It's Not How You Sound, It's How You Look!

by Jamie Andreas

I will often say to a student, "I don't care how you sound, I care how you look".

Now, you may be saying "What! Are you serious? Can you really be so shallow as to suggest that how you look is more important than how you sound?

Yes, I can be that shallow, and even shallower! But, let's leave my personality out of it. When you see what I mean, you will realize that there is a deeper layer of meaning to what I am saying. There is a deeper layer of significance to how one looks as a player, if you know what to look for, that is. In fact, in the final analysis, how you sound will depend, among other things, on how you look, and, how you look will determine your ability to improve your sound.

Form and Movement

One of the Principles of Correct Practice says "Correct form is the foundation of correct movement". "Form" and "movement" are opposites in the sense that "form" is stationary and unmoving, and "movement" is of course, moving. There is a fundamental law which governs all opposites, and it is this: all opposites depend on each other for their existence. A little bit of thought reveals the fact that movement depends on form, For instance, any time we want to move physical objects, we must first create the form within which that movement will occur. When we go to the supermarket, and we need to move all those things to our house, we create a form in which movement can occur, a form that will make movement possible: we put the things in a bag or box. The first thing we do when we know we have to move from one dwelling to another is to start collecting boxes: movement requires it’s opposite: form.

On the physical level, or the mental level, this concurrence exists between movement and form. In order to bring ideas into awareness, we create a form for our idea; that is, we create the form of "words" to house the meaning of our ideas, and so move them into consciousness. Whether it is a box moving groceries, or a word conveying meaning, we will find that some forms are more appropriate and effective than others to the job at hand. Also, we may find different forms work better for different people performing the same task.

In playing the guitar, we will likewise find our ability to move with skill will depend on having achieved correct form before initiating movement, and it will depend on maintaining correct form during movement. This Principle is true of all disciplines involving body movement; dancing, fencing, martial arts, singing, etc.

There is a direct cause and effect relationship between form and movement, and understanding the nature of that cause and effect relationship is a large part of learning the guitar. Correct form brings body parts into proper relationship, so that movement can be controlled, balanced, and directed to a purpose. When form is incorrect, a number of bad things can and do happen: the force brought to a string cannot be delivered with the appropriate velocity, resulting in loss of volume, movements are initiated with excess tension, and produce excess tension.

Sometimes a student will be playing, and if I don't look, and just listen, it sounds pretty good. There may be a nice sound, and a good rhythm, and it sounds like music. It is all good as far as it goes. But, once I look, I know that if we wanted it to go further, if we wanted more volume, better tone, or more speed, we would start to have problems. I can see that if more demand were placed on the student to deliver more volume or speed, there would be a breakdown, because the form would be found to be insufficient to conduct the necessary movement process.

Levels of Form

And this is why I am not interested in how a student sounds, but rather, how they look. And by "look" I mean a number of things. I mean the actual positioning of physical elements, the sitting, the holding of the guitar, the placing of arms, hands and fingers. I also mean the "disposition" of physical elements, that is, the relationship of the various body parts to each other, and even the state of those body parts themselves. Even without moving, someone can simply look tense, holding unnecessary tension, in isometric contraction of various muscles.

Yes, it must "look right", but it must also "look like it feels right". I know when someone is comfortable as they play, and when they are not. If someone is in the "right" position, but is tense in that position, then the form is incorrect.

This brings up an interesting concept: even more important than how you look is how you feel. Yes, from the standpoint of real growth in ability, it is not how you sound, it is how you look, and it is not how you look, it is how you feel. When I am practicing something difficult, something that I am working hard to master, I may play the passage, and it sounds good. I got all the notes, I have recorded it, and I am happy with the sound. But the real test for me is "how did that feel". If I have felt some discomfort, if I noticed some area of my body tensed without me knowing it during the playing, and I only became aware after I stopped playing, if I feel some sense of uncomfortable effort, then I know I have more work to do. There is an area of un-awareness that I must penetrate, or I don't feel I really have control. And so, my rule is this: when it comes to fundamental improvement of ability--it's not how you sound, it is how you look, and it's not how you look, it's how you feel.

Making Vertical Growth

Principled players are familiar with the idea of making "vertical growth" in our playing abilities. This means, rather than only learning more material played at the same level of skill (or lack of skill!), we seek to achieve an actual increase in our level of playing skill. This, of course, is much more challenging than simply staying at the same level. Vertical Growth is always my primary concern with students; showing them how to constantly achieve it for themselves by understanding two things: the real nature of all the dynamics of guitar technique, and how to promote control over those dynamics by improving playing technique through correct practice (which, by definition, is practice that improves technique, or uses already developed technique).

Because my primary concern is Vertical Growth, I am always watching my student's form with an eagle eye. Sometimes, I have been out of the lesson room, and the student will start to play something, and it will sound good! But when I walk back in the room, I see bad form and/or tense fingers; so, I have to tell them "no good, we have to fix that form". This is because, even though the present technique was adequate to produce the sound I heard, the flaws in the form will cause trouble for future development, or, just as likely, will cause breakdowns in the same music in other playing occasions. For instance, there is no more effective way of uncovering flaws in our technique than attempting to perform in front of an audience!

