player works very much from a kinesthetic sense of the connection between how his body feels while playing, and the sound that he hears. It also said that he achieves his musical goal while playing by an intense focus on the desired outcome.

So, I recommend to you that you become very interested in how great players THINK (and feel) about what they do. What and how a great player thinks about what they do determines what they do. And what they do, day by day, determines what they become. That is true for all of us. For non-players, simply enjoying a great players playing is enough. But for us players, we need to dig deeper than that.

Many, and I may even say most, guitar students do not really, truly, and constantly THINK when they practice. They are more like a fighter in the ring who keeps swinging blindly, with his head down, so he doesn’t even see what is going on around him. He’s blindly hoping he will be effective and successful, but most of the time, he’s in for a bruising! How do we get to be “thinking guitar students”?

Thinking is a “turning of the wheels” mentally. However, you must make sure the wheels have some “grist” to churn while they are turning! In other words, a large part of the thinking process is the taking in of new information, so that it can be processed, combined and re-configured with existing knowledge, and thereby lead to new insights and discoveries. There are two ways of taking in new information: the people we meet, and the books we read. Make sure you make full use of these resources as they are available to you. Not all of us get to hang around great players, but all of us have access to books written by and about great musicians, and great people in general. You should ALWAYS be taking in new information, processing it, and using it. Understand that READING and THINKING are intimately connected. The person who wants to grow to their full potential READS, and also makes sure they find and recognize who and what is most worth reading!

In my teaching, I have one central overarching goal: teach the student how to teach themselves, and that means teaching them how to think. That is why my book deals with the “Principles” of practice. A “principle” is an “avenue of thought”. When we have a problem to solve, we need to look at that problem from the viewpoint of the appropriate Principle, and let our thinking process be guided by that principle, and see where it leads. This is walking down the “avenue of thought”.

One of the Principles of Practice says “if a mistake is being made in playing, it is always because the finger needed to play the note is not relaxed and ready in the right position BEFORE it is required to move to the note”. This is an “avenue of thought” I often walk down when I have a problem. By contemplating this principle, I am led to discover the answer to my problem, or at least a part of the answer.

The “answer” to our problem is contained within the problem itself. Thinking is the process by which we truly define, and then penetrate the problem, and bring it into focus, so that the answer, which often appears as a new direction to move in, begins to materialize. The Principles we use to guide our actions will determine where we travel, and how well and how far.

Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.