From Effect to Cause to Effect!

Another Principle of Correct Practice tells us: "During practice, understanding and awareness are continually increased by observing effect and tracing back to cause". This Principle almost summarizes the essence of correct practice. All events, all notes, all "mistakes", are seen as effects which have causes. If we want to change the effect, we must know the cause, and we must know how to change the dynamics that constitute that cause. "Form" is one of the primary causes of the effects we call "notes".

The necessity of understanding and working with causal elements during practice is understood, overtly or intuitively, by all good players and teachers. A very famous voice pedagogue who was considered a master teacher, Louis Bachner, wrote a book on singing very similar to the Principles. It was called "Dynamic Singing". He said almost all existing teaching methods were flawed, because even though they may have possessed elements of truth, each one of them would only achieve results with a limited number of people. And there was one fundamental reason for that: because each of them only dealt with some level of "effect" in relation to singing dynamics, rather to fundamental "cause". He said:

"All methods which are not based upon recognition or these universal laws of physical functioning work on effect instead of causal factors; their only concern is with the end result, the tone. They thus lack sound, logical foundation. Working with effect rather than causal factors precludes any possibility of freedom of voice production. The result is utter confusion. Under such conditions, we have as many forms of development as we have teachers. In order to be logically valid, primary instruction to the singer must be based upon principles which work with causal factors".

The author then goes on to deal with the fundamental causal factors of good singing. And guess what factor number one is? POSTURE! This will make sense to all Principled Players, as they recollect the first physical element dealt with in the Principles: sitting and holding the guitar, the first level of "Form".

It is interesting and important to realize that in the process of observing effect and tracing back to cause we will discover that once we identify a cause, it becomes, in turn, the effect of another cause! For instance, I may notice an effect: a missing note. I look for the cause, and I discover that my 2nd finger has tensed and moved away from the string it needed to play. So, now I know why I missed the note, the finger was tense and away from the string, that was the cause of the effect of the missed note. But what caused the cause? What caused the 2nd finger to tense? I look further, and I notice that a pull off I just did with 3 and 1 made the 2nd finger stick up in the air. So, now I have discovered the cause of the cause of the effect of the missed note. And so it goes. We always uncover the cause of something by asking one question: why? To ask "why" is to turn your gaze toward the cause of an effect, even the "cause of a cause".

Scientific Teaching

The primacy of dealing with causal factors is one of the most important concepts for all teachers, and all students to understand. It is the principle upon which our entire possibility of growth depends. Teaching, as well as practice, must be scientific. The essence of science is the demand for predictability of results. If we go to school to learn how to fix cars, or practice law, or perform brain surgery, we expect consistent and predictable results. Assuming we do our required work, we expect to acquire the desired skill at the end of our course of study. This is NOT the case with guitar. It is manifestly clear that all those who study with the intention of mastery do not necessarily end up with that mastery. Teaching the guitar is, for the most part, not scientific. Some get it, and a lot of people don't. Very few go "all the way", many get stuck somewhere along the way, able to do some things, and not others, and they have no idea how to improve the situation.

The reason for this lack of consistent results with guitar instruction is because guitar teachers are rarely dealing with causal factors, they are always attempting to manipulate effects in the hope of somehow producing different effects. I have seen master classes where the student is having trouble with the music, and is actually unable to even make the notes, and yet the teacher will start talking about the interpretation of the music, as if that mattered when there is no music to interpret! The poor student will have obvious tension and associated bad form, and the teacher is talking only of the effect: the music. In lessons, the most common reaction to a difficulty a student is having is either to suggest more practice, or switching to a different exercise or piece of music. It is rarely a sufficiently microscopic analysis of cause and effect factors constituting the chain of actions and events that are resulting in the appearance of the present difficulty.

The Principles begins with the most vital Understandings necessary to make practice and teaching a scientific undertaking, and it deals extensively with the first casual factor concerning the physical act of playing: form. "Understanding" means "knowledge of cause and effect". Knowledge of cause and effect is the key to a scientific approach to guitar practice, and to development in general, because knowledge of cause and effect gives us power-the ability to create change. Whether teacher or student, we should endeavor to uncover the cause and effect relationships that pertain to the skill of playing the guitar. Be aware of the cause and effect relationship of form to its corollary, movement. Appreciate form in all its aspects (even fingering is an aspect of form, being a strategic set of physical conditions that makes movement possible). Study how your form aids or hinders the movement process, and your ability to create the effects you want- your music. Notice how your favorite players look, no matter what
style they play. Good form looks beautiful.

How you sound, how you look, and how you feel--all these things are connected. When a good voice teacher listens to a singer, that teacher can hear, in the sound, how that singer looks, and how that singer's body feels (what is going on in the body). I once had a top New York voice teacher tell me "when I hear a singer, I know exactly what expression is on their face". When I hear a guitar player, I can tell what they are feeling in their body as they play. The connection their body is making with the guitar is expressed in the sound itself.

When we have "become the music", the physical body and the music are one; the music is contained within the form, and the form is in the music.

Take care of how you look when you play, and how you feel, and you will start to notice how you sound is taking care of itself.

Copyright 2004 Jamie Andreas.

